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what if diversity isn't enough to save libraries?

I just connected a few ideas that have been floating around in my mind. One of the ideas is the realization that the Toronto Public Library has very little in the way of gay and lesbian romance (as far as their audiobook selection is concerned). Another is the knowledge that libraries aren’t usually the first place anyone goes to when they need information. Next is the ongoing anxiety the profession has about google usurping the library’s position. Last is knowing that we have a diversity problem.

The problem of diversity and collection development in libraries has been well documented. Our collections are about as diverse as our workers, which is to say not very diverse at all. Now, libraries aren’t the sole issue here since the lack of diversity in publishing starts with the publishing industry. But we often compound the issue via biased collection development and biased cataloguing methods.

All of which is to say: its a big fucking problem. As I was digging through the TPL’s online audiobook selection for gay romance, I was reminded of the time I spent in the Calgary Public Library’s central branch. Hours and hours spent as a gay teen looking through the many, many stacks for gay fiction. And I did find some, its true. So there’s that.

Here’s the problem, though. I lived way out in the suburbs and the central branch was downtown. Yes, I had branches closer to me but obviously their selection was much smaller and I hadn’t found anything. It took me over an hour on public transit each direction to get to the library. I did it because I love(d) reading. I did it because I was desperate to read anything with people even remotely like me1.

I think the only truly fun book I found in the libary was Christian McLaughlin’s Sex Toys of the Gods. I just wrote that from memory. Been ages since I read the book. But I remember. It was the closest thing I could find that was gay romance. One of the few that had a happy ending and was basically feel-good fiction.

I was desparate for this kind of thing. I had a hard time as a teen. At the time I mainly read sci-fi and fantasy because it allowed me to escape my everyday life. But… it wasn’t enough. While I enjoyed the stories, I never really connected with them in any meaningful way. So hours spent in the library. Reading books as a teen about gay men dying in the AIDS crisis. Reading about the many miseries of gay life and very little that was affirming.

My story here isn’t all that unusual. You hear this kind of narrative from marginalized people all the time. Many of us crave media that represents us, where we can see ourselves. Media that we can emotionally connect with2.

What does this have to do with libraries? And diversity? And our never-ending existential angst about our field and our future?

A person I respect and admire yesterday got a shitty tweet asking if she did real work or was just a full-time SJW. Someone else I respect and admire responding ‘why do they think these are exclusive?’ (I’m paraphrasing from memory…). Chris Bourg talks a lot about social justice, libraries, and diversity. She does it well. She is also, I think, the highest placed librarian I know. Importantly, I see her making real efforts to incorporate what she talks about into her organization. She is ~disrupting~ her library with this social justice nonsense.

Not only am I a librarian but I am a person who also needs the library. Or I would if they had pretty much any of the media I’m currently interested in. After three years in Toronto, I finally got my public library card. I was super excited to check out their audiobook selection.

But then… in searching through around… idk, 4000 books? I found about eight I’d like to listen to. And six of those eight are actually two series (so two trilogies). Awesome, right? I also really appreciated having to spend hours looking through their catalogue digging through thousands of het romance just to find eight books. This is shitty metadata (I think this was overdrive’s fault but still…).

Audiobooks are really fucking expensive. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, afterall a certain amount of effort needs to go into producing the book. And, tbh, spending $15 for a 8hr book really isn’t that bad in terms of value.

But I can’t afford this. I’m poor. I’m also depressed and spend a lot of time listening to audiobooks (maybe around, idk, at least five hours a day?). Going on that average, that’s about 150hrs worth of audiobook listening a month. If we use an 8hr average length, I’d need to buy 19 or so books a month to fill this time. Using $15 as an average price, that’s about $285 a month. In _american dollars_3.

But because the TPL doesn’t have much of this – eight books won’t even last a month for me and I can only ask them to buy one a month – the largest public library system in Canada is irrelevant for me. The website claims it has a diverse collection. But… that’s so far from true.

TPL did a diversity workforce survey in 2014. Here’s some of the findings:

  • “The current Statistics Canada information for the City of

    Toronto reports the percentage of visible minorities at approximately 47%. The survey results indicate that for the TPL workforce the percentage of visible minorities is 43%”

One thing to note is that white people are overrepresented in management and higher paying jobs and poc tend to be younger and in lower jobs.

But look at that. The main point is that TPL has a fairly diverse workforce as far as race is considered. The survey results show that only about 5% aren’t straight (20% also said they didn’t want to answer so the number could be higher). In any case. TPL is pretty darn diverse.

And yet…

This sort of diversity doesn’t appear to have made an impact on their collection. Yes, I know a goodly portion of the blame goes to overdrive. But… Not all. It doesn’t explain why the TPL hasn’t gone out of its way to find a gay romance focused publisher (like Dreamspinner Press) and acquired their books. So there are lots of people to blame here.

Part of what I’m trying to communicate here is that diversity isn’t enough. A lot of the discourse I see around diversity appears to suggest that assimilating a bunch of poc (or whatever) into the workforce will somehow manage to transform shitty oppressive institutions (or corporations) into virtuous ones. This… really isn’t going to work.

I’m starting to realize that part of why librarians should be fearful of the future is because we allow the past to weigh us down. The thing with most library collections in Canada and the US is that the bulk of the collection was acquired during a time when people didn’t care at all about diversity or representation. Times when it was even harder to get published as a poc or gay writer. Fuck, gay romance wasn’t even a viable genre 15 or so years ago, before self-publishing and other stuff allowed niche publishing to flourish.

This means that most of the existing collection was designed and selected to be exclusive. And now that we have ever shrinking budgets and a general inability to buy as much as we would like, it’ll never be possible to balance out existing collection. Maybe, maybe it could happen if libraries stopped buying books written by white, cishet men for the next 20-30 years. This isn’t very likely.

Of course, there is also the problem of space. So. I’m curious if any library would consider weeding out a bunch of stuff by white cishet men in order to make room for a more diverse collection. Go see which ones aren’t circulating and dump the dead weight. Make room for diversity. This would be one way to start balancing out a collection without having to spend extra money on acquisition.

As also noted, the is a problem with cataloguing. I shouldn’t have to wade through thousands of het romance to find the eight gay ones. That’s fucking bullshit. But… again. We allow the past to weigh us down. While others advocate for reforming the Dewey or LoC systems, I want to see them trashed and for us to start over. And, hey, maybe re-cataloguing everything would take a lot less time if we just dumped a bunch of cishet white male materials.

Perhaps things might change at TPL if more poc and otherwise marginalized people get into management and higher on the organizational hierarchy. I have my doubts, though. Current patterns of acquisition will never allow a collection to diversify in a way that represents the full spectrum of human experience.

  • Maybe one day I'll write about how the most influential writer I found during this period was so very much Unlike Me that the expectations it set me up for re: the gay community, ended up doing a lot of emotional and psychological damage. It also left me vulnerable to predators. But a story for another day... 
  • I think the best example of this is something like Catcher in the Rye. Like. I couldn't connect with the character at all because he was a whiny, middle class white kid. It was meaningless to me. 
  • Actually I think even if I weren't depressed I'd probably spend about 5hrs/day listening to books. That's about my average reading time per day -- when I was able to read for sustained periods of time. Like I said, I love books. Either reading or listening.  </fn></footnotes>