#OwnVoices: Tagging, Cataloging, and Making Your Library Collection Completely Searchable
On June 6, 2021 the organization We Need Diverse Books released the post, Why We Need Diverse Books Is No Longer Using the Term #OwnVoices. In it they stated the following:
#OwnVoices was created as a hashtag by author Corinne Duyvis in September 2015. It was originally intended as a shorthand book recommendation tool in a Twitter thread, for readers to recommend books by authors who openly shared the diverse identity of their main characters. The hashtag was never intended to be used in a broader capacity, but it has since expanded in its use to become a “catch all” marketing term by the publishing industry. Using #OwnVoices in this capacity raises issues due to the vagueness of the term, which has then been used to place diverse creators in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations. It is important to use the language that authors want to celebrate about themselves and their characters.
Naturally this decision has led to a great many discussions online about the greater ramifications. What makes me curious is the context in which WNDB won’t be using the term. On the post they specify removing it from previously written blog posts. One assumes this would also apply to other forms of social media, like Twitter, Instagram, etc.
But what this doesn’t quite address are the issues that librarians and catalogers are discussing at length right now. As we speak, librarians and organizations like Baker & Taylor or Ingram, which work with librarians, are trying to find a way to make it easy to search for authors with lived experience within library catalogs.
You see, historically librarians did not note the race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, etc. of authors and illustrators when they entered their books into their catalogs. Now we are facing massive changes. In many systems we would like to be able to see precisely what percentage of our collection represents a wide variety of voices. But here’s the catch. Since none of that information was entered at the start (when you first purchased the book for your collection), the best that we can do right now is to start keeping track going forward, alongside equity audits on our collections as a whole.
Now my particular library contains, conservatively, around 470,000 items. It has one (hello!) Collection Development Manger. That would be me. So how can I find a way to figure out how representative my collection is of my community AND, going forward, find a way to make these books easily searchable?
I’ve puzzled over this for a long time and, after observing what other libraries were doing, I came up with something that worked for my particular institution. First and foremost, we have changed our weeding procedures. What is the point in auditing your, say, children’s middle grade fiction section only to weed out your BIPOC authors soon after anyway? So what I do is keep every BIPOC author for 10 years, regardless of how well they circ. If a book hasn’t circed in 11 years, I do get rid of it, but before that happens I do everything in my power to get it checked out. Original, catchy, interesting displays! Newsletters! Blog posts! Remember that white people have a tendency to get a lot more publicity from their publishers when their books come out. That means it is YOUR job to get that book in front of the eyeballs of the patrons. If it’s not circulating well, consider it an ongoing challenging that you have to meet.
The second way I grapple with this problem comes when I purchase anything at all. For every Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ author or illustrator I buy, I have a separate spreadsheet where I record not simply what books I purchase but how many copies as well. For the Latinx creators I note either where they are from or what they identify as. For Indigenous creators I note the tribe and whether or not their books are (here it comes) #OwnVoices. But every single person is researched thoroughly. You do not apply a term to someone that doesn’t identify that way. As a result, it can take a bit of time to get these spreadsheets exactly right. But, as WNDB put it, “It is important to use the language that authors want to celebrate about themselves and their characters.”
Here’s the spreadsheet for Black adult authors (the term includes African-American, African, and Caribbean creators, these additional specifications also included in these spreadsheets):
Why do I do this? Because in my experience the more information you gather, the better. Also, these lists are incredibly useful in terms of diversifying not simply your print collection but other areas as well. Every 15 days I take these lists, go through them, and see if I can buy these books in large print, ebook, eaudiobook, or audiobook. These are often the areas where we fall down the most. It’s easy to track your physical book purchases, since these are often the most visible in your room, and forget about the other titles. Do you have Playaways? What’s the breakdown there? How about picture book and CD kits? What do those look like? Sheets like this once allow you to diversify more than simply one section of your collection. It gives you names and titles that you can use in a variety of different ways. When we opened a new branch in our library system, I made sure that every single one of the titles on this list purchased in the last 2 years was in that new branch.
Now let’s get back to the term #OwnVoices. I can absolutely see the trouble that comes if that term starts getting abused. Heck, imagine a white suburban mom writing a book about a white suburban mom and then labeling her own book as #OwnVoices. She’s not technically wrong, but it’s not why the hashtag was created. The term is not specific.
Consider my collection, though. I have these spreadsheets with all these authors, carefully researched and marked. But I’m only making this information for myself. For all I know, there might be hundreds of other librarians doing the exact same work out there. What if we could use these sheets to create a line in the books’ records that indicate #OwnVoicesBlack, #OwnVoicesDeaf, #OwnVoicesIndigenous, and more? These are more specific than just #OwnVoices, though they still leave something to be desired. But if we used these tags in our cataloging records, a person could potentially type one of these terms into a search engine and pull up a list of books. And in our case, this term would only be used in cases where the author has lived experience.
Part of the reason we initially liked the term #OwnVoices so much was how well it paired with specific Voices. One could even include multiple terms to a single record. So you could have #OwnVoicesBlack, #OwnVoicesIndigenous #OwnVoicesHopi #OwnVoicesLGBTQIA+ #OwnVoicesTrans all on a record if it applied to just one person.
I should note that this is just one of many many solutions to these issues and may not even be the best solution. Right now, as we speak, librarians and catalogers are having these conversations all around the country. Because here’s the dirty secret about equity audits. You can conduct them all day long, but until you make those BIPOC and other voices searchable, how the heck are your patrons supposed to find them? Here’s an example of how another library might tag their materials in a record:
This distinguishes between characters and subject matter vs. creators, which is interesting to me. I’m more interested in the creators at this point, but that could change in the future.
In conclusion, when I heard about the phasing out of #OwnVoices because it’s insufficiently precise, I thought the answer would be a matter of making it precise. Take it out of the hands of the marketers and give it to the catalogers. Because we are all trying to find the best solutions for our own libraries. Nobody has the answer yet. We’re all making mistakes and stumbling around. But if we can find a way to make authors that aren’t just the usual white cis-gender folks easier to find, then we can build them up and get them read above and beyond the year their books were first published.
It’s never enough to merely buy a book for your library. You have to fight to make its presence known. This is just one way.
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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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