Our Voices – Getting Diverse Content into Libraries

Banned Books Week, Diversity

By: James LaRue


Our Voices logo

Librarianship faces a crisis, resulting from the intersection of five trends:

  • the rise of challenges to diverse content,
  • the demand for more diverse content,
  • the failure of mainstream publishing (especially the big five) to provide diverse content,
  • the emergence of a new reader who looks elsewhere than libraries for new content, and the rise of new writing from small, indie, and self-publishers.

We’ve reported before that 9 out of the top 10 most challenged titles in 2015 were by diverse authors, or about diverse characters. That’s the anxiety of the moment among some library users. It motivates them to seek the banning or restriction of such titles. These challenges, by the way, mostly do not come *from* diverse readers.

At the same time, and perhaps related to the first, is that American demographics are shifting. As of 2014, over half of the children in our nation are non-white. That means that families come into libraries looking for stories about people who look, and speak, and believe like them.

But they’re not finding those books. The big publishers responsible for most of the content in our country – Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster – continue to produce far fewer new diverse titles than are represented in our population.

As a consequence, and in combination with the many problems of finding, buying, and delivering ebooks to our traditional patrons, many libraries are beginning to notice that some of our past and potential patrons are disappearing. They go to Amazon, not us.

Yet the explosion of new writing presents an answer to many of these problems. These new sources – which together now account for the majority of new titles published in a year – do not go through the traditional gatekeeping of publishing and library distribution, and often represent just the voices we’re lacking in our collections. Or they would, if we could begin to define a way to solve some problems with this new content.

These are the questions we must answer:

  • How do we find these new and diverse authors?
  • How do we locate, or encourage the creation of, high quality content?
  • How do we define a new or improved path to pull those works into our collections?

I truly believe that these are among the most vital questions in modern librarianship.

So I am pleased to announce, here in Banned Books Week 2016, the launch of a new initiative. It is known as Our Voices, and represents a joint effort of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services, and a strong partnership of Chicago-based librarians, authors, independent booksellers, distributors, and publishers.

Our goal is simple: We want our community to find the books it looks for in our libraries. That means we need to build the systems our vendors have not.

We’ll have much, much more to say about this over the next year or so. By the end, we hope to have a template that can be used by any library to become the nexus and harvester for creativity in its own community.

For now, you can find out more about us at ourvoiceschicago.ala.org or read our press release.  For more information, email oif@ala.org.


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