Race and Collection Management

So here’s the situation.

A library I work at is in the middle of a much-needed weeding and reorganization project.  We had thousands of books that hadn’t been checked out in five years or more, and the collection is very fragmented – many genres are pulled out, even when they only have one or two shelves worth of books.  I think we can increase our circulation and make a more relevant, attractive collection with some reorganization.

So this post is a theoretical exercise, written especially for you, dear reader.  I want your advice!  I’m not in charge of the decision about how to reorganize this collection, but I’d like to make a good recommendation.  So please read more about our library, its community,  and the neighborhood. Then let me know what you would do.  Be warned, I’m going to talk about race in this post.  Race will be a factor in your decision.  It is one of the reasons I need your help; one of the reasons why I find this decision especially difficult.

The neighborhood this branch serves is, historically and currently, predominantly African-American, although racial diversity is increasing.  It is a neighborhood with a strong tradition of black activism.  The neighborhood has an increasing number of young families, of all races, and including a significant minority where one or both parents are immigrants.  There is also a significant minority of transient young people (18-25 or so), who squat in the neighborhood’s abandoned houses.  They often have face tattoos, but that is neither here nor there.  Finally, hipsters are creeping in. There is some gentrification occurring, but it is in very early stages.  Right now I find the neighborhood very exciting.  There are all kinds of people, from a great diversity of backgrounds and situations, with all kinds of  abilities and interests.  There is a strong feeling of community, and the people that use the library are grateful for its presence if not ardent supporters.  Without a doubt, black people are the heart and core of our library’s user-base.

I should also mention that there are only two black library workers, neither of which is full-time.  It’s a pretty small staff though, only two full time workers (both white), and then seven part time workers (not all white).  I am white, and one of those seven part time workers.

Lucille Baldwin Brown, first black public county librarian in Tallahassee, Florida

Lucille Baldwin Brown, first black public county librarian in Tallahassee, Florida

The library has a large African-American collection, which includes sub-collections of reference, oversize, non-fiction, biography, fiction, sci-fi, western, mystery, and short stories (those collections are all mirrored in the organization of the rest of the library, although the organization of the rest of the library will certainly change during this project).  In my mind, there are two significant purposes for having these separate African American collections. The first is practical: people who are interested in these books can find them all in one place.  The second is more symbolic: It says that the library celebrates African-American-ness.

The second, symbolic purpose, is especially important right now. It says that even though you may only see white people behind the desk, the library has a strong focus on the African-American community.  More importantly, it is a symbol that reinforces the importance of African American culture in the neighborhood, which is facing gentrification and more pertinently, whitening.  The danger in the change that is coming is not just that the poorer residents will be driven out, but that black residents will be driven out.  In fact, gentrification is probably the wrong term to use here. Gentrification and whitening are not the same thing; to say they are implies that black middle and upper classes don’t exist. What I’m specifically thinking about here is the trend in the Bay Area – out-migration, or black exodus, whatever you want to call it (For more about this, you could read about the decline of the black population in San Francisco here, here, and here).

So that is the context. Here is where the problem lies.

It is my observation from working at our single-point service desk (I do both reference and circulation duties) that the only part of the African American collection that circulates in any great number is the urban fiction, which is not a separate collection.  Within African American fiction, Teri Woods is just down the shelf from Alice Walker.  I worry that the people who come in to read Alice Walker can’t find her, and the people that come in for Teri Woods are missing the titles they could find serendipitously, if all the urban fiction was grouped together.  Also, not all urban fiction is black fiction.

I am not sure that the rest of the collections, the African American Sci-Fi, the Afro-American non-fiction, etc., are being used enough to justify having them separated out. The first of our five laws of library science, written by S.R. Ranganathan in 1931, is “books are for use.”  The fourth law is “Save the time of the reader.”  Placing books where people can easily find and use them, is a very important part of collection management.  As a former grocer, I know that where you place your product is a driver of sales. That’s why they put the candy bars up front and the milk in the back.  That’s why in the summer you’ll find shortcake next to the strawberries and fresh mozzarella next to the tomatoes.  If you want people to check out books, you have to put them where people will find them, even when they don’t already know they want to read them.  Serendipity is a powerful force in a public library.

However, the symbolic purpose of our African-American collection is not to be dismissed.

Libraries serve communities, as much as they serve individuals.  Our community is in a time of change. The library should support current residents (while keeping the future in mind).

So what would you do?

What aspects of circulation reports would you look at, in thinking about how you might reorganize your collections?

What percentage of use would justify having a genre pulled out?

Is the symbolic value of our African American collection important enough to override what the circulation reports might reveal?

Does the library have any business in trying to help preserve a community’s characteristics?

If you did decide to make changes, what changes would you make, and would you discuss them with patrons?

What have I not included, in my consideration and assessment of the situation?

Thanks in advance for your insight.


9 responses

  1. I would suggest integrating the African-American collection but still identifying them by sticker (such as http://www.demco.com/goto?BLS169693&ALL0000&es=20130724133558595180) to keep the visual reminder of the branch’s historical focus–this is what we do at our Mason Square branch, which traditionally has served a demographic like the one you describe in your post. As for Urban Fiction, we keep ours separate as a genre because of the convenience principle–people expect there to be an urban fiction section, so we have one. There are sticky questions about what should go in that section.

  2. Shelving! It is so fascinating! I think about this from a queer perspective, where in academic librarians you get very odd separations sometimes, my favorite example is a biography of Christine Jorgensen published when transgender identity was just becoming public that is separated by many LOC letters from a volume that historicizes it. I think you’re very right that putting like things together is helpful for users, and that what counts a thing as ‘like’ another very much depends on the context in which you’re making those decisions. No answers here, just a nod that yes, this is challenging!

  3. I enjoyed your post. I too have struggled with similar issues in the libraries where I work. I see the value of using genre stickers, but a special section is a greater statement/convenience. It is possible to do both. For example interfile the AA romance books in the romance section or general fiction using the genre label, but establish an AA history section with books on civil rights and AA history.

  4. Interesting and poignant essay (and challenge). The good news is that you already have a rich and diverse AA collection – so I would worry less about symbolic value (you collection strategy supports your mission and location) and focus on discoverability and engagement. From my perspective (avid reader, publisher, “horizontal organizer”) this poses several issues. Cataloging for findibility vs merchandizing for awareness: I think your grocery analagy is spot on. Do it! Physical shelving/stickers as discovery tool? Why not building a focused web site or discussion group to increase awareness of collection that can be located by more traditional means. Perhaps consciously hiring AA “docents” to help guide patrons possibly intimidated by current space and staff.

    I know one of my ongoing dilemmas in my personal quest for organization is – the more granularly I sort, the more difficult it is to find something later…because I have to remember the logic of the filing system vs just remembering its in this stack or that. Over isolating a community or collection is typically not a positive experience – especially if the goal is to broaden interaction and cross-fertilization.

  5. I think it would be important to have a conversation with the community. Collection development, relevance and maintenance is not just a ‘professional librarian’ decision – but should also include communities of interest.

    We recently wrote a chapter (chapter 7) in a book on this which you may find of interest – http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409442066

  6. I struggle with similar questions in my library, which also serves a predominantly African-American neighborhood and carries a large amount of materials that celebrate African-American history. We do have a separate section for urban fiction that (over time) has grown into a hybrid of Christian fiction and some general fiction by black authors. I also worry about the lack of consistency for users (ex. Why is the “Twelve Tribes of Hattie” in the Urban Fiction/African-American section but “The Color Purple” is not). We also have dedicated spindles for “African-American Romance” and “African-American Fiction” mass-market paperbacks.

    I’ve asked myself some of the same questions you’re asking, and I’m still not sure what the answer is. General fiction circulates less at our library as people tend to head straight for Urban Fiction, decreasing their chance of coming across something serendipitously. I’m not sure if this would be any different if we put all the fiction back together again. I do wonder, however, how books have been selected in the past and how they ended up in the sections they did because (as you said) not all urban fiction is black fiction.

    I think that tentative library users find comfort in the Urban Fiction section because it is smaller, more manageable, and the books deal with similar themes and character archetypes. It is safe because they know they’ll probably like anything they pull off the shelf.

    Please update us on any changes you make, I’d be curious to see the impact of your efforts!

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