I have gone to libraries my whole life. I’ve worked in them, shelving books and alphabetizing magazines, and I have read in them since I was young enough to pick up a picture book. I have always found books to be a way to feel compassion for people that are different than me. I’m only 18, and I’ve lived across the street from Morningside Elementary School (MES) since I was born. That was the library where I found my love for reading. However, when an MES parent recently told me they did not believe minority students were being represented in their library, I created a project that brought biographies and fictional books with people of color as main characters to the library.
I worked with Morningside librarian Mark Miller, who was also my Girl Scout Gold Award Advisor, on a project titled “Diversify Libraries.” The project’s goal was to increase the representation of Black, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, and disabled students in Morningside to counter stereotypes and broaden world views for all students. To provide this representation, I explicitly researched books that catered to these minorities.
I found my personal interest in race relations after seeing the self-segregation at my high school. I noticed that while my school is incredibly diverse, people of different races do not sit together at lunch and are not in many of the same clubs and sports. More recently, I learned that for Black History Month, MES did not have enough books featuring African-American leaders for the fifth graders to complete a project. I read the NPR article “As Demographics Shift, Kids’ Books Stay Stubbornly White” and read about how there are many more white characters in children’s books than Asian or African-American characters. It did not surprise me that Morningside, a very white school, did not have many children’s books featuring minorities as main characters, and I knew that I wanted to help change that. I hoped that my project would result in discussions about race relations kids could have in class or with parents or friends. Most importantly, my project would enable all students to see the world through the eyes of those who are different than them.
According to a study from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, (NPR 2017) people of color accounted for 22 percent of children’s books in 2016. This was deeply disturbing to me because I read books all the time when I was in elementary school. It made me wonder whether race relations would be better at my school (Henry W. Grady High School located in Midtown Atlanta) if we talked about race relations through books when I was at Morningside. I want others to be aware of the racial prejudices in the world, and the sooner that conversation starts, the better.
While researching, I found that while the number of books featuring minority characters has increased throughout the decades, there is still not adequate representation of the demographic in Atlanta: 54% Black and 5.2% Hispanic.
As soon as I told Mark Miller about the project, he asked me to include biographies of great minority leaders in history as the school’s current set was largely outdated and was not popular among the students. I took this into account when identifying new library books. I then created a website (diversifylibraries.weebly.com), which I shared with community members and friends who had gone to Morningside with me. This website featured a description of my project and the list of books they could purchase for the library. In addition, I made a flyer that contained a description of my project and placed them in the Morningside library so parent readers or simply curious individuals could read about my project before selecting which book to check out.
This project was easy to accomplish, and I encourage all librarians to consider implementing something like this at their school. By creating a website like mine it is simple to display selected books along with an overview of each one and a price, and it is possible to provide a link to a PayPal or other online banking site where community members could purchase whichever one they like. The money raised on PayPal was sent to the school, which could purchase the books through the librarian’s school account. PayPal was easy for me to use as they have a specific tool for nonprofits.
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