The School Library Journal’s survey on children’s/YA collection development and weeding, published this past June, paints the picture one would expect: circulation of print materials was down 73%, circulation of ebooks was up 91%, and both public and school libraries decided to purchase more digital materials. However, the report did contain at least one surprising piece of information: a “quarter of respondents…say their weeding criteria have changed over the last few years.” One reason for these changes? A growing “awareness of unconscious racial bias, inclusion and diversity.”
Despite the SLJ’s positive spin, a quarter of librarians is not a majority. Additionally, it would have been nice to see the breakdown of exactly how many librarians within the aforementioned quarter had cited “unconscious racial bias” or “inclusion” as the cause for the changes in their weeding criteria. Missing from the dataset, too, is any sort of confirmation that this question had been asked in previous years, and if so, what the overall trend might be in terms of diversity as it concerns collection development and weeding. Are librarians actually becoming more attuned to racial bias when making purchasing decisions?
Continuing to dig into the SLJ’s report leads to even more questions. Here are the results, labeled “Criteria for Weeding,” in full:
Of particular concern is the section labeled “Inappropriate content (e.g., racist, biased, etc.).” It would have been nice to see the breakdown of exactly how many librarians included in these statistics had cited “racist” or “biased” as an impetus for their weeding. Additionally, how were “racist” and “biased” defined? Who was responsible for defining them (an individual, a group)? “Inappropriate content” is vague and could be used according to any professional’s personal bias, or, even more insidiously, function as a quick and easy way for management to impinge on the intellectual freedom rights of library staff. The terminology itself certainly doesn’t adhere to the guidelines offered by ALA (in that, as mentioned, it lacks specificity), and thus seem ill-fitted as the basis for any widespread effort to weed—without further clarification, of course.
And finally, it might have been helpful to know how these librarians came to look at collection development through the lenses of social justice, inclusion, and diversity. Was it at the behest of employers? A personal decision, made out of an honest desire to better represent one’s community? Generally wary of top-down attempts to change the culture of collection development (especially when it overlaps with the often capricious will of corporate bodies, as has been discussed in a previous blog post of mine), I think the former is more preferable; a call for more diversity within collections is important, yes, but this call for change should be coming from the librarians who have a stake in these communities, not some distant entity (corporate or otherwise) with no professional skin in the game. The SLJ’s data, simply put, doesn’t speak to this question.
But one thing is absolutely clear: the data is a direct refutation of the political right’s claims about the rise of critical race theory within (at least this small portion of) the public sphere; it is, in all truth, exceedingly unclear (at least to me) that librarians are citing racial bias and diversity more frequently when weeding.
Michael Kirby is an Assistant Professor/Reader Services Librarian at Kingsborough Community College. He received his MLS from Queens College, the City University of New York and serves as the 2021-2022 Publications and Communications Chair of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table.