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School Libraries Are Key to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work

How schools show up in this work matters now more than ever.

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Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work in schools and school systems have been a paramount focus for years, garnering attention more recently amidst backlash regarding Critical Race Theory (CRT). As of late July, 28 states have introduced legislation to limit the teaching of racism, bias, ethnic studies, and/or CRT specifically.

While CRT is typically not taught in K-12 schools and many of these efforts are misguided, this movement brings with it attempts to remove any conversations around race, racism, and discrimination (even in historical contexts) from teaching and curriculum. These efforts mean that DEI work, while under a microscope, is increasingly critical to ensuring that all students feel that their identities and histories belong in our school systems, despite attempts to erase much of our nation’s painful history. Schools and districts can craft and implement equity policies and language; however, how they show up matters. Libraries are one very powerful way to do so.

Librarians are in a unique position, as they interact with all students in the school and have a general pulse on the building. They also see students outside the classroom, which opens opportunities to focus on different aspects of literacy — enjoyment, inquiry, and exploration without ties to assessment or performance-based grading measures. Libraries are a complementary partner to classrooms, where students can find out what kind of reader they want to be under the guidance of talented teachers and librarians. This does not mean, however, that libraries are free from structure. In fact, the American Association of School Libraries (AASL) has a structured framework for library instruction based on core tenets of critical thinking, inclusion, discovery, collaboration, and responsibility. Many school systems further adapt this framework for use at the local level.

The library is the cornerstone of the school — reflecting vitality and values — and setting the tone for students, staff, and the community. Librarians are unequivocal leaders in children’s literature, creators of inclusive spaces, and on the frontlines of informational literacy. As such, they are positioned to support meaningful DEI work (directly and indirectly) in their schools but are an often untapped resource for such collaboration.

Children’s literature is an access point for students to learn both about themselves as well as the world. Representation in children’s literature matters — through diverse viewpoints, students have the ability to see themselves mirrored in texts, as well as have a window to other cultures and social groups (Bishop, 1990).

Due to their extensive knowledge of children’s literature and visibility within the school, librarians can intentionally create a space of representation, where all students feel seen. Ensuring that students have access to both mirrors and windows cultivates empathy, curiosity, and an ability to take on multiple perspectives.

By staying up-to-date on new releases and award-winning titles, as well as participating in professional organizations, librarians are able to evaluate the school’s collection as a whole. Many librarians also conduct diversity audits of their own school libraries. These diversity audits not only examine representations of identity markers such as race, gender, social class, and ability within books, but they also take stock of topics to determine alignment with student interests. Through a deep understanding of their collection, librarians are primed to guide a particular student who is interested in space towards biographies of astronauts, or another who asks questions about nature towards collections of poetry about the seasons. For historically marginalized students, librarians can encourage them to explore topics that may not traditionally be included in the mainstream curriculum or mentor texts.

Libraries are deliberately free from assessment, which opens up other possibilities for engagement in literacy. Classrooms may not have the capacity to do the representation and inquiry work that libraries can due to the need to monitor student progress. When paralleling the classroom, however, the two spaces provide multiple avenues for students to be readers. They must operate in partnership, and are dynamic when done so.

The literature that we put in the hands of children matters. Librarians, therefore, can and should be tapped into to weigh in on curriculum choices and mentor texts. While librarians are often consulted informally or sporadically for text recommendations — particularly when augmenting classroom research — they are not always formalized as a part of text selection at the building or district level. Yet, there are few professionals in the school better equipped to ensure that the best quality, inclusive, and representative literature is being utilized in order to reach school DEI goals.

Librarians are also key levers in teaching information literacy, with the capacity to inspire intellectual curiosity and to encourage students to pursue inquiries (related to classroom research, or simply for enjoyment). These qualities are related to DEI work, as students who engage with a variety of perspectives, experiences, and knowledge are more apt to be tolerant of difference. They are also more likely to evaluate sources of information and to seek alternative perspectives for a well-rounded view — essential qualities for critical thought and debate.

Critical thinking skills, bolstered through informational literacy, ask students not to jump to conclusions about groups of people, but instead to understand the complexity of issues such as oppression and discrimination. Picture books based on true events such as Hidden Figures (Shetterly, 2018) help students understand the barriers that women of color have faced in scientific fields, and All the Way to the Top (Pimentel, 2020) reveals the ways in which people with disabilities have been excluded from particular places. Both are examples of how thoughtful text selection, paired with critical thinking, builds empathy while simultaneously raising questions about larger systems of oppression. Many librarians are engaged in these conversations with their students daily.

One librarian that I have worked with conducted a research project with students where they inquired into a different country reflected in their school’s diverse population. As students and family members entered the building, they saw the country flags in the foyer, with a code to scan underneath. Each code opened a video file that a student had created, sharing their research about the country. For families and community members, this not only showcased the research that students had engaged in, but also promoted inclusion, belonging, and a sense of pride for the international community.

With information literacy, students will learn how to determine fact from fiction, to think before making assumptions about the experiences of others, and to consider differing perspectives and experiences. In turn, these practices have the power to build tolerance and work against polarization in our communities.

A school library is one of the only places within our school walls where students can research anything that they desire and pursue answers to their own questions freely (often without ties to a particular product or performance). This flexibility prepares students for curiosity, innovation, and other intellectual pursuits as they develop empathy for the experiences of others.

Librarians are an often untapped resource in our schools. Despite this, they are key to helping students feel that their identities, backgrounds, interests, and questions belong in school spaces. Given their deep knowledge of children’s literature, as well as the populations they serve, librarians are pivotal to successful school DEI initiatives.

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Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Learner, teacher, author, scholar and passionate advocate of education.