Representation matters: Diversity in Schlow children’s books City & Dress

Children’s Services Librarian Katie Brennan (left) and Children’s Services Director Paula Bannon (photo by Chuck Fong)

As the director of childcare at the Schlow Center Library, Paula Bannon believes that representation is important.

“From a children’s librarian’s point of view, you just want every child to be able to walk into the library and feel welcome and important and find themselves in books,” she says.

When she began her role in 2017, she, along with children’s librarian Katie Brennan, were particularly intrigued by a concept that author/educator/children’s literature expert Megan Dowd Lambert brought up in a class they attended.

The concept that the author of The Whole Book Approach a diversity audit of children’s literature collections was recommended – essentially an inventory process in which libraries use hard data to assess how much diversity is reflected in the books on their shelves. Brennan had the opportunity to pick Lambert’s mind on the concept and a plan was formed.

“It seemed like a good idea to do something like this because we wanted to get to know the collection better, but also want to serve our community better – because this is a very diverse community,” says Bannon.

With already over 48,000 copies and 14,000 picture books in the children’s collection, examining the entire department would be far too overwhelming a task, so the librarians decided to narrow the focus to children’s picture books purchased from 2017 onwards.

Soon after, Elaine Bayly, the child care technician, was put on the case. Bayly had done research for her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, known for its work on diversity statistics, so her experience was a perfect fit.

Elaine Bayly, Children’s Service Technician, tracks diversity in every book. (Photo by Chuck Fong)

Bayly carefully goes through every picture book the library adds to its collection — and at 700 to 800 picture books a year, that’s a lot. Then, using spreadsheets, she meticulously tracks the diversity of the main characters, as well as the writers and illustrators, considering race, ethnicity, disabilities, LGBTQ identity, and gender.

According to Bannon, there are library providers that offer an automated diversity checking service, but she says those services are not only very expensive but also not as accurate.

“A lot of them are just based on the descriptions,” says Bannon. “I don’t think they’re actually holding the books or even looking at them digitally. That seemed better.”

“It’s so valuable that a real person is doing this,” Brennan agrees. “It’s a really nuanced process.”

As an example of this nuance, Bayly determines whether a book has more than one protagonist and assesses the diversity of each. Also, she says, some books, such as poetry books, might not have a protagonist, but she looks at the illustrations or the text for general multicultural themes.

Bayly has converted the results of her exam work from spreadsheets into graphs that show exactly what’s going on in the collection.

Interestingly, one statistic that is consistent year-over-year is that non-humans — animals, aliens, or humanized objects like trains or toys — make up the largest category of main characters by a fairly wide margin.

After non-human characters were removed from the statistics, white lead characters made up 54.1 percent of the 2017 Children’s Library collection, followed by black lead characters at 13.7 percent, followed by Latino/Hispanic characters at 8.5 percent. By 2021, those numbers had significantly evened out, with White main characters making up 27.9 percent of the collection, followed by general multicultural characters at 20 percent, Black at 17.8 percent, and Asian at 14.9 percent.

Looking at the main characters by gender, in 2017 male protagonists dominated at 55.6 percent of the collection, followed by female at 32.4 percent and ambiguous characters at 12 percent. By 2021, female protagonists took the lead at 44.5 percent, compared to 41.5 percent male and 13.8 percent ambiguous main characters.

In 2017, White authors made up 86.7 percent of the collection, followed by Asian authors at just 4.4 percent, followed by Latino/Hispanic authors at 3.5 percent. In 2021, the number of white authors had fallen to 68.7 percent, followed by Asian authors at 12 percent and black authors at 8.3 percent.

Finally, the proportion of female authors has shifted from 59.1 percent of the collection in 2017 to 68.6 percent in 2021.

While the data gathered through this ongoing project has informed the library’s purchasing decisions, it has also enabled staff to be more conscious about the selection of books to display and share during storytelling sessions. It also helps them fulfill requests when asked for books featuring specific ethnicities or races.

Schlow Library shares its data with librarians in the State College Area school district and sometimes uses the information to obtain grants. The information is also compared to local census records to ensure local demographics are reflected in the collection.

Overall, the stats show that Schlow has made measurable progress in bringing more diversity to the children’s collection, which library patrons notice.

“The parents noticed. We’ve had a lot of comments about it,” Bannon said. “We’re trying really hard to include different titles as well, so families can find these items more easily and kids can just go and see them instead of just searching.”

While the changes reflect in part the intentional decisions Brennan makes when selecting titles for the collection based on exam results, she also believes that in the children’s literature industry, “books are changing. There is progress. But there is still a long way to go.”

In particular, both Brennan and Bannon would like to see not only more diverse authors, but also more books that offer “accidental diversity” rather than books that specifically address issues of diversity.

“I think it’s important that kids can find themselves in a book that doesn’t necessarily have to do with a theme or a piece of history or anything – just kids being kids,” explains Brennan.

The importance of representation isn’t just about being represented, Brennan adds.

“It’s also important for kids to see kids who aren’t like them so they see the value in kids from other cultures, other ethnicities, other races. That’s important, too,” she says.

This project is to be continued annually for the foreseeable future. T&G

Karen Walker is a freelance writer at State College.

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