BCLA Perspectives

Diverse Books Reading Smackdown challenges VPL staff to read outside the box

Troubled by the homogeneity of the publishing world and inspired by the We Need Diverse Books movement, staff at Vancouver Public Library (VPL) wanted to draw attention to the importance of reading, buying, and promoting diverse books. We decided to start with a staff program highlighting the subject. To make consciousness-raising fun and competitive, we posited a reading challenge that would take many of us out of our reading comfort zones: a year-long Diverse Books Reading Smackdown!

The Victory Belt. SUZY ARBOR

As we developed the criteria and contest guidelines, the scoring became sophisticated, the categories more varied, and the Victory Belt so camp. We launched the competition in January and 16 VPL departments formed teams.

Participants report on one book they read each month throughout 2016, recording the areas of diversity the book addresses. The intention is to reward a willingness to reach for more diversity in our current reading habits, not quickly reading a lot of books.

No list can fully represent the complexities of real life diversity. There were some tough choices in creating the categories, and the list we developed is just a guide for this year’s reading. We mixed more challenging categories that stretch our reading choices with less challenging selections to help people get started. We put a focus on reading local as an opportunity to appreciate the diversity of our local authors.

We came up with 17 ways to score points for your book—all means of rejecting the status quo with your reading choices in 2016.

The 2016 list:  

  • Author of colour
  • Mixed race author
  • First Nations author
  • Female author
  • Graphic novel by a female or author of colour
  • LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer) – protagonist or author
  • Over age of 70 – protagonist or author
  • Physical, developmental/cognitive or sensory disability/differences – protagonist or author
  • Positive portrayal of main character living with mental illness
  • Under 20 but written for the adult market – protagonist or author
  • Book in translation from a non-western country
  • Challenged or banned book
  • Refugee experience
  • Immigrant perspective
  • Vancouver author
  • BC author
  • Canadian author
Reading Matters participants. KRISSY BUBLITZ

Reading Matters participants. KRISSY BUBLITZ

Nobody polices what each participant decides to report for points. The honour system allows people to think through the categories and determine which are relevant and appropriate.

We decided to have the teams’ recording sheets visible to all staff so we can see each other’s selections. By sharing our diverse reading selection, we enhance our readers’ advisory and collection development knowledge. We collectively build a greater awareness of materials that are not often highlighted in today’s publishing world.

At the Kitsilano Branch on Vancouver’s west side, a revolving selection of diverse books is kept on a cart where Children’s Librarian April Ens has noticed that some staff felt guilty selecting a board book or picture book because there isn’t much text. However, selecting and reading children’s books by Julie Flett, Nicola Campbell, or Richard Van Camp lead to “discussions of the history of Books for BC Babies, the amazing art, Flett’s inclusion of Mischif and Cree languages, or Campbell’s gentle discussion of how residential schools disrupted children’s family life. And when a few of us read the same [book], it’s even better, since the conversation grows wider.”

A Diverse Books display at a VPL branch. CHRISTIE MENZO

A display of diverse titles at a VPL branch. CHRISTIE MENZO

Teams and scores can be used for competition, but the best part is using them for recognition and support. Celebrating staff engagement in the challenge is a highlight of the program. At Central Library, we have monthly lunchroom meet-ups to share impressions of our books with colleagues in a casual environment.

So far, the competition each month has been heated. The Programming and Learning Group at Central Library won in January. In both February and March, VPL’s Oakridge Branch had an astounding score and took the belt hands-down. Oakridge then created a Diverse Reads display for the public and wrapped the Victory Belt around the table.

If more VPL staff begin to notice and think more critically about the diversity represented in their own current reading habits, then the program is a success.

What are you reading next?

Additional resources:

Low, J. T. (2016, January 26). Where is the diversity in publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline survey results. The open book. Retrieved from http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results

Anna Ferri, Librarian, Programming and Learning Group, Vancouver Public Library and Dana Putnam, Inspiration Lab Technician, Programming and Learning Group, Vancouver Public Library.