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


Unknown said...

Excellent post. Thank you, Megan. Despite the fact that I'm a review editor, I'd be the first one to say that professional sources are by no means the only resource for collection development. Many bloggers and individual reviewers highlight under-the-radar titles and explore issues in books that the journals overlook. Though some systems require at least one professional review for purchase, I would encourage any librarian who has the ability to continually seek out alternative voices and sources. I also wanted to mention that the old-school thinking that used to dominate the professional review journals (little to no coverage of small presses and self-published books) is changing. It's a bit of a myth that the big journals don't review indie presses. These reviews are typically "mixed in" with all the other reviews from the major publishers (at least, they are at SLJ). The traditional publishers produce many more titles per year than the indies, so they still very much dominate the market. The review of self-published works has been a slower process, but it's an area many traditional journals, including SLJ, are expanding into. I'm particularly interested in self-published authors who are bringing books to the market about diverse topics and from #ownvoices perspectives. The fantastically talented Zetta Elliott immediately comes to mind. --Kiera Parrott

Debbie Reese said...

Megan points to blogs as sources that can counter what is said in mainstream review journals. She invites us to suggest other sources and while I think her invitation is important, I want to suggest something else.

I know Kiera reads blogs. So does Vicky Smith at Kirkus, and Roger Sutton at Horn Book.

Even though RWW, and Laura Jimenez, and me, too, wrote critical analyses of Telgemeier's GHOSTS, it continues to be listed as a top book, a recommended book, a summer reading book, etc.

What might happen if the big journals were doing more to boost blog reviews? They can't recall published volumes of their journals to say "also go look at" but could they devote space in subsequent volumes for that sort of thing?

Unknown said...

That's a very interesting idea, Debbie. And you are 100% right--most review editors keep a close eye on websites and blogs like your own. I think there's a few things we could potentially do. Spotlighting some of our favorites bloggers (particularly folks evaluating books for diversity and inclusion) is a definite. We often assume most librarians are aware of these resources, but I think you're right--not everyone has the time to seek out these voices. Championing them from the platform of an industry journal can be powerful. I'll be chatting with the editorial team to brainstorm ways to do this. I would also mention something a bit "old fashioned" but still quite effective: letters to the editor. We know that there are going to be reviews we publish that miss things or fail to deeply evaluate or criticize various aspects. We are always open to publishing differing perspectives on our Feedback page--even (especially!) when those opinions differ greatly from our published review. Perhaps there are ways we editors can use that feedback mechanism to better surface blogger voices and reviews. --Kiera

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you for your comments, Kiera, and for opening up your review pages to small presses and indie-published authors! I appreciate your colleagues who have done the same. Back in 2009 you all took a chance on my small-press-published YA historical novel Gringolandia, and your recognition has helped to keep that book in print now that, given the current political situation, we need its story more than ever. International and historical perspectives, many of them in translated books published by small presses, increase our understanding and offer guideposts from people who've been there before.

Debbie Reese said...

Kiera--what I was thinking about is something that would be a regular thing--not an occasional article or something like that, but a regular thing tells librarians that your review of __ in __ (volume) said __ but since then, you've read __ and want to draw attention to it. You could quote it and point to it. It seems that sort of regularly appearing item would give librarians an informal professional development opportunity that lets them gather information for weeding, if they choose to weed books they bought based on your review(s)

With some books you could do a "Second Perspective" or something like that (is that what Matthew Winner called his new feature, while it lasted, on ALL THE WONDERS?). GHOSTS is a good example but there are others, too. It touches on the experiences of several different marginalized populations. A semi-regular feature that has a few paragraphs about the representations of each of the different groups could be fascinating. With GHOSTS, a Latinx critique, a Native one, a teacher in California, a disability one...

We're all very active on social media but in social media, we tend to be in echo chambers. Readers of the print journals are broader.


Heidi Rabinowitz said...

I like Debbie's idea of an ongoing feature in print review journals to boost the signal of blogs with differing perspectives.

I'd also like to point out that there are specialized professional review sources out there beyond the big names like SLJ and Horn Book. The Association of Jewish Libraries News & Reviews offers reviews of Judaic books for children and adults, written by librarian reviewers who specialize in that aspect of the field. The Jewish Book Council also offers book reviews. Perhaps other ethnic librarian organizations (many of which are ALA affiliates) offer reviews as well.

Nina Lindsay said...

Heidi, thanks for calling our attention to other specialized review sources. What I appreciate about Megan's post is that she calling us on to examine our collection policies, to see where efficiencies that are designed to "serve" actually do disservice. There is no insistence in the library industry to seek out "specialized" reviews, which are easy to "other." The mainstream review sources are normalized.

I wonder how/if the major vendors that most libraries work with (Baker & Taylor, etc.) could be pressed to include more specialized review sources. THAT is where "normal" is defined for library selection. I know there's a financial dependency there, and I don't have the foggiest sense of how it could work for small review sources, but to me, this seems the obvious nut to crack.

Unknown said...

I completely agree with Nina! I buy most of my library materials from Titlewave (Follett) and they include reviews from all of the major journals right on the purchase pages. If librarians are ordering primarily from large vendors (which many of us do due to time restrictions and need for processing of materials due to lack of staffing), a wider range of reviews included could be wonderful. I do a TON of research on titles I purchase, but as a single librarian in a K-12 district, even that isn't as extensive as it could be. I love the idea brought up of a recurring "other perspective" column in journals like SLJ, etc. As an SLJ reviewer myself, I work hard to think of all perspectives possible when writing a review, but would always be open to hearing other thoughts from other perspectives.

Thanks for this post, Megan!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Considering broader sources isn't only a helpful with regard to problematic books.

Those sources also can highlight #ownvoices artistic achievement in literary traditions and identity-informed perspectives less familiar to mainstream reviewers.

In reading fellow Native voices, for example, I'm often wowed by my colleagues efforts in ways that too often go unnoticed or underappreciated (certainy unmentioned) by mainstream experts.

Roger Sutton said...

Just a note about jobbers like Follett. etc. They pay the review sources for permission to license the reviews, and could certainly do the same for online reviewers. Beyond convincing the jobbers that your reviews would improve their product (a task that would be helped by subscribers to those jobbers saying they wanted more diverse reviews) you would need to establish certain technical processes for getting your reviews to them in a form that works for their database.

We've been licensing reviews for years so if there are any questions about that I'll try to answer. (Unless it's about the tech. reqs. in which case I'm clueless.)

Debbie Reese said...

My guess is there'd be an objection from Follett about what it'd cost them to add reviews from other sources and objections about knowing which ones to add. It often comes down to a cost issue. But--Follett is pretty big, right? They're on the stock exchange. If we knew how much they make, seems that might be useful info to refute a "too expensive" objection.

I don't know how to read any of the market reports. Looking at Forbes, I see that Follett Corp was ranked at #178, with revenue of 2.5 billion and 5,000 employees. Here's the page of info: (It is interesting to look at those companies, what their revenue is, employees...)

Roger Sutton said...

Bottom line, Follett would do it if they thought it could make them money. Librarians should be asking their Follett (etc.) reps.