Betsy Bird: Ah! Excellent question. Well, as James LaRue, director of the office of Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association, said recently, “public libraries should make selection decisions based on the reputation of the publisher and the author, the quality of reviews and the level of community demand.” Many libraries make their selections from large distributors like Ingram or Baker & Taylor. These companies won’t just provide you with the books, however. Many times they will customize virtual “carts” for librarians. I myself receive three to seven carts every fifteen days consisting of books with reviews from professional journals. I sit down, go through the carts, make my selections, and voila! Instant collection development. The upside to this is the amount of time it saves you. The downside is that what is reviewed professionally is oftentimes very limited to a certain kind of book by a certain kind of author. Plus, you miss a lot of great books that either couldn’t afford to send their titles to review journals or weren’t out in time to be sent. I was always taught to rely heavily on professional reviews, and I still do, but things are changing. People are realizing that there are other ways to discover books for a library collection. We cannot afford to be static anymore. Not if we want to meet changing needs.
World Kid Lit: Learning ‘Other Ways to Discover Books for a Library Collection’
Librarian and author Betsy Bird says “the time has long since passed when Americans could plug their ears, close their eyes, and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist.” But how is a librarian to truly diversify their collection? And how to balance between books that are already popular and helping kids discover what’s new?
What is the easiest way to conduct collection development which, as you say, is not the best?
If a librarian wanted to go about truly diversifying, what would be the first step? What sorts of resources are (and aren’t!) available to librarians in smaller systems?
BB: I suppose it depends on what you’re diversifying. If you’re talking about including more world languages, translations, and books from overseas then the first step would be to seek out the best references and reviewers of these titles. You would want to subscribe to Bookbird, monitor the White Raven Catalogue, etc. That is, if your system can afford to subscribe to the former and get ahold of the latter. Better to find online resources like Helen Wang’s blog Chinese Books for Young Readers or the Facebook group Global Literature in Libraries (which you would have to request to join). If you’re talking about diversifying in terms of providing a wide range of ethnicities, experiences, and diverse voices then you’re in luck. There are all sorts of apps, sites, blogs, etc. dedicated to helping librarians with their collections. I did a round-up of some of the options here, that may be worth checking out.
What do you wish you could go back and tell yourself as you were starting out?
BB: I don’t know. It was such a different time back when I was a newly minted children’s librarian in 2003. The education I received at my first jobs with NYPL couldn’t have come from a better group of people. But my early collection development days were heavily reliant on just sitting and reading reviews and ordering. I think I’d tell myself not to be afraid to find books outside of what I’d been taught. To do the legwork and find more titles and fight to include them in whatever library system I was working for at the time.
What are particular challenges in diversifying a world-literature collection for young readers? How do you source great books that come from all around the world (and not just Western Europe)?
BB: When I worked for the New York Public Library system I had a big advantage of working with two World Language Librarian specialists who would seek out titles from all around the globe. Once I left, I discovered how difficult it was to fill that gap personally. My secret weapon? Bookstores. There’s a bookstore here in Evanston, IL (where I live now) that has one of the finest world language collections for kids I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, there really are bookstores out there that specialize in one language or another and are willing to recommend great books for kids. Even so, it’s so difficult to find books from countries outside of Europe. In my library we actually send someone to the Guadalajara Book Fair every year, to find titles from South America. I’ve been to the Bologna Book Fair for similar reasons. But closer to home it’s good to monitor book awards like the Batchelder, and the Children’s Africana Book Awards. And, of course, there’s always #worldkidlitmonth. That’s just for starters.
If someone were to ask you, “Why is this important for our library? Shouldn’t we spend money on what the kids are demanding/will read?” how would you answer them?
BB: That’s the eternal struggle of the library. Deciding how much of your collection should consist of popular materials vs. books that will open eyes, hearts, and minds. But even if you just buy ten titles a year from other countries, that’s ten titles those kids would never encounter otherwise! I think the time has long since passed when Americans could plug their ears, close their eyes, and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. America’s relationship with the rest of the world is a bit fraught at the moment (understatement of the year) so doesn’t it behoove us to show our kids thoughts, modes, values, and lives unlike our own? For cash strapped libraries it’s never an easy choice, but every little bit counts. Our job is to prepare our kids for the world. Why not bring it to them a little and make it easy for them?
What more could translators and small publishers do to further help librarians to discover great books from around the world, especially books from beyond Europe?
BB: Discovery is half the battle. Honestly, one of the best things you can do is attend a library conference and set up a booth. I know that it’s time consuming, boring, and expensive, but for many librarians it’s going to be the only way they find out about your books. Announcements in PW Children’s Bookshelf don’t hurt, and Kirkus is one of the few review journals to regularly feature translated titles from small publishers. Be sure to submit to them since librarians get 90% of their selections from reviewed titles. Otherwise, find blogs that you admire and get in touch with them. You just never know what’s going to work.