Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Whose Reviews? And Other Thoughts on Collection Development, Intellectual Freedom, and Diversity

I was recently talking to a library school class about intellectual freedom and the importance of following policies and procedures. At the same time, I was thinking about the discussions that have taken place around diversity in some of the collection development workshops I’ve been part of. And about the discussions that have taken place on social media, where cries of censorship are inevitable every time someone has had the audacity to suggest that a book by a beloved author or illustrator, or book that’s been collecting a string of positive professional reviews, or is an old favorite of many, falls short or is problematic when it comes to cultural representation and does not necessarily deserve a place in every library collection.

I’ve written thoughts on this subject here, and here, but lately I’ve been thinking more about the relationship between collection development, intellectual freedom, and inclusiveness.

I want to start by saying that yes, there are absolutely threats to intellectual freedom when it comes to collection development in libraries, even beyond the self-censorship that is an ongoing struggle in the work we do. For example, in many libraries, collection development is done with little time, and sometimes even less training. This can be especially true in smaller libraries and schools. A person may have great instincts but no access to, and sometimes even no awareness of, review journals and other professional resources. They may have had little or no exposure to intellectual freedom as a concept that provides the philosophical framework for collection development to help ensure access to relevant resources for the entirety of the communities they serve.

Because of time or resource and other constraints, some may rely on Amazon to find out about books, or an algorithm to select what they’ll purchase. It may feel like an efficient or accessible or even necessary way to do the work of collection building, but at what cost?  It’s likely to eliminate or severely hamper the odds of acquiring books that are outside of the publishing mainstream, and undermines what it is we are striving to do in school and public libraries: meet the many and varied needs and interest of EVERYONE in our communities, an idea that goes hand in hand with intellectual freedom.

These are sometimes the realities of working in understaffed and under-resourced libraries. Policies and procedures, if they exist, often have a tenuous relationship to what is actually happening.

Or there’s this: the absence of board-approved policies and procedures for collection development and reconsideration of materials; or the subversion of policies and procedures by administrators and boards; or the stripping-down of policies and procedures to such a bare minimum that they provide no real guidance for either collection development or, in the case of a challenge, reconsideration (what, exactly, is the book being evaluated by to determine whether it belongs in the collection?).

But even as we grapple with these things--and we have to grapple as a profession with all of this--we also need to be talking about how library staff are choosing the materials they are collecting specific to the question of whose voices are privileged and whose go unheard in that process.  

So if you’re worried about intellectual freedom, ask yourself this:

How does a school or public library collection development policy support—or inhibit—seeking out books beyond the mainstream—those from large and mid-size presses – to include collecting materials from small presses, or self-published materials, that may speak to the diverse population and diverse needs of their constituencies?

Do policies and procedures demand professional reviews?  Many small press and most self-published book will never be reviewed in professional journals.  They may be highlighted on a website or blog devoted to promoting critical discussion of inclusion and diversity in books for youth, however.  The same kinds of blogs may also offer cultural critiques of books lauded in mainstream journals.  Chances are these voices are marginalized in terms of collection development, if they are considered at all.

How can we address the fact that some of “procedure’s” part of policies and procedures may be undermining the critical need for building collections that are inclusive, reflective of and responsive to the needs of children and teens who are diverse themselves and living in a diverse world?

I think we are at a critical juncture in our field as we consider the relationship between intellectual freedom and diversity and inclusion. They are foundational values to the work we do, in theory. In practice, the institutions that have developed—the review journals, the recommended lists, mainstream publishing itself and those acting as mouthpieces or influencers in social media and elsewhere—too often pit one value against the other.

The bias toward traditional publishing—and Whiteness--in the field of children’s and young adult literature isn’t necessarily going to go away in the next five years. Some collection development policies already call for materials that are free of stereotype and bias. But openly acknowledging the bias toward traditional publishing in professional review journals and providing ways to counter that bias is another way to codify real commitment to inclusiveness in collection development.

There is nothing wrong with citing the need for professional reviews and recommendations in policies and procedures. What’s wrong is narrowly limiting how we tend to define those sources.  In the 21st century, there is a significant critical discourse happening beyond traditional outlets, and policies and procedures should reflect this and validate a broader range of sources and resources for making informed, professional decisions: blogs on which librarians and educators of color review books and provide recommended lists are just one example. I invite you to share others.

Megan Schliesman

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bring It Back: The People Shall Continue

Ortiz, Simon. The People Shall Continue. Ill. Sharol Graves. Children’s Book Press, 1977. 23 pages. ISBN: 0892391251

First published by Children’s Book Press (now an imprint of Lee and Low Books), Simon Ortiz’ epic, poetic story of Native peoples, The People Shall Continue, begins with creation. It honors and reflects the differences among cultures (“Some say, ‘from the ocean.’ / Some say, ‘From a hollow log….’”) while also connecting the dots to demonstrate their similarities and cohesion (“The teachers and the elders of the People / all taught this important knowledge: / ‘The Earth is the source of all life… The people must be responsible to her.’”)

Never does the People’s story fall into the “it was a simple paradise” trope. As the People from the North, West, East, and South give and take meat, fish, corn, and hides to each other, there are cold winters, famines, and fights among them. Their leaders stress the need for patience and respect for each other and the Earth. Also absent is the “Columbus, the first European to discover the Americas, arrived out of the blue” narrative. In Ortiz’ story, the People remember visitors from a long time ago, who never stayed for long before returning home. Likewise, nothing about European invasion is sugarcoated; the Spanish, “heedless and forceful,” come “seeking treasures and slaves.” Soon, the English, French, and Dutch arrive as well, teaching about “a God whom all should obey” and claiming they are “special men of this God.” Thus, Ortiz names the specific invaders, and though he does not cite Christianity by name, he includes it as a means by which European invaders justified genocide.

As colonialism takes root, the People fight back. Here, for the first time, Ortiz names specific tribes and leaders: “In the West, PopĂ© called warriors from the Pueblo and Apache Nations. / In the East, Tecumseh gathered the Shawnee and the Nations of the Great Lakes, the Appalachians, and the Ohio Valley to fight for their People…” There is no submission, no “lambs to the slaughter” narrative; and, after over 300 years of war, from necessity, the People “began to settle / for agreements with the American government.” Next come the Treaties, then the missionaries, boarding schools, miners, railroads, forced resettlement--all are named for the destructive forces they were and are. And yet, Ortiz grounds everything the People endure with survival and hope: “All this time, the People remembered. / Parents told their children, / ‘You are Shawnee. You are Lakota… / This is the life of our People. / These are the stories and these are the songs. / This is our heritage.’”

The book ends with a new beginning. As the People learn and live history, they assert: “We must fight against those forces / which will take our humanity from us. / We must ensure that life continues. / We must be responsible to that life. / With that humanity and the strength / which comes from our shared responsibility / for this life, the People shall continue.” At this point, “the People”--which begins the book as a phrase that denotes Native peoples--expands to include all marginalized groups. In that expansion, that invitation, Ortiz preserves, protects, and honors the humanity of everyone who has been dehumanized by systemic racism, poverty, and oppression. In this poem, Ortiz suggests a way forward: Recognize our shared humanity. Work together. There are more of us. They cannot dehumanize us if we humanize each other.

I can see a multitude of uses for this book in classrooms, as well as within families and communities. An English teacher could dig into the language that somehow reaches the pinnacle both of melodic poetry and accessible storytelling. A history teacher could use it as a framework for an entire curriculum or unit. Book creators and publishers should take note of the last page, which models responsible bookmaking with a note that thanks people who helped by name, and also acknowledges that although the book is in English, it’s meant to be told orally by a tribal storyteller.

I would love to see this back in print, ideally with new art. Currently, while there is a wide variety of People portrayed (I am not expert enough to know whether the clothing and hairstyles are accurate), the backgrounds are one or two solid colors, and little storytelling happens in the pictures or in the turn of a page. I would so love to see what Julie Flett would do with this text, were she given the opportunity to re-illustrate it…

Please please please, bring it back!!

-Allie Jane Bruce