YA Shelf Experiment

Each year since grad school, I’ve tried to take one ALSC/YALSA e-course to keep my librarian skills sharp. This year I’m taking “Building Reflective Collections…Always Teens First” with Julie Stivers (@BespokeLib). I’ve loved the course so far, and I wanted to take a second to share a bit about what we did for one of the assignments.

We were asked to look at one shelf in our teen collection, then (a) count the total number of titles; (b) count the number of titles with diverse main characters; (c) count the number of titles that would be considered #ownvoices; and, (d) count the number of #ownvoices titles that aren’t historical fiction, social issue books, biographies, or award winners—categories Stivers calls the “BIG FOUR”.

Here are my numbers:

  • Titles on shelf: 30
  • Titles with diverse main character8
  • #ownvoices titles5
  • Titles not historical fic, social issue, bio, award winning: 4

Okay, so that’s not bad, right? Well, it’s not good either. My YA collections are really small, around 551 titles at the branch I used for this experiment. If these numbers were representative of the whole collection, that would mean that only 73 titles (13%) in the entire collection meet the above criteria. That’s not a whole lot, is it? It also means that 147 (27%) titles in the whole collection have diverse main characters, and only half as many are written by diverse people themselves.

Now I know that this isn’t perfect math by any means. For one, not all 551 titles are young adult fiction—some are nonfiction, graphic novels, etc. For two, I also deliberately chose the shelf for this sample that, at a glance, I knew would showcase that I have already been putting some thought into intentional collecting—as has our incredible Teen Librarian at the main branch who handles most of the purchasing for the system. But it is still interesting and eye opening to see numbers like these.

Last year, I learned that for its 2016-2017 season, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, OR became the first major theatre company to have a majority of its actors be people of color. This, despite the fact that the vast majority of its audience members were white people. This isn’t a decision that happened overnight but was the result of an institutional priority of “color-conscious” casting. I think I will always strive for that kind of intentionality as I build collections. Is it possible to decenter whiteness in a community that, like Ashland and here in Eugene, is so glaringly white? What effect would a collection like that have on a homogenous community? OSF certainly didn’t suffer any ticket sales. I’d wager that we wouldn’t lose our patrons either.

Amy Koester tells us “selection is privilege.” Let’s use that privilege to better balance our collections.

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