Less Normative Collections

Changing the default with library purchasing, programming, and policy

January 24, 2017

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“We’re gatekeepers. It’s time to take that seriously,” said Angie Manfredi, head of youth services at Los Alamos County (N.Mex.) Library System. Manfredi’s “Towards a Less Normative Future in Library Services to Children and Teens” Sunday session at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2017 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Atlanta, part of the Symposium on the Future of Libraries program, stressed that normative doesn’t mean what it used to. Librarians today have a role in “undoing the default of straight, white, male” and being deliberate in decolonizing collections and services.

Though normative collections are a systematic problem and no one person is to blame, Manfredi said, the session sought to convey how librarians, educators, publishers, and reviewers are complicit in this problem.

Manfredi began by identifying examples of microaggressions—comments or actions that may be hostile or demeaning to a minority or marginalized group—and popular misconceptions of diversifying, such as the thinking that books about people of a certain race or ethnic background shouldn’t be purchased if those races or backgrounds aren’t represented in the community.

Mainly, Manfredi focused on how book reviews wield certain power over collections—and how they can often lead librarians and book purchasers astray. For example, the young adult novel When We Was Fierce by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo received positive buzz and starred reviews, but a closer reading of several reviews revealed the book’s “stereotypical and distancing” free verse (as Kirkus Reviews put it). Candlewick Press eventually pulled the title over the inauthentic and problematic language.

Though, when written critically, reviews can be a useful tool to advise purchasers on diversity and representation in books. Hello, I Love You by Katie M. Stout was ripped by many critics for being a white savior story and an example of cultural appropriation. La Madre Goose by Susan Middleton Elya was called out not only for unnatural code switching, but its clunky verse.

Manfredi advised attendees to be more discretionary with books and reviews, and to consider whether a book’s author is an #OwnVoices creator, who is reviewing the book, and what they might not be saying. More people of color and First Nations writers, educators, and librarians should apply to be reviewers, she says—and we should be encouraging them to do so.

Change must also come to your library’s collection policy, Manfredi says, especially if your library demands a certain number of reviews in order to purchase a title, or weeds books entirely based on circulation. Librarians can do more on the job by creating specific displays calling out diverse books, using online resources to find diverse books (for instance, Manfredi bought a book for her library by Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington from the Chickasaw Press and reads blogs such as Latinxs in Kid Lit), and start buying quality books from small and independent presses.

At her own library, Manfredi does activities such as read-ins and bilingual storytimes. The African-American population in New Mexico is 2.6%, which, she said, “makes us the perfect place to have an African American read-in.”

ALA is also a good place to start, Manfredi said. “We can help change the face of librarianship” by donating to ALA’s Spectrum Scholars and supporting the works of such affiliates and round tables as Reforma; Black Caucus of the American Library Association; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table; Asian Pacific American Librarians Association; American Indian Library Association; and the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table.

“Gatekeepers can open gates as well as swing them shut,” Manfredi reminded the audience. “It will not be easy. We will make mistakes; we’ll get called out, but we still have to do it.”