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.
Filed under: Uncategorized
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.
SLJ Blog Network
Keeping an Eye On . . . the PEN America Book Ban Lawsuit
Ellen Myrick Publisher Preview: Fall 2023/Winter 2024 (Part Four – TOON Books, Albatros, Arctis, and Barefoot Books)
Spider-Man Fake Red | Review
Not the Mermaid or Monster You Knew, a guest post by author Robin Alvarez
The Classroom Bookshelf is Moving
A Conversation with Laurel Snyder
These are all great comments — I work in a Middle and Upper School library and we hosted Ellen Oh this year from We Need Diverse Books. They are developing an app that would help readers find books, but I love the idea of putting something in our cataloging records. I know that on our small collection scale we can add search terms in our notes so that books come up in keyword searches. Could this be an option.
I suggested to Ellen that there be a WNDB tag when we search for books in Ingram — it seems like partnering with the book jobbers would be ideal!
Speaking from the publisher perspective, it seems like it would make the most sense if #ownvoices were included in a book’s metadata from the outset. I can’t claim to be any sort of metadata expert and I’m not entirely sure what goes from publisher to distributor to library catalog, but I’ve brought it up at Lerner. As a small step, my colleagues and I are adding #ownvoices as a keyword for relevant titles in the Carolrhoda, Millbrook, and Graphic Universe imprints, and those books should show up in searches on our website within a few days.
What Carol says regarding building the identification into a book’s metadata at the outset seems spot-on to me. I wonder if BISAC codes could be a solution here. (Do those pass through to most library records?) If the BISG would add “ownvoices” as a key BISAC category, with subcategories similar to the ones in the Kirkus Collection, it would be easy to search and find ownvoices titles.
A quick solution one could try is, if your catalog supports it, adding a tag to #ownvoices books that you’ve shared for storytimes or readers’ advisory and encouraging patrons to do the same. When our patrons log on to their accounts through our catalog, that can add their own tags to book descriptions and other patrons can then search the catalog using those tags. Not the most elegant solution and it would be very time consuming if someone is trying to label every book in their catalog, but it is a start and puts some of the agency in patrons’ hands.
The NoveList office was so excited to see this blog post highlighting the importance of #OwnVoices. It’s something our librarians have been thinking about and we recently added an appeal term to the NoveList databases and NoveList Select to make searching for these stories easier (https://www.ebscohost.com/novelist-the-latest/blog-article/introducing-own-voices-as-an-appeal-term-in-novelist). We’d love to hear feedback from librarians on how this term works for you.
–Jennifer Lohmann, Director of Sales & Marketing, NoveList
From a book selling perspective, there is a mechanism in our cataloging system where we can put any identifier we chose in a key word searchable field. We use it to identify local authors at the moment, but we could easily add an #ownvoices tag.
The concern I have though is who gets to say what work qualifies as #ownvoices? Does the publisher decide? The library?
A marginalized identity is not always a fixed thing or a readily observable part of an author’s public persona. A person can be temporarily disabled. Some identities have an element of choice. One can belong to an ethnicity and not know anything about it. Consider, for example, a person adopted out of their birth ethnicity and brought up in complete separation from it. Consider, too, the person who does not genetically belong to a particular group but has lived their life immersed in that culture. Does a convert to a faith have equal standing with a cradle believer? Does a person who has left a faith still have #ownvoices status when writing about a former religious affiliation? Who decides? And who verifies that decision?
And in the end would changing the meta-data be the answer, or are we better served when scholars who have devoted decades to the study to a particular marginalized identity periodically provide a round up of #ownvoices titles? Scholars have their biases too. There is no flawless solution here. But again from the book selling perspective, labor cost is a huge chunk of the budget. I want to spend my time handselling titles rather than entering data. When someone comes into the shop asking for own voices titles I tell them about websites devoted to those concerns and we search for titles in those already-curated spaces.
My thesis for my Masters degree in School Library Science at ODU was on the difficulties of obtaining accurate search results with diverse subject headings. This article is a great update of some of the issues I encountered and that many of our patrons encounter on a daily basis. Much of this starts at LOC cataloging and the information that publishers submit to the LOC. Publishers do not always include every relevant subject heading, nor does LOC make the effort to cover every applicable subject heading. Do a search of African American athlete and Black athlete and cross check results with your biography collection. More than likely you will find books that do not have African American and/or Black as subject headings listed on the verso page, even though the athletes are African American/Black. I was very glad to see Carol Hinz’s reply to this above. I’d love to see LOC chime in on this as well.
[…] Library Journal discusses the difficulty in cataloging #ownvoices books here. There’s plenty of food for thought here – I had never even considered adding the tag […]
Follow This Blog
Enter your email address below to receive notifications of new blog posts by email.