Using Data From Collection Diversity Audits
by Anitra Gates, Amberlee McGaughey, Celia Mulder, and Sarah Voels
The cornerstone of library science education rests on the foundation of S.R. Ranganathan’s five laws of library science, with the second law being most pertinent to the expansion of diverse representation in library collections: “Every reader his or her [or their] book.” 1 These laws, written in 1931, hold value today, as we shape library collections for the communities they serve, but we cannot effectively do so without first acknowledging how collections exist to begin with. Such a philosophy is echoed in Rudine Sims Bishop’s famous “mirrors and windows” 2 metaphor in which library materials can be viewed as either a mirror allowing the reader to see themselves represented—that is, sharing a possibly marginalized identity—or a window through which the life of another can be viewed.
This need for greater representation in literature is a pre-existing condition that libraries have always suffered from, often at the hands of the publishing industry itself. Such a need was not new in 1931 when Ranganathan wrote the laws, nor was it new in 1990 when Bishop wrote the mirrors-and-windows piece—and it is not new now. Diversity audits, as they pertain to collection development, were first publicized in 2017 by librarian Karen Jensen in the online resource Teen Librarian Toolbox. An audit is “a way of analyzing collection data to make sure that we include a wide variety of points of view, experiences and representations within a collection.” 3 It is, however, a modern adaptation of the work done by Nancy Larrick from 1962 to 1965 in which she surveyed “the 5,206 children’s trade books launched by the sixty-three publishers in the three-year period …” 4 and discovered that only 6.7% included a Black character. Similar work assessing the representation presented by published children’s works is now done annually by the Children’s Cooperative Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
It is with this context that we approach diversity audits. They are an assessment of the representation of collections that, in order to yield the most efficacy, must be adapted to the resources available to the library conducting them and to the community the library serves.
Each of our libraries took a different approach to our collection diversity audit. When Cedar Rapids Public Library (CRPL) and Clinton-Macomb Public Library (CMPL) conducted their initial collection audits, collection analysis tools from the vendors were not yet available. The manual audits they performed, while time-intensive and labor-intensive, had the benefit of being flexible to meet the needs of the libraries, communities, and collections.
CRPL framed its audit as a 3-year study of the young adult fiction collection. The first round of auditing was a random sample audit in which a portion of the collection was surveyed; in this case, 20% was assessed in 2018. At that time, 15.87% of the collection included protagonists or themes outside of the white, cisgender, able-bodied, heteronormative narrative. After adjusting collection development practices, 54% of the collection was assessed in 2019; the percentage of books with diverse representation rose to 25.5%. The final part of the study was an audit of the entire young adult fiction collection using MARC records in 2020–2021. The diverse representation again increased and included 35.5% of the collection, expanding the variety of voices.
In contrast to CRPL’s process, CMPL opted to audit a random sample of all print materials, including adult fiction, adult nonfiction, young adult fiction, juvenile fiction, juvenile nonfiction, and picture books. Samples of each collection were generated using a 95% level of confidence and 5% margin of error. The results varied across collection areas, with young adult fiction showing the highest percentages of diverse representation and adult nonfiction the lowest.
Like the other libraries, Erie County Public Library (ECPL) began a pilot manual audit in 2020 using a random sample of young adult fiction collections. However, it shifted gears in 2021 after receiving funding to use Ingram’s iCurate inClusive service, the results of which are discussed later. Overall, the results of the collection diversity audits conducted by our three libraries have revealed a need for increased representation and inclusion in our collections. The audits provided us with the data to support changes in collection development and collection promotion practices and procedures.
For some libraries, outsourcing all or part of the audit process may be beneficial. Selecting a vendor to perform a collection analysis can be significantly quicker than a manual audit, especially for larger collections. Staff time is saved in terms of training, conducting the audit, and producing the results. Using data provided by a vendor may lend a sense of credibility to stakeholders, who might be concerned about staff bias or intentions. Depending on the service used, libraries could also receive title lists to address gaps in their collection, and some vendors provide comparative statistics, which may assist in setting goals.
Hiring a vendor does have a few downsides. As with a manual audit, the final data depends on how the staff at the selected company chooses to classify audit-appropriate categories; therefore, libraries must trust the methodology of the vendor. The financial cost of some services may be unfeasible for a number of libraries. Additionally, the vendor might not include specific categories of underrepresentation that are of interest to the library, or it may not analyze all areas of the collection—and thus, supplemental manual audits may still be necessary.
iCurate inClusive is a one-time diversity audit service that’s available for purchase by any public library. An analysis of the adult, teen, or children’s collection costs $1,500 each, or all three can be analyzed for $4,200. (This pricing information is accurate as of May 23, 2022.) The library’s print collection is compared to public library customer averages using data based on publisher-supplied subjects and information from Ingram’s database. Libraries receive numerous charts and graphs with data presented by audience age, collection, and 11 diversity categories. Libraries may choose to purchase a follow-up audit, and comparative statistics would be provided. This service was able to audit 62% of the circulating print collection at ECPL and identified 11% of the collection as including diverse representation according to Ingram’s criteria.
Ingram also provides shopping lists of titles for each collection, indicating library ownership, sales rank, and diversity category information.
A service from Baker & Taylor, collectionHQ (cHQ), has a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) analysis available to current cHQ customers. Libraries without a cHQ subscription may purchase a standalone analysis with pricing based on the population served. It uses Kirkus Reviews and publisher-supplied subject headings to analyze the print and digital collections across 12 categories. Results can be viewed in a variety of ways, including by system or branch, by amount or percentage, or by title or item; they can be drilled down by audience age, collection, and format. Customers of cHQ have a few added perks: They can view DEI categories when running weeding reports, monitor data changes over time, and customize the data by adding or excluding titles from the analysis.
OverDrive customers may request a free diversity audit by contacting their account representative. The library’s OverDrive collection is analyzed across 16 categories, and a chart is provided to show which subject headings apply to each category. Statistics for format and audience age are included. OverDrive also compares a library’s collection to a number of curated collection development lists, indicating how many titles the library owns from each list.
Another free resource is the Collection Analysis Tool created by Diverse BookFinder. It analyzes both fiction and narrative nonfiction titles intended for readers in kindergarten through third grade. Libraries can upload up to 30 lists per week of relevant titles in their collection. The library’s collection is cross-referenced with Diverse BookFinder’s database of more than 4,000 titles featuring BIPOC characters. Graphs are provided that show the library’s holdings in eight racial categories and nine book categories, providing information to the library about how characters are represented in their collection.
Scheduled to go live in fall 2022, Midwest Tape will begin offering a diversity audit service, as of this writing. Any public library in North America will be able to request a diversity audit of its physical media collection, including audiobooks, DVDs, Blu-rays, and music CDs. Midwest Tape will furnish reports comparing the library’s collection to the demographics in the library’s service area. Libraries will also be provided with title lists to aid in supplementing their collection.
Follow-Up and Support
A completed diversity audit provides actionable data about representation within your collection. Reports can be used to guide purchasing decisions, track progress, and keep stakeholders informed about diversification efforts. Diversity audits, similar to library collections, can have gaps. Consider the DEI categories that are missing from your data. Subjects such as socioeconomic status, religious diversity, disability equity, and LGBTQIA+ representation may not be covered in audit reports, but they are important to your community. Remember these invisible gaps when ordering new materials.
Addressing the shortcomings your audit identifies can be daunting. Luckily, curated lists of diverse books are easily accessible. For instance, Ingram has created high-interest book lists for DEI subjects. Organizations such as We Need Diverse Books, Diverse BookFinder, and the Little Free Library’s Read in Color initiative are great places to start for children’s collections. Blogs, reader reviews from members of the community you hope to represent, and other nontraditional sources can also be immensely helpful.
Remember that quantity is only part of the equation. A good collection should include authentic, quality titles that accurately reflect the lived experiences of underrepresented communities. Priority should be given to #OwnVoices titles written by authors who share an identity with their characters.
New titles in your collection can be promoted through displays, social media, book lists, and programming. Diverse items may not fly off the shelves immediately, but their place in the collection is invaluable. Weeding policies should prioritize representation. For instance, Christmas books may circulate more than Passover books in a holiday collection. Weeding this section by usage alone could lead to all of the Jewish holiday books getting discarded. While circulation rates are an important weeding guideline, they are not the only important factor.
Diversity audits provide concrete data about the percentage of diverse items in your library’s collection. The results can guide diversification efforts and help collection developers fill gaps in a thoughtful and equitable way. It will likely take time for circulation rates to increase after new items have been purchased. Past collection development practices may have alienated significant parts of your community, making them feel unrepresented and unwelcome in the library. Trust can be rebuilt through new practices and policies, including outreach efforts. Every new patron who walks through the door should be able to see their identity represented on your library’s shelves and display units. Diversity audits are a great tool for making this experience a reality for everyone in your community.