Today’s cultural moment has thrust into full view the importance of teaching diversity at all grade levels. With demonstrations across the country calling for racial justice and equality, it’s necessary to look at this as a learning moment. For educators looking to prompt students to explore marginalized and silenced voices, it’s never been a better time to learn how to promote diversity in libraries. As school librarians help students to develop their digital and information literacies, they can also provide an opportunity to allow students to see themselves represented in the library selection and provide an opportunity for students to discover and explore unfamiliar perspectives.
Why Diversity Matters in the Library
Diversity is essential in the library because it helps students develop critical thinking skills at the same time that they develop different literacies. Moreover, diversity encompasses several themes of identity, including race, ethnicity, disability, gender, class, religion, types of family and sexual orientation. With a focus on these different identities, libraries are uniquely equipped to lead the charge in celebrating diversity among students and texts.
Different organizations have displayed the importance of promoting diversity in libraries. The American Library Association (ALA) highlights the ways that libraries can successfully eliminate barriers and become accessible when they create culturally equitable practices. These practices include:
- Offering new collections of books that sincerely present new cultural experiences across marginalized communities.
- Providing library service support to community events that highlight different cultures.
- Planning and implementing new services to respond to community needs.
- Creating a diverse library staff to allow more people to see themselves represented in the physical space.
While these practices may be easier for public or community libraries to perform, school libraries can still take advantage of the methods to create a culturally responsive learning space.
To this end, representation is critically important. This sentiment doesn’t necessarily have to be exclusive to staffing or personnel. Still, in the context of learning in the library, librarians must be especially sensitive to what perspectives are represented in their collections. This notion was recently explored thoroughly in the scholarly journal, The Reading Teacher. Specifically, three teachers created and implemented a cataloging system to help make their school library’s collection more diverse and inclusive.
The three educators involved in this study taught at schools that had populations that were majority Black. Yet, many of the books in the collection were written by white authors that centered on white experiences. To help diversify the books their schools hold, the researchers stated that, after auditing each other’s school libraries, they needed to add to their collections. From their findings, they said collections need books that:
- Highlight characters with intersecting identities.
- Feature characters with different gender identities, family structures and disability experiences.
- Assess social justice issues in the community, the nation and the world.
- Focus on the perspectives of people of color.
When libraries feature a focus on diversity, students learn effectively. Just as importantly, when students see their own identities in the material they consume, they engage better in the learning process. Libraries have the immense responsibility of providing digital and information literacy tools to students, yet they can also provide students with a comprehensive learning process. The Association for Library Service to Children published a bombshell report on why inclusion is essential in the learning process and how to promote diversity in libraries. The researchers have remarked that
“One way that children learn about the world around them and other cultures is through the social messages found in stories. Stories help children understand how society perceives their culture as well as the cultures of their classmates, teachers, caregivers, and others, thereby influencing their social and identity development.”
As librarians underscore the importance of diverse books in their collections through new additions, they will actively highlight the value of school libraries. Moreover, as librarians represent more voices in their collections, they will build culturally responsive programs, which ultimately “facilitate understanding and acceptance of diversity based upon culture, ethnicity, linguistic ability, religion, physical ability, immigration status, and sexual orientation.” As a result, school librarians will be able to engage with more perspectives in the classroom and invite students to adopt stronger critical thinking skills.
Strategies for Promoting Diversity in School Libraries
While librarians can agree that centralizing and promoting diversity should be a common goal across schools, many remain unsure where exactly to start. An essential step for school librarians is to take stock of the school’s population. Based on that information, librarians can serve their school community’s needs by filling gaps of perspectives that need to be better represented. And while it can be overwhelming to decide which materials to highlight as educators promote diversity in libraries, there are many resources to provide further process.
For example, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) features a 4-pronged strategy to help libraries promote diversity in its collections.
Catalog Books Based on Topic
Your library can only become diverse when you know what it’s missing. By exploring your library’s catalog, you will be able to better understand what voices and perspectives need to be included – and also which voices are overrepresented.
Introduce Diverse Programming
When planning events or lessons, librarians can engage and challenge students by providing interactive workshops, inviting diverse guests to speak or read and participating in reading challenges that prompt students to “read books by and about people of color,” to name a few activities according to the NAESP.
Expand Learning Materials
For students who learn differently, librarians can offer supplemental learning materials to support their specific learning styles. For example, in video presentations, school librarians can provide captions. Separately, librarians can prompt students who become easily distracted to multitask, which can ultimately help with their concentration. The idea here is to build an inclusive digital media atmosphere that supports culturally and linguistically diverse learners.
Emphasize Diverse Materials in the Library
As librarians highlight a commitment to diversity, it’s important to let students across the school know. When students understand that their teachers are dedicated to inclusivity and to featuring diverse children’s books, they will have an easier time communicating their needs in the classroom.
Separately, other organizations have provided ways to analyze children’s books to identify racist and sexist themes. To build a school library that fosters diversity and inclusivity, it’s necessary that librarians weed out any problematic material that could alienate students. To assist this process, California’s State Department of Education gives a clear path for teachers to evaluate new material for racism and sexism. This is a monumentally significant task for libraries of all levels, but especially for elementary and middle school libraries. They have a 10-step process to help librarians identify problem materials to be replaced with diverse children’s books:
- Scan the book’s illustrations.
- Read for problematic portrayals of marginalized populations.
- Pay attention to the ways that difference is portrayed.
- Focus on interactions between the characters.
- Observe the role of the protagonist.
- Understand how a student’s self-image would be affected by the text.
- Consider the author’s point of view.
- Hone in on the author’s use of language.
- Find out when the book was published.
- Evaluate the text based on literacy, historical and cultural values.
From these guidelines, librarians will have an easier time featuring children’s books about diversity and inclusion. As a result, librarians will be able to create an inviting learning space.
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Diversifying the Digital and Physical Library Spaces
Technological advancements, particularly in education and libraries, have helped school librarians to include more perspectives and voices in their learning materials. As libraries have begun to develop facilities that enable students to record podcasts, film and edit videos and create multimedia content, students can focus on their identities and use their voices.
This notion of including diverse digital learning resources has gained the attention of scholarship in recent years. A global panel of librarians and library scientists convened in 2016 to discuss the different obstacles that come in the way of promoting diversity in libraries. The panel discussed ways that technology can intervene to transform library media spaces into inclusive, multicultural environments that support learning.
As the only U.S. representative on the panel, Devendra Potnis, who has a Ph.D. in Informatics, showcased the importance of recent advancements that strengthen library education. Potnis said in response to the rising popularity of mobile technologies, “a large number of libraries invest in mobile technologies to better serve their patrons.” With his team of researchers, he identified four ways that an emphasis on digital technologies can serve students:
- App development for smartphone technology
- Computer information literacy
- Networking and internet etiquette
- Server, software and application maintenance
Importantly, these aren’t isolated outcomes for Potnis. As a pioneer of Social Informatics, he has been able to focus on digital inclusion, women empowerment through STEM education, financial inclusion and information literacy and mobile banking, among others, to equip students to be champions of diversity and multiculturalism at their organizations. As a result, his students gain perspectives that provide a balance of a socially conscious framework and an advanced technological prowess.
Some school librarians are demonstrating a commitment to diversity and inclusion by incorporating technological practices into reading exercises. For example, Cicely Lewis, the 2020 School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year and information and digital literacy advocate, has recently updated her Read Woke initiative to Tech Woke.
Lewis’ Read Woke initiative called on students to engage with marginalized and disenfranchised voices previously unfamiliar to them. Tech Woke directs students to utilize technology to understand social justice issues. Lewis has incorporated digital media and information literacy lessons as she promotes diversity in libraries in four unique ways:
- She charges her students to brainstorm and then create apps based on the books she assigns. This practice allows students to engage with software development at the same time that they must think more critically about the social justice issues explored in the texts she assigns.
- To get students to learn about activism and issues that need more attention, Lewis prompts them to design virtual protest signs to be shared on social media. She wrote that this is the perfect “opportunity to teach students about the history of protest signs and their importance in historical movements around the world.”
- She encourages students to create video book reviews, which simultaneously improves students’ abilities to articulate their thoughts on texts and motivates them to learn more about video editing software.
- Perhaps most importantly, Lewis integrates a focus on digital citizenship into her Tech Woke lessons. Students must learn how to use technology ethically, she said. Through this concentration, she can help students communicate in a socially conscious way on the internet.
Many digital tools incorporated into these lessons are free to access online. While these features can be accessed freely, it’s still difficult to understand how best to craft a course plan that negotiates the integration diversity and technology. One of the best ways to adopt these practices is by returning to the classroom. An online Master’s in Education in Library Media can help give you the foundation to discover and then implement a strategy to showcase diversity in your school’s library. With the University of West Alabama Online, you’ll engage the principles of introducing and maintaining diversity in your library’s lesson planning and collection. Discover more about the program today.