For the past several weeks the Cooperative Center for Books for Children Listserv (CCBC-NET) has been a very lively place. Periodically, the Center (CCBC) surveys the 3,000 or so K-12 books that arrive at its doors each year to find out how many have been created by authors and illustrators from underrepresented populations, and how many of them are about such individuals, groups, or in some way thematically related. The numbers they release are, on the surface, shocking. Of the 3200 books they received in 2013, 63 were by African Americans, and a total of 93 were directly about African Americans; comparable numbers for American Indians were 18 and 34; for Hispanic Americans 48 and 57; and for Asian Americans 90 and 69 (in other words, self-described Asian Americans wrote more books in general than they did books about being Asian–for example, I would guess, books such as Greg Tang’s math titles).
In full disclosure, I responded with skepticism about what those numbers mean exactly. I would love to see those figures parsed–how many of those books were series titles, how many were nonfiction, how many were crafted to match popular culture–movie or TV tie-ins, or the such? There is no reason an author from one of these groups might not write a movie tie-in, but those kinds of books, I would argue, are not commensurate with an individual novel, folktale, or nonfiction book, and should be accounted for separately. I think looking by genre would be far more meaningful than merely compiling aggregate numbers based on self-description.
I am, however, not using this column to have my say–I did that through exchanges on the Listserv. Rather, I wanted to address another issue. Today, at a faculty meeting at Rutgers University, we were discussing a related problem: the lack of diversity in librarianship, and what we can do about that.
As I see it there are two distinct aspects of that issue in librarianship. On the one hand, there are many populations underrepresented in the profession. Part of the solution to that is outreach. There are positions in information management that offer attractive starting salaries and career paths; attractive enough that those finding it a real financial challenge to reach a master’s level can see a clear path to a rewarding career. Another is mentoring–making sure that students, identified as early as high school, who could do well in this profession are given the encouragement, support, funding, and access to networking that they need. We at Rutgers are focusing attention on the mentoring path. But then there is the other diversity issue: gender.
Librarianship, especially in K-12, is almost too overwhelmingly female for me to contemplate. As all of you surely know better than I do, it is the precise definition of pink-collar work–work that women do for lower pay and less status than the comparable work by men. Which women? Significantly, they are middle-class women, or women who have a second family income, or who have family support. Of course, they are also people who also love books, young people, learning, and enjoy collegiality and sharing. But, who can afford–psychically, emotionally, financially–to make less than their intelligence, training, and skill could potentially earn in another career.
I suspect–and said on the CCBC discussion–that the distortion in the pool of K-12 librarians matches the distortion in K-12 authors. The same factors that limit the group that can afford to be a librarian limits the authors who can afford the lower advances, lower sales, lower attention that all but a tiny few K-12 authors can expect. So what can we do?
I am not sure that the gender imbalance in librarianship is discussed as often as it should be. Yes, there have been endless conferences on boys and reading, and the emphasis on nonfiction that has come with the Common Core is sometimes framed as an effort to bring more books boys like into the curriculum. Yet, I wonder what would happen if, say, if the American Library Association approached a group that was as male as librarianship is female–in sports, business, military, business (I realize that women are rising in all of these fields)–and conducted focus groups on what K-12 libraries are, can be, and should be. The meetings would be private and have no determinative role–so there would be no danger that libraries would suddenly need to change the books they buy, or drop printed books–but there would be an influx of new ideas from a different perspective. In turn, adult males–who often have least contact with a school or public library, yet frequently vote in local elections, might see more reason to support existing or increased funding for libraries. While this would not address the gender gap in librarianship, it would bring a new set of ideas and actors to the field while it remains primarily female.
What do you think? How do we address all of the diversity issues, including gender diversity, in K-12 librarianship?
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