February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Librarians Have Buying Power—Let’s Use It for Change

Sandra Hughes Hassell headshotMoney speaks and librarians have money. In 2011-2012, public libraries in the United States spent more than $236 million on books—about half on children’s and young adult books. According to the American Library Assocation, in that same time frame, public school libraries spent an average of $6,010 on books, school libraries funded by the Bureau of Indian Education spent an average of $7,800, and private schools dished out $3,342. With over 98,460 school libraries in the United States, this means that school librarians spent over $500 million for books in 2011-2012. The total sales for children and YA books, including print and ebooks, was $1.6 billion in 2013 (source:  Association of American Publishers StatShot Program). In other words, the $600 million spent by public and school libraries annually is not just a drop in the bucket—it is substantial.

There are many editors who understand the need for more literature that represents our diverse society, but “their passion for publishing multicultural literature cannot always carry the day in meetings with bottom-line number crunchers wanting to know whether such books will sell,” writes Kathleen Horning and her cohorts, Merri V. Lindgren, and Megan Schliesman, at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in their article “Thoughts on Publshing in 2009” on the CCBC website,

First Book, a nonprofit that provides new books to kids in need, is showing publishers that diverse books will sell. In March 2013, First Book launched the ongoing Stories for All Project, purchasing $1 million worth of new books featuring diverse authors and characters from HarperCollins and Lee & Low Books. In May 2014, as covered in School Library Journal, they challenged publishers further, pledging to buy 10,000 copies of books published by U.S. and Canadian companies that feature new and underrepresented voices.

Youth librarians, too, must stop settling for what the publishers provide. We need to say “no”—the well-being of the youth we serve is too important to continue to support an industry that consistently ignores the needs, and even existence, of children of color and Native-American children who, together, make up 46 percent of the child population in the United States. It’s too important to our efforts to nurture a new generation that is more accepting of difference, less engaged in perpetuating otherness, and more willing to take action that will create an equitable and fair world.

Youth librarians are well-positioned to embrace the social justice roots of librarianship. They can use their financial capital and professional credibility to demand that the large, mainstream publishers put out books that reflect the youth our libraries serve. All of the growth in the child population since 2000 has been among groups other than non-Hispanic whites. Three major groups experienced significant increases between 2000 and 2010:

  • Children of mixed race grew at a faster rate than any other group over the past decade, increasing by 46 percent.
  • The number of Hispanic children grew by 39 percent.
  • The number of non-Hispanic Asian and Pacific Islander children grew by 31 percent.

Today, more than one-fifth of America’s children are immigrants or children of immigrants. The audience has changed, and the books must follow.

When we visit the vendor exhibits at national and state conferences, we need to make it clear to the publisher representatives that we want, need and that we will buy books that reflect the diversity of the youth that our libraries serve. We need to challenge the book distributors we use to add titles from small independent presses to their inventories. We need to encourage teachers, parents, and students to write letters to the publishers—not only requesting more titles that feature children of color and Native-American children, particularly titles by authors who are members of these communities, be made available—but also indicating that if these books are available, we will buy them.

In addition, we can support small independent presses and bookstores, which not only focus on issues of multiculturalism and diversity, but are often owned and operated by people of color and Native-American people. CCBC provides an up-to-date list of African-American, American-Indian, Asian-American, and Hispanic-American presses. If buying from these entities sways library or school district financial officers to change outdated and arbitrary purchasing policies, then what are we waiting for? We are in a data-driven era—use data to make your argument. The youth we serve need us.

Sandra Hughes-Hassell is a professor in the School of Information & Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her current research she focuses on social justice issues in youth library services and the role of school library media specialists in education reform. 


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  1. 1. I called the CBC directly and the data is only from
    Books of their 67 publisher members. If you’re not a member than you’re books aren’t counted.
    2. I called First Book directly to ask how did they select the books for 10,000 book purchase. They bought books from the same 67 members from the CBC who their own data showed don’t have many diverse books. They said that out that they didn’t have the manpower to look into smaller or independent publishers. Toe that’s like saying you agree kids need healthier food and asking McDonalds to provide the lunch because looking up locally grown caters was too time consuming.
    3. No one really wants to support independent publishers because the top companies can sell books so cheaply and smaller companies can’t offer the same (and I quote from Reach Out and Read) “steep discounts.”
    4. There isn’t a lack of people writing or illustrating diverse books. I met lots at BEA and BookCon. Just about everyone had similar experiences where readers think “diverse books” are only for the people they reflect. How any Asians are buying children’s books about Marcus Harvey and how many black people are buying books about Latino kids and who randomly decides their physically able kid needs a book about being deaf or blind or on a wheelchair?
    5. Everyone seems so on board with the need for diverse books with ever asking “why is it like this?” There are deeper issues at the root of this matter that no one cares to discuss. I wrote a book about my own life and had so many white people question why the characters black and they would have bought my book if they were white people. As a result, many people of color write great stories but with white characters because they are asked too, well more like strongly encouraged.
    6. When you say “diverse” the themes become too diverse, meaning every book for blacks is about slavery, West African Safaris, and civil rights movement. Why can’t it be a story about getting a new pet and learning it’s harder than expected with a black, Latino or native family. Every book doesn’t have to be a cultural experience.
    Writing and publishing more diverse books is like using mouth wash to rid of bad breath without ever brushing or a visit to the dentist. All the mouth wash in the world can’t solve the issue if the root of the problem is a decayed tooth. We need to really get to the roots (no tree has only one root) of this issue if we truly want to bring about lasting and effective change.