April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

We Need More Diverse Audio and Video Content

Andrew P. Jackson headshot

“We need to celebrate difference until difference doesn’t make a difference anymore!”

I read these words from the wall of a colleague’s office years ago, and they stuck with me. They ring with such truth and hope. Our younger generations are born with a natural acceptance of multiculturalism and openness. Preschool children don’t care what color or culture you are or what condition you are in. They just want to play.

By the late elementary or early middle school years, we typically see a change. Somewhere along the line, children’s natural acceptance is impacted by comments or beliefs at home or from others. Society at large has fallen behind in progressively accepting diversity as the norm.

We must ensure all bookstores and libraries across the nation include diverse reading materials. I’ve had many conversations with librarians and graduate students about the advantages of mono-cultural schools and communities having access to a broad selection of multicultural books. Diverse titles accurately reflect our society, such as my community in Queens, New York, where many classes and communities live together harmoniously. Librarians also need to offset often negative images from TV, music videos, and news reports with positive images in picture books, children’s titles, and teen literature.

Secondly, parents, teachers and librarians and our respective organizations must pressure book publishers and distributors to alter their false thinking that there is no market for books that fill the diversity void today. We must also purchase diverse titles for our libraries and include them in our story hours, reading lists, and book talks. In a recent white paper on this topic, “The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children,” written for the Association for Library Service to Children, Jamie Campbell Naidoo explores “the critical role libraries play in helping children make cross-cultural connections and develop skills necessary to function in a culturally pluralistic society.”

Thirdly, we need to put pressure on those decision makers who select children’s and teen titles for audio and video format. Social media is the popular form of access for today’s generations. Where the book was my reading and viewing medium, today’s youth gravitate to desktops, hand-held computers, and gadgets—and they read less. Award-winning titles must be transferred to and available through the technology that kids use in order to be more accessible. Pocket-size listening and viewing tools such as Playaway and Playaway View, a hand-held, portable video unit circulated by libraries, should broaden their title selection to offer more thematic diversity and titles by people of color.

Serious discussions need to take place among publishers, distributors, teachers, parents, and librarians at the American Library Association conferences to develop action plans that result in new media versions of the vast numbers of classics available, including John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1987) or Tim Tingle’s Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Puntos, 2004) and more current works such as Kadir Nelson’s I Have a Dream (Schwartz & Wade, 2013) and Bryan Collier’s I, Too, Am America (S. & S., 2012), based on the Langston Hughes poem of the same name.

Typically, when we speak of access to technology in our communities, we speak of the “haves and have-nots.” However, with each passing year, even the youngest library customers tend to have hand-held devices with Internet access. This gives them access to another source of free audio-visual material, YouTube. Type in the name of a famous or unknown artist, or a song, poem, speech, lecture, or film title, and if it’s been recorded, it will probably be there.

YouTube is also used extensively by everyday communities, churches, and other organizations to share children’s and teen activities and performances. The American Library Association and other library organizations post speeches, opinions, lectures, and other recordings on YouTube as well.

Why is the Internet more diverse than publishing? It is customer centered, free, and openly available to the public, with no mediating organizational body.  Anyone can record and submit material of any quality, sometimes to their own detriment.

As students of all ages go to the Internet for homework material and research, this source tends to serve as their first librarian before they head to their local public library. Our youth “hang out” on the Internet for hours at a time—it is their online gathering place of choice. As a colleague said recently, “The Internet is where kids are living, looking, and projecting themselves these days.”

If young people are online, why not go there to post electronic versions of books they may not have access to unless they come to the library? Expand the idea, and post a diverse selection of audio and video versions of popular books and required reading.

Finally, is there significant diversity among the decision making staff in our publishing and distribution industry? A more diverse staff yields more diverse ideas from a more diverse perspective. Therefore, we need more pressure and societal activism to move the industry forward. If the publishing industry celebrated difference until difference didn’t make a difference anymore, the materials we need and want would be surely be available.

Andrew P. Jackson (Sekou Molefi Baako) is Executive Director, Queens Library’s Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center; Adjunct, Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies.

What Can Be Done to Increase Diversity in Literature for Children and Teens?