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Northern Colorado Librarian Discusses Diversity In Library Collections

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As a result of the recent protests against police brutality and subsequent discussions about race, racism and diversity, the High Plains Library District, which serves most of Weld County and surrounding towns, is re-evaluating the diversity of its collections, a process that began a few years ago.  

Lori Johnson, a collection development librarian for the district, joined KUNC’s Colorado Edition to explain why the library is doing this work, and what it means in practice.  

Interview Highlights 

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.  

Henry Zimmerman: Why is it important for libraries to have diverse collections? 

Lori Johnson: At High Plains Library District, we believe that the library is for everyone. And while we believe that, it doesn’t necessarily always show to people who aren’t familiar with libraries. So if you’ve never been in a library and you suddenly walk into a building, you may not know what to do, and you may not know where to go.  

And since our collection — our books and our movies — are so much of an important part of what the library does, at a minimum it’s important that people can see themselves reflected in the materials that they’re looking at, whether that’s on a bookmobile, or in a physical building.  

How do librarians know, or keep track of, the diversity of a library’s collection? After all, there are so many books. Is there any one way you keep track of it all?  

No, there’s not one way we keep track of it all. It can be very hard to put a book into a category for diversity, so what we’ve decided to do really is going forward in our purchasing, there have been some changes throughout the publishing industry that have made it easier for us to know if an author identifies with a minority community, or if a book contains characters who are of different races, religions, genders, that kind of thing. And so we are just paying more attention to that when we’re making those decisions on what to purchase.  

And when we’re talking about diversity here, to be clear, the library doesn’t just mean racial diversity, but also age, mental or physical ability, national origin. There’s many facets to diversity.  

Yeah, that’s correct. In an ideal world, what we would like, or what we are working towards is that everyone can go into a branch of the High Plains Library District and find materials that represent them. So, as you were saying, it could be political beliefs, race, religion, gender, age, education level, different family groupings. I mean it’s just an endless array of differences that people have, and that we’re trying to show in our materials.  

When I think about the libraries I’ve been in, I’ve gone to read about things like race or religion. And it feels like libraries are often a place to read about a slew of topics, especially as it relates to all these different facets of diversity. Aren’t libraries already diverse in their topic selection?  

In terms of nonfiction, we are diverse in what we’re selecting, and for issues that have two sides, we work hard to show both-sides of an issue. A lot of this refers to fiction, particularly children and teens, although the adult audience as well. 

It can be very important for a child with picture books to see themselves represented in those items they’re selecting from the library. We wouldn’t want to give anyone the idea that books aren’t for them because they’re not seeing themselves in those books. And publishing hasn’t been, in that sense, as diverse as you might think. But starting in about 2016 there was a movement with lots of authors and some publishing houses to really take a look at that and try to increase the images that they have in those books and the characters in their chapter books for older kids.  

This conversation is from KUNC’s Colorado Edition from July 15. You can find the full episode here.  

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.