Race and the children’s book gap—and the library staffing one

Dog Days: The Carver ChroniclesLast year U.S. publishers released an estimated 5,000 books for children and teens. Now, here's a quick quiz. How many of them were written or illustrated by African-Americans or were about black people or other nonwhites? Just how many titles like Karen English’s Dog Days? Four-hundred? Five-hundred? Guess again.

A mere 63 books were by black authors, and just 93 were about African-Americans—those are the documented numbers from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the Department of Education at the University of Wisconsin. For Latinos, the statistics were 48 by and 57 about.  Furthermore, the library world is hardly a paragon of diversity, not when only 563 African-American males and 522 Latino men were credentialed librarians in 2009-2010. Just so you’ll know, racial and ethnic minorities make up 35 percent of the U.S. population and are the majority of children born today.

Granted, the Wisconsin study might not have sufficiently counted self-published books and e-books from minorities. And let’s also keep in mind minority-created content of all types on Web and elsewhere from platforms such as Wattpad.

Still, supply is abysmally short of needs. Consider, too, that the center’s statistics focus on racial groups. What about the fifth of U.S. children living in poverty, no trifle when you consider that economic disparities account even more for academic disparities than do racial ones?

If you’re a ten-year-old in search of titles about people like you, you’ll be far better off white and rich or at least comfortable. Discussing books in general, not just children’s books, a publicist named Brian Feinblum couldn't have put it more bluntly in the BookMarketingBuzzBlog when he headlined a post: Book Publishing Should Market to the Rich.

Feinblum is a mere sympton, not the problem. The U.S. book industry simply can’t understand and meet the needs of minorities and the poor. No, I’m not accusing publishers and editors of hating minorities and poor people—it’s all accidental. But the effect is the same.

Sharing the blame are U.S. libraries, a natural market for books by and about minorities. Why aren’t they working more closely with publishers to close the diversity gap in ’library collections? Maybe because of their human diversity gap? Granted, Courtney L. Young, an African-American, is the president-elect of the American Library Association and library leaders  in general have grown more aware of the gap. Of 118,666 credentialed librarians, however, just 6,160 were black and 3,661 were Latinos in 2009-2010 as tallied by the federal government and mentioned in an ALA diversity report. As for a mere 563 being male African-Americans, that’s hardly the way to get young black boys excited about books. Talk about role models, not just collections!

In fairness to the publishing and library worlds, many low-income people and members of minorities are going after more lucrative work than is typically available in those fields. Furthermore, other complications exist. African-American bookstores have not fared that well despite hopes of a turn-around. In a related vein, the well-off have claimed a higher and higher share of national income. Furthermore, compared to past years, book spending isn’t nearly as great as it should be even among affluent white people.  The book culture relies on a mix of buying and borrowing, and if one suffers, the other may. If nothing else, fewer stores can mean fewer opportunities to see books on display.

At least a partial solution, beyond industry-initiated efforts, might be a national digital library endowment of the kind I wrote about recently in the Baltimore Sun—one taking advantages of the economies of digital technology to spread books around. Total spending on public library content of all kinds in the U.S. was only $4.09 per capita as of fiscal year 2011, according the Institute of Museum and Library Services. While helping library patrons of all races and incomes, the endowment among other things could:

1. Encourage minorities and low-income people to care more about reading. That begins in the home; here’s to family literacy—to parents not just reading to their children, but also for their own pleasure! One again we’re talking role models.  Like the rest of us, the poor and minorities can’t be good writers without first being good, enthusiastic readers. On the positive, the Pew Foundation has found that people of color and low-income people actually are more interested in content-rich libraries than are Americans as a whole.

Of course, books and other items are just a start. From family literacy specialists to K-12 librarians, we need enough of the right professionals to facilitate the discovery, enjoyment and absorption of the right books for the right readers. Unfortunately too many localities have taken the opposite tack. As LibraryCity noted recently, students at one Los Angeles school can’t just stroll in to check out a Warren Buffett biography from the school library—because it’s shut down, for want of money for staffing. An endowment, helping to pay for both content and the promotion of its use, wouldn’t be a cure-all. But it could make a tremendous difference. Remember the laws of library science. For each reader, the right book.

scclJukePop2. Promote creative writing among minorities and the poor, through special efforts in the schools as well as through scholarships, including those to prestigious writing programs. Schools and libraries should be working closely with Wattpad and similar organizations online—both profit and nonprofit—to discover talented young minority writers overlooked by academia and big New York publishers. This could actually help the large publishers, by making them aware of the pool of talent out there, just as the endowment could expand the book market.

Especially I’d like to see localized recognition, in the form of well-chosen links from library and school Web sites to the free writings of local African-Americans, Latinos and members of the poor and working class. Kudos to the Santa Clara Library District and JukePop for a new collaboration to authenticate the works of talented Web-oriented writers of all races and economic levels. Santa Clara is actually hosting the writings on its own servers.

Considering the stinginess of so many cities toward local libraries—Alexandria, VA, my hometown, is among the offenders, spending a mere $3.25 per capita on library content, even while paying its city manager $245,000 a year—the “free” would mean a lot even if such efforts would hardly substitute for adequate funding.

3. Address digital divide issues related to the reading divide, such as by helping minority youths read e-books on cellphones, tablets and other devices—either library-provided ones or their own. In some cases libraries should even work toward giving away hardware to the most gung-ho participants in library programs. It’s almost cheap enough. Time to respect the new demographics and think ahead now.

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