What does it mean to be “well-read”? That is one of the challenges that Dr. Brenna Clarke Gray posed in her keynote address to the participants of the BCLA Readers’ Advisory Interest Group (RAIG)’s RA in a Day workshop, held on October 20 at Vancouver Public Library. In a day where library staff gathered to expand their horizons and become better book-reader matchmakers, Dr. Gray’s presentation, entitled “Doing the Work: Diversifying the Reader’s Experience, Come Hell or High Water,” was the perfect “call to action” to end the workshop.
Many of us might qualify as “well-read” in the more conventional sense of the term, being steeped in one canon or cultural tradition (most often the Western literary canon). But are we truly “well-read” if we are not “widely read”? Dr. Gray, a professor in the English department at Douglas College and a contributor to the independent book blog Book Riot, offered a challenge to library workers to examine the inclusivity of our own reading habits, and to consider strategies for how to diversify our patrons’ reading as well.
In her talk, Dr. Gray explored how her own experiences with reading have intersected with diversity in a variety of ways, including in her own life as a reader, in her position as a teacher in post-secondary institutions, in her work as a literary scholar, and in her writing as a blogger at Book Riot. It was only after she started tracking her reading that Dr. Gray realized the many gaps in her choices of books. Confronting her own attempts at reading diversely, she discussed how she constantly takes measures to ensure that her privileged position (as a white, middle-class, able-bodied, educated, cisgender woman) is used to amplify diverse voices rather than silence them.
As a teacher and book blogger, Dr. Gray has encountered many readers who express resistance to reading diversely. Some claim that they are “colourblind,” or that they “just want a good story.” In order to help such readers (and us) overcome these objections and diversify their reading lives, Dr. Gray suggested that we allow readers to express the anxieties they have about these reading experiences. In fact, we owe readers the opportunity to have discussions about the fears and vulnerabilities they are confronting. For instance, many readers experience deep resistance to the idea that there is systemic racism in Canada. By emphasizing to these readers the need to understand different experiences of Canadianness, we can more clearly identify the gaps and challenges that we face together.
Additionally, Dr. Gray suggested that we can help some readers reframe their resistance to diversity by discussing with them the way that publishing, media, and society are structured to see whiteness and maleness as default positions. By talking to them about the ways in which this is a structural and institutional issue, rather than an individual one, we can help readers begin to reshape their views, or understand how and why their reading lives might be limited.
But understanding how to handle readers’ potential objections to diversity begins with walking the walk, and diversifying our own reading experiences. Dr. Gray offered three tips for how we can read more consciously and diversely. The first is to participate in reading challenges. This experience can push us outside of our comfort zones, and perhaps experience what some of our readers experience when we push their reading boundaries. For the second tip, she encouraged us to constantly seek out new works in subject areas that interest us.
Finally, she recommended that we track our own reading. When she started this practice, she realized how easy it is for us to overestimate how diversely we’re reading, simply because of our societal defaults towards whiteness and maleness. A simple spreadsheet that provides an easy at-a-glance tally of books we read that have characters or authors who are, for instance, female, people of colour, LGBTQ, or not able-bodied, can help us find our own blind spots. This can help us be mindful of tokenism as well, as it is important not to fall into the trap of including one (often excellent) book or author in recommendations we make simply in order to satisfy a gap in diversity.
Dr. Gray’s keynote offered those of us present at RA in a Day a challenge: to prioritize reading diversely; to encourage and support diverse reading practices by offering choices at our libraries; and to use our positions of privilege and social power to amplify diverse voices, especially in the world of publishing. We pass that challenge along to you as well. By “doing the work” of advocating for diversity in our reading lives, we can work towards resetting societal defaults and encourage a community of readers who are not only well-read, but widely read.
RA in a Day is a yearly event hosted by BCLA RAIG and sponsored by Library Bound. In addition to Dr. Gray’s keynote address, this year’s event included a workshop on literacy levels hosted by Decoda Literacy Solutions, a Book Slam demonstration, and our annual Speed Dating Through the Genres presentations. Recaps of these exciting events as well as additional resources can be found on the BCLA RAIG blog, What Are You Reading.
Chloe is an MLIS candidate at the UBC School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies, and also works at the Vancouver Public Library.
Virginia is the Digital and Information Services Coordinator at the Port Moody Public Library.