Monday, January 7, 2019

The Benefits & Limits of Diversity Audits

This is a post in Reading While White’s end-of-year retrospective series.

Diversity audits! They’re an analytical look at a library collection through a diversity lens: tracking minority representations vs. majority. This can cover a variety of identity markers, but generally what is talked about most is numbers of BIPOC and White creators/ characters. These audits aren’t totally a new thing, but they’ve gained traction over the last year with Karen Jensen’s posts giving guidelines on how-to (also see her more recent post) and Library Journal’s online course “Equity in Action: Taking Your Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives to the Next Level” delving into the subject. I myself have started doing diversity audits, and it’s something my library is pushing for us to continue. Are diversity audits a step in the right direction of more inclusion and equity within our collections and services? Are they a performative trend with no real impact? Maybe a bit of both? But let’s back up a minute... who am I?

Hi! I’m Jenna, the newest contributor to RWW. I live in Chicago and work as a Collection Management Librarian focusing on children’s and teen materials at the Oak Park Public Library. I’m also a yoga instructor and foster kitten caretaker. Like the rest of the RWW team, I am White and working on learning what that means every day. My hope is that my blog posts will encourage you to continue learning along with me (maybe that’s schmaltzy, but it’s true). So let’s get started, shall we? Back to the books!

This blog post will not be a how-to guide for diversity audits or an analysis of the audits I did. Rather, I’d like to spend some time ruminating on the bigger picture of diversity audits. What exactly is their purpose, and what is their potential for impact?

I began doing diversity audits of my library’s collections at the request of our management team. They heard about other libraries doing it, and it aligns with our aspirations of diversity, inclusion, and equity. The intentions of diversity audits are good. They are following the same idea as CCBC’s Statistics and Lee and Low’s Baseline Survey. By finding a baseline, we have a better idea of where and how to grow. However, good intentions aren’t enough if there isn’t meaningful action and next steps to go along with it.

It bears repeating that diversity is not “a trend.” These posts from Jennifer Baker and Ellen Oh are always worth revisiting. If diversity audits are done as a one-off, primarily just so a library or library worker can say they did it, that moves into performative territory. Especially for a White librarian like myself, it’s so important to question why we do things, particularly when in relation to racial diversity. Are we doing these diversity audits because it’s the hot thing to do right now or because we actually care deeply about how we can better our collections? And if the latter, we have to acknowledge the pitfalls of diversity audits and what else needs to be done.

Diversity audits don’t represent quality, accuracy, or intersectionality. Just as books about White kids range from high literary fiction to entertaining drivel, so to should books by and about BIPOC. That said, our collections are really only being truly inclusive if the representations shared are accurate. While not every book needs to be or should be heavily themed around the race of the character, for example, depictions should ring true. And any cultural practices that are discussed need to be correct. A diversity audit might tell us that our collection has a good sized number of books with Black characters, but what if they are all historical fiction with male leads and assumed Christianity? Intersectionality is so important so we can provide books about BIPOC kids in various genres with a wide range of themes.

Another downfall is that even from the onset, we’re approaching diversity audits from a White-normative standpoint, often looking at the data as White vs. all of BIPOC lumped together. Even when separated into further categories (ex. Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American), they are still so broad. And even the books that get categorized as “diverse” can still have a heavy White influence. Consider interracial romances where more often than not, one of the characters is White. Yes, these are still diverse and valuable, but many count that as a diverse title as opposed to a White title when really, it features both representations.

Diversity audits can be really useful, don’t get me wrong. When I did my first couple audits looking at race/ethnicity of author and main character of new titles ordered within a monthlong period for various kids and teen collections, I found it eye-opening. I had thought I was being intentional in my ordering, and while I was to some point, there are so many mid-list titles I was buying that were White, White, White. I’m working on adjusting my ordering practices accordingly, which I think is likely a necessary result of any diversity audits. It’s not just about filling current gaps. It’s looking at our collection practices as a whole.

What can librarians do after performing their audits? How can we create goals to be more expansive and inclusive as we move forward? How do we recognize the usefulness of statistics, while also holding onto the importance of the stories and qualitative information behind the numbers? How can we calculate and use data while acknowledging that a quantity over quality mindset is rooted in White supremacy culture?

I’m still figuring out these answers myself, but I’ll be starting with adjusting my collection development strategies. I recommend using the diversity audits as a starting point to help make a larger plan of how to expand. I plan on setting up a schedule to regularly perform audits to see how the numbers change as my ordering strategies change. Also, I will continue to seek out accuracy and intersectionality with the help of reviews, especially those from experts of a specific identity such as Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL). For more helpful and recommended resources, check out our “Kindred Spirits” list on the side of blog.

Another goal after looking at the audits is not just about looking forward and adjusting ordering, but also looking back, evaluating the current collection, and weeding accordingly. Check out our previous posts here and here. We need to move on from weeding solely based on circulation and take into consideration how stereotypes and bias can shape the stories we provide, prioritizing accuracy and inclusiveness.

So go ahead and do your diversity audits. I honestly do recommend it, but see them as one piece of the puzzle towards creating more inclusive collections. Acknowledge what makes them useful as well as what they aren’t telling us. Collections work is always a work in progress, so let’s make that progress actually progressive by continually evaluating the hows and whys and taking a stand for collections that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

-Jenna Friebel


Lori The Librarian said...

Jenna, I would love to have an ongoing conversation with you about "diverse" books, diversity within library staff and so much more. Please contact me at if you are willing to talk. Feel free to include your co-workers as well.

Library Teacher said...

I'm sorry, but my schedule does no allow for diversity audits. I teach my library classes along with Basic Skills, Makerspace, Math, Health, and whatever else they add to my schedule. I choose books based on what will be checked out and read. I don't have room for books that don't go out, however I promote them and want books that my students will actually read.

Katelyn Fowler said...

Diversity audits sounds like a really intriguing idea to me. I am a Youth Services Assistant and I'm over the Teen Collection, I feel like I do pretty good on ordering diverse books but doing one of those would probably show me differently. At least from a contemporary standpoint. I know more about fantasy and sci-fi and try to include the ones I know of in those areas, but I'm a bit lacking in contemporary knowledge.