Have you ever wondered how books end up on the shelves in your library? There’s a whole process behind how librarians select books, and it’s not even a secret!
The Oakland Public Library spends approximately $2,000,000 on materials each year, which includes about 50,000 books. While libraries’ capacity for knowledge, information, and creativity is limitless, our buildings and shelf space are not. Every library practices regular weeding of collections for the simple reason that one can’t put new books on the shelves if there is no room.
I’d like to share with you a great example of how we keep our collection updated.
A book on Fannie Lou Hamer was withdrawn from Elmhurst Branch. Here’s how that decision was made: The children’s librarian worked closely with classes coming in from neighborhood schools, and realized that the children asking for biographies were younger than the intended audience for some of the biographies she had on her shelf. The book that was withdrawn was a chapter book for readers in middle school, and she was fielding biography requests primarily from third to fifth graders. The children’s librarian had just purchased a phenomenal new title: Voice of Freedom, Fannie Lou Hamer, spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Ekua Holmes. Published in 2015, Voice of Freedom was a Caldecott Honor book, a Robert F. Sibert Honor book, and the winner of the John Steptoe Award for New Talent in Illustration.
Both the author and illustrator are African-American, one a longstanding author of high esteem among African-American writers of children’s books, the other a breathtaking newcomer who has since published another book--Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, written by Kwame Alexander—and contributed art to the book Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy by Tony Medina. (Both of these books are widely held at OPL, and both are available from the Elmhurst Branch.)
The Fannie Lou Hamer book that was discarded was of a different reading level than the children seeking biographies at Elmhurst, and was part of a corporate-issued educational series on history, written by David Rubel, a White author.
A large branch, for example, might keep multiple books on historical figures. Elmhurst, however, is one of OPL’s smallest branches, a tiny building that resembles a house nestled in the Elmhurst community. The Elmhurst children’s collection is about 1/7 the size of that of the Main Library Children’s Room. With such a small size and excellent new books coming in continuously, there’s generally only room for books that are in current demand. The Elmhurst children’s librarian determined that Voices of Freedom was a better fit for the children at Elmhurst seeking to learn about Fannie Lou Hamer than the book that was discarded. However, for those who do wish to read this book, it is currently available at the Brookfield Branch, Rockridge Branch, and there are three copies at the Main Library Children’s Room.
At OPL, children’s, teen, and adult librarians in each branch select the books for their communities. That means that the person choosing children’s books at every site is also the person who talks with neighbors, welcomes classrooms full of children, visits schools, researches books for local teachers, and sings songs with neighborhood toddlers. Librarians get to know their community as part of their job, and are the best people in the library system to choose the books for their site.
I train all our children’s librarians on selection, and build carts of titles for them to choose from each month. I consider every single children’s book being published each month, reading reviews and other information about the books on the site we order from. I divide them up by sections like the ones we use at OPL—board books, graphic novels, picture books, etc. Then I look for “highlights,” books that are special and our librarians should strongly consider purchasing. I highlight each and every title that features characters who are people of color, and I note when those titles have authors or illustrators who are people of color (we call these books “own voices” in children’s literature). I do a monthly presentation and printed list for children’s librarians of books I think are especially important to order, and this always includes titles that represent diversity. After orders are submitted, I go through each cart and make sure we are buying every excellent book that represents diversity--if not, I add them.
OPL maintains bibliographies of recommended children’s books, and in the last couple years, we have created new lists of titles for a range of young readers: Great African-American, Asian-American, Latino, LGBTQ, Differently Abled, Multiracial, and Native American and First Nations Books for Children. When we update these lists, we also do a bulk order of titles on them so every branch can make sure they have the diverse books we recommend to kids. When we make bibliographies that are not centered in race and identity, such as Books for Third and Fourth Graders, we put physical copies of the books together and look at them in person to make sure we’re including primarily books with diverse authorship.
Even if Oakland were not among the most diverse cities in America, diversity would be a priority in our collections. Children’s librarians are trained to meet the standards set in the Competencies for Librarians Serving Children in Public Libraries, a set of guidelines published by ALSC, the Association of Library Service to Children. The first two tenets of these guidelines are:
1. Demonstrates respect for diversity and inclusion of cultural values, and continually develops cultural awareness and understanding of self and others.
2. Recognizes racism, ethnocentrism, classism, heterosexism, genderism, ableism, and other systems of discrimination and exclusion in the community and its institutions, including the library, and interrupts them by way of culturally competent services.
We talk often about the idea by Rudine Sims Bishop that children need “mirrors and windows” in books, and we strive to purchase books by people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and Native and First Nations people as much as possible.
And most importantly--we love getting suggestions! Does OPL not yet have your favorite book? Since the person who buys books for your local branch also works at that branch, you can suggest it the next time you visit, or Suggest a Purchase online. Let us know what we can buy for you!