The Real Way to Get #ownvoices Books Into the Hands of Readers (But It’s Not Sexy)
The Dilemma: A patron connects to a library’s catalog. The patron wants to find books that would be considered #ownvoices titles. They type into the catalog “#ownvoices black”. No hits. They refine their search to just “#ownvoices”. They get one book, the middle grade novel The Sky at Our Feet by author Nadia Hashimi. Why? Because the term #ownvoices appeared in the plot description. But nowhere in the library catalog, in the metadata, does the term #ownvoices appear. The search is useless.
#ownvoices. What does it mean and why is it important?
In 2015 the science fiction writer Corinne Duyvis coined the hashtag #ownvoices to highlight books where, “the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity.” There was an elegance to the tag that people gravitated to immediately. It also, as it happens, offered an interesting possibility in handling a big problem facing libraries today.
Recently my library has been seriously considering an audit of its collection. How many books are written by people from historically marginalized communities? And how can you even begin to figure that out? My library houses more than 475,000 books. I can’t look at each one and even if I could, how would I keep track? This kind of information is not placed in a book’s catalog record, so you can’t search for them that way. So how can we, as libraries moving forward, find methods of making certain that at least a percentage of our future purchases represent a wide range of voices and perspectives?
Last month I met with some reps from the book distribution company Baker & Taylor. Baker & Taylor and Ingram are the two largest book distributors in America, with Follett providing books for school libraries. In the course of talking we had a very interesting discussion about how libraries can’t put the tag #ownvoices into our cataloging records to aid readers, and why that is. I’m no cataloger, but from what I can understand, much of the metadata that appears in a library’s records comes directly from the publisher or the distributor or the Library of Congress. A cataloger isn’t going to know whether a book is written by someone with lived experience when they’re entering its information. Consider, though, how nice it would be when someone comes up to a reference desk and asks for the latest #ownvoices books and we can simply run a search in the catalog for such titles. At the moment, that doesn’t happen. How can that change?
One solution might be if review journals always included an #ownvoices tag in their reviews. If the reviewers tagged the items, that in turn could (in theory) help the people at companies like Baker & Taylor to tag them in their own records. And what if publishers put that information in their own records when they were selling the books? The alternative might be to list the race/ethnicity/sexual preference of every author on our shelves, and that could get messy fast (the BookRiot article The Problem With #ownvoices LGBTQ Lit touches on one aspect of this).
My thinking is that we could eventually get to the point where a librarian or bookseller could run a report on the books they’re ordering and see a breakdown of #ownvoices title percentages in each cart. In a sense, some of this work is already being done. In conjunction with the Kirkus review journal, Baker & Taylor provides lists in what they call their Kirkus Collection. Here are the tags provided for #ownvoices there:
If this work is already being done then we libraries need to find ways to make it easier for members of the public to search and find these titles. I’m sure that a cataloger would have more insight into this, so please tell me what’s preventing this from happening. I suspect that this piece is a very simplified answer to a complex problem. Tell me what the barriers are. We’ve a lot of smart people out there. I’m interested in hearing their solutions.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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