As school library teachers, we promote and celebrate reading. Whether it’s for learning, personal growth, or enjoyment, we strive to foster a love for reading in each and every student in our schools. This is a value we all share, and if encouraging a love for reading is truly our calling, if academic achievement for all our students is truly our passion, then we must make sure our collection celebrates diversity, is inclusive of intersectionality, provides accurate representation, and is offered in a wide range of genres, themes, personal interests, and literacy levels.
Diversity audits take a look at a current library collection to determine how well the collection reflects not only the local community it serves, but also the diverse global community that we all live in. The data that is collected can be used to learn more about the student population that the library serves, identify diversity and inclusion gaps in the collection, set measurable goals backed by evidence, advocate for EDI funding, and, ultimately, inform future purchasing decisions. But as we discussed the topic of diverse books, one daunting question about diversity audits loomed over us like a menacing storm cloud about to unleash its power of doubt and impossibility: “Okay, but how?” Having never completed a diversity audit myself, I cannot provide a specific 100% guaranteed-or-your-money-back action plan. What I can offer, though, is some best practices as suggested by those that have completed diversity audits (and I’ve thrown in some creative ideas of my own).
Collect Data on Student Population
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) provides demographic information about a school’s student population. This might be a good place to start. It’s important to note, however, that even in a school with a majority white student population, a culturally diverse book collection is just as critical to these students’ growth and development since, as Moser and Bruno reveal, “a library full of white stories only helps exacerbate the “othering” that our society can at times reinforce” (34). DESE also provides a District Analysis and Review Tool (DART) which offers a snapshot of the school’s English language learner population. This could be a great resource for discovering the multiple languages and cultures represented by the school.
While this data is easy to collect, we can’t stop at race or culture. We need to look at multiple identity markers such as LGBTQIA+, persons with disabilities, and cultures and religions that are marginalized in the western hemisphere. Consider subscribing to a broad definition of disability. For example, We Need Diverse Books defines disability as including, but not limited to, “physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction)” (2021). Not all identity markers are readily apparent. Consider using circulation statistics to discover the frequency of use for specific items featuring underrepresented groups. Collecting qualitative data about the school’s student population entails greater, more thoughtful investigation. Consider talking to students in various after school clubs, or reaching out to other teachers in the school and parents in the community.
Determine Your Goals
Gregory suggests, “before commencing an evaluation or assessment project, the very first thing that you need to do is determine the goal. If the goal of your assessment project is clearly stated, it will make choosing the methods and analysis of the data much easier” (106). Breaking up the audit into smaller portions that share some logical commonality will make for much easier (and SMARTer) goal setting. For example, begin with the nonfiction collection, and then narrow it down further by Dewey Decimal System (DDS) classification. The goal might then be to audit a specific class using a method that makes sense based on that specific collection. Emma DeLooze-Klein recommends examining each collection individually since “the types of diversity you’re measuring and auditing in picture books may look very different from biographies” (17). For fiction, the goal could be to select a letter of the alphabet and assess what identity markers that portion of the collection contains, or the goal could be to focus on a specific identity marker itself.
Determine Your Method and Set Parameters Based on Your Goals
Methods for completing a diversity audit vary. Karen Jensen has published a number of blogs on this subject, including one on how her process worked. “My collection contained 2,000 items at the time. I printed a shelf list and imported the list into an Excel spreadsheet. I researched each author and made a notation as to whether the title involved characters who were something other than male, white, nondisabled, and heteronormative” (2018). Indeed, fiction does require a deep, patient analysis of the topics of interest, the intersectionality of character identities, and the various genres and themes included. A quantitative review of the subject headings and BISAC codes may not be enough to accurately assess representation within the collection. While information published on the book jacket and in the author’s note might provide more qualitative information about the book, reviews could supplement missing contextual information.
For nonfiction, if selecting one main class at a time, then set parameters specific to that DDS class’s needs. This method, however, will require some cultural proficiency as well as some self-reflection into your own biases. I suggest that if you feel even just a little bit uneasy about a subject, but you're not sure why, your subconscious is telling you something and you should probably research the matter a little further. Research of nonfiction texts entails both a review of the topic itself, as well as an internal self-reflection of one’s own perceptions and judgements.
A diversity audit should also involve research into the author and/or illustrator. This could be as easy as referring to the book jacket or author’s note, or it could be as cumbersome as locating an author’s or illustrator's bio page on their website, or referencing book lists provided by various organizations.
Depending on the size of the collection, qualitatively reviewing each book, one book at a time, may seem impractical. Rebecca Rubio, a secondary teacher-librarian in School District 38 in Richmond, BC, completed her diversity audits using random sampling of the collection (2021). However, since the goal and the method are interconnected components of the diversity audits, it’s more likely that the breadth and depth of the collection would require a combination of methods. I suggest that before you dive down that rabbit hole of researching and selecting the right method, just focus on setting a realistic goal first. The most logical method will present itself after that.
Honor Your Time and Ask for Help
Your time is valuable, especially when you’re on a fixed class schedule. If a stipend is available for this work during the summer, consider taking advantage of this. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides a couple of grant programs that a school might qualify for, and federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) funds offered through the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners might also be available for this work. Consider talking to the administration about applying for special project grant funding. The school district may even have an EDI committee already setting aside funds or developing district-wide EDI initiatives. Connect with them to discuss plans and funding for a diversity audit. Some communities have educational nonprofits and parent teacher organizations that raise money and fund special projects such as diversity audits. Find out what funding the community can offer. And reach out to fellow teachers— see if they can take care of some of the books on that list. (They’ve probably read quite a few already.) Build a support network within your district. You could even create and share a master list of titles for Massachusetts School Library Association members to contribute information to! (And gratefully borrow from.)
Make Diversity Auditing Practices Sustainable
Consider how to sustain this work long after the audits are complete. Friebel warns us that diversity is not a trend. We need to reflect on why we are performing these diversity audits. “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” (2019). She suggests setting up a schedule to regularly perform audits as ordering strategies change. Jensen performs mini-audits on each book order as she continues to develop her inclusive collection, and, knowing that representation matters, she is always reflecting on her definition of diversity and adjusting her criteria accordingly (2018). Part of making this work sustainable might require updating the collection development policy so that it declares, on a policy level, an irrefutable need for this work to continue.
Diversity audits are just a starting point. They are just one component in our quest for equity, diversity, and inclusion in our library programming and services, but diversity audits arm us with data— data we can use to transform our practices, data we should use to transform our collection, and data we will use to transform our students’ lives.
Have you completed a diversity audit of your library’s collection? Are you in the process of one right now? Please comment below if you have. We would love to hear what worked for you, and what you know now, but wish you knew before you began.