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Cedar Rapids Public Library working to diversify collection
Director: ‘People deserve to see themselves’ in library books
CEDAR RAPIDS — Staff of the Cedar Rapids Public Library have worked intentionally since 2018 to make sure books lining the library’s shelves reflect the community’s diversity — and in just a few years, they’ve seen results.
Starting with the young adult fiction collection in summer 2018, librarians audited a portion of those books for representation across six categories — race and ethnicity, LGBTQ, mental health, physical health, religion and economic welfare.
Each audit has shown a boost in diversity, prompting library staff to expand the practice across the whole collection in the coming years to help guide the selection of new books and make sure Cedar Rapids residents see themselves reflected in literature the public library offers.
Community Engagement Librarian Sarah Voels, then a materials librarian, started the project with librarian Molly Garrett. They first assessed 20 percent of books chosen at random from the young adult fiction collection. After pulling these books from the shelf and searching for representation, staff determined the young adult fiction collection was shy of being 16 percent diverse under the six predetermined metrics.
“We didn't feel that that was at all representative of our community, especially when we're looking at such a wide cross-section of representation,” Voels said.
She spent the next year focusing on how she did collection development — the work of seeking out specific titles, characters and stories. Then, after auditing about 54 percent of the collection in 2019, the metrics rose to being 25.5 percent diverse. A third audit in 2021, delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, showed 35.5 percent diversity.
Voels said library patrons are accessing these materials at a proportional rate, with these books on average circulating about 35.6 percent of the time.
The library does not use this data to take books out of circulation that are not considered part of this diverse collection, Voels said. When books are removed, it is for criteria such as its condition or whether it is circulating among the patrons.
Library Director Dara Schmidt said it likely will take three more years to examine the whole library collection and make changes accordingly, and then to continue reviewing data every few years. But the work may not translate as neatly to certain genres.
For instance, in non-fiction, there will always be books about World War II, Schmidt said, though biography is a category where library staff can bring more representative materials into the mix.
The library does not look intentionally for “own voices” titles, where the author and the protagonist share a marginalized identity. The collection department policy bars staff from filtering authors based on aspects of their identities such as race or ethnicity, Schmidt said.
But she pointed to library programming such as recognizing women authors during Women’s History Month in March or Read Woke, a national movement that highlights underrepresented authors and titles, as ways the library can highlight diversity and historically marginalized groups.
“People deserve to see themselves, and that way they know that this library is for them, that these books are for them, that this community is for them.” — Dara Schmidt, Cedar Rapids Public Library director
There is a concept in the library and publishing world that literature provides windows, doors and mirrors through which people can learn about others’ experiences and see themselves reflected, Schmidt said. That notion, in line with the library’s own access and inclusion strategic pillars, is the key “why” fueling this work.
“Do you see yourself as a community member of the city of Cedar Rapids represented somehow on the shelves of the Cedar Rapids Public Library?” Schmidt said. “ … People deserve to see themselves, and that way they know that this library is for them, that these books are for them, that this community is for them.”
Not only does everybody get to have their mirror, Schmidt said, “but the flip side of that means that there are more windows and doors, too.” Diversifying the collection and providing those lenses builds a stronger community and better understanding, she said.
The library’s efforts to diversify its collection come at a time the Iowa Senate president has said he is drafting legislation to criminally prosecute teachers and school employees who give “obscene” material from school libraries to students.
Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, made these remarks at a school board meeting in Johnston where parents complained that bestsellers “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie were inappropriate and obscene. Those who defended the books being read in schools argued some may consider the materials fundamental to understanding race and sexuality rather than obscene, and they help students understand the oppression that others endure.
But the work of developing a more representative collection in the Cedar Rapids library has been well-received. The library’s patron service specialists often share feedback about how they were able to help people find books they were looking for, Voels said. For example, Schmidt said, a patron may be searching for a book about an incarcerated parent, or they may have just gotten an injury and wanted to find a book with somebody in a wheelchair.
“It's very exciting to see that we have all this quantitative data at our disposal, but to actually see it in action and gather those qualitative stories is pretty rewarding,” Voels said.
This endeavor has spurred additional efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the library, Schmidt said. Staff have reviewed the library’s behavior policy, looking at how that's enforced and how that reflects what they see in the community. And the programming team is thinking about representation in library events and programs that are presented to the community.
“We have a saying in libraries that a library is a true reflection of its community, and sometimes that means things that you want to see, and sometimes that means things that you don't want to see,” Schmidt said. “But because it's a true reflection, all of that is there, and so that's not just something that happens. That's something that we actually strive to be and are willing to invest or work in our resources to keep making it happen.”
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