#OwnVoices for All Readers: Incorporating EDI Values into Readers’ Advisory Service

Presented by: Becky Spratford

For: LIbrary Journal Professional Development

November 19, 2019



We only have 60 minutes so I am not going to beat around the bush. I am going to tell it like it is and give you plenty of links to look into things more closely for yourselves. But beware, I am not afraid of calling us all out.

You may get uncomfortable with the hard look I am going to make us all give ourselves, but I promise you, I will not be mean or accusatory. I understand that some of the things I am going to say are easier to implement at some libraries over others. Remember I travel the entire country and have seen it all. I know there are administrative hurdles at some places and staff the staff hurdles at others, but here is the thesis of my presentation…..


  • Stop being “concerned” and start doing something
  • Stop thinking you don’t have the skills
  • Admit you are part of the problem
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Examples, links, and advice to help you show your commitment to serving all patrons and representing all voices
  • Curating and promoting diverse collections is non-negotiable

The time for excuses is OVER!!!! Because let me tell you I hear a lot of concerns but then when I propose action, well, people start with a lot of “But” “However” I can’t because”

I have hear it all from No one wants to read the diverse books we buy, to it’s not my fault that most of the books published are by white men, to do you want me to weed every “classic” I go into library systems and include EDI as part of my talk. I use a range of examples, books with POC charcaters, LGBTQ titles, and books with white, straight males. I book talk them all equally. But I also challenge those in the room and don’t let them get away with micro agressions.

Here are some examples: “Indian” charcaters in book talk-- I stopped her and asked for clarification. Single use bathrooms that were gendered.

Those are 2 small examples of how I act. How I show that EDI values infiltrate all of our work. We will talk about many more today, but here is the main point--the thesis statement for this talk. Before we begin, we all have to admit that we are part of the problem. Every single one of us.

And also, you have the skills to build diverse collections and provide RA Service that puts EDI values at the forefront...of everything you do. You just need help getting started.

Today I will show you how to use the skills you have, but with a new mindset-- a mindset where you admit the mistakes we have all made and instead of denying-- ACT

The overall point I am going to make today is that we should all stop worrying about simply buying diverse books, that alone will not help us. I am going to make the argument that instead we need to focus on traditional RA service with a new EDI focus. And that will lead us to not only being able to identify more diverse titles for our collections, but also, have our patrons asking for them too!

Last bullet. Add Period. Full Stop. End of Discussion

Becky’s Journey

  • Annabelle Mortensen admits her bias
    • Link to the details and handouts from this 2017 program
  • My turn to confront my bias and act
  • Check yourself-- regularly
    • White privilege can be blinding

Now let’s talk about how we change that mindset and also how we allow ourselves to admit we are part of the problem but without shaming and blaming. There is no shaming here. We are all at fault, even POC library workers. But none of us can rise above and reach a more inclusive service and environment without starting somewhere. Everyone’s journey will be different, but I hope to share some of mine so that you can see how I, the most basic of library ladies -- as I fit the over 80%of us who are white and women-- got to be an EDI and RA Service expert.

Annabelle story-- multi-copy hot titles display

Linda Addison story. I was all in on EDI, but until I came face to face with a real decision

Have someone to bounce things off of and admit your discomfort-- Robin. I fell weird but she always reminds me that because I know people will listen to me AND I understand that I am also bringing the white privilege,

Non binary and people of color thanking me after I appear at their libraries. Uplifting and frustrating. Will only listen to the white lady from outside but not the POC who works there.

I shouldn’t be surprised at this point, BUT that is why it is so important that we, the majority, white ladies, work to build EDI values into all of our work.

Building a Diverse House

  • A winding road
    • Read
    • Suggest
    • Invite more staff to the RA table
    • Audit all the time
    • Buy diversely
    • Speak Up
    • But Also Listen
  • Tackle problems as they arise
  • My blueprints
    • Draw yours

Speaking of building. The road to truly providing Diverse, inclusive and equitable collections and services is not a straight path. I liken it to more like building a house. Think about it. It isn’t build in order-- pieces are laid on top of one and other and intermingled. Different contractors have to come in what may seem to you, outside of the building profession, as a weird order. Plumbers can only do part of a job and then have to wait for electricians or HVAC to finish before coming back. Frames go up, but walls aren’t until end. Despite a house’s fairly straight lines, it is not a linear process to get there.

That’s what will happen here today. On the screen is the order of how we will build our EDI house-- It is our winding road, but all of these pieces fit together and layer on top of one and other. You can’t just buy diverse collections and expect them to circulate on own., You can’t suggest diversely if you don’t have more titles after the 2 you mention. And you can’t be successful if readers can’t find #ownvoices titles on their own.

Read last 2 bullet points

I will lay out my blueprints, but you can be the architect of your own EDI house. Borrow my plans, but craft your own dream house.

But do not take the “If you build it they will come” approach. That will not work!!! Our building is a process. This process will make you sucessful

Make an EDI Mission Statement

The best place to start is with a mission statement, right? Isn’t that where we begin with everything we do in libraries. Why should your own EDI work be different.

You can see my own personal EDI statement on the screen, but how did I come to doing this? And why do I think everyone should do this at their place of work?

You can use the link to read my full explanation, but it stemmed from the ALA MW obvious racism that my colleague April Hathcock experienced.

What are you doing to stand up for true EDI in our profession and with your own actions?

Don't tell me, "A lot" because that is not true. Even I am not doing as much as I could. For example, while I always include very clear and firm content in my presentations-- both passively and actively-- arguing for diverse collections, I do not let people know that is one of my themes and goals up front. Why do I hide that mission?

I think it is because I figured people expect this from me. But as I mentioned in a previous Call to Action, some of what I say is shocking and uncomfortable to people. What happened to April, someone who has made it clear that she is on the ALA Council to help move the organization forward by discussing our underlying racism [it's why I voted for her and am proud she represents me], I too am going to be clear and take a strong stand with every single one of my clients.

After posting that this past January, I have had over a dozen requests to use this EDI statement as a guide for their own and this post has been viewed almost 1,000 times.

I now require every employer to sign off on this.

Read Diversely

  • Read widely
    • Basic rule of RA service
  • Make a plan to consciously add own voices titles
  • No time? Reading ABOUT books is just as important as reading the books
    • Longer piece on topic
  • Think like a reader, not a library worker
    • Goodreads 5 & 2 star reviews
  • Be a role model

And here is where we begin as I said at the start-- taking the basic skills we already have and simply applying them with a purpose. Take your missions statement as your new purpose and now go forth and do what you already do. In fact, the next few slides refer to my popular and oft cited 10 Rules of Basic RA

Since my very first RA job back in 2000, I was given a reading plan. I was supposed to make sure I read broadly. There was a marginalized voices aspect even back then-- I had to read at least 3 books that were from what we then called a “multi cultural” viewpoint and I had to include at least 1 LGBTQ book [ in my community this was imperative].

My feelings have evolved as you have and will seen here, but the idea that we need to read widely is foundational to RA

You should have a plan to read as broadly as you can. Use your mission statement to guide you, or get help from a Reading challenge. There are many. Book Riot has a popular one, but not the only one. Also with that link you can access past years challenges through their Goodreads group. Or even better, have your library make their own so everyone can grow-- part of your mission statement. PAtrons and staff can join in-- That is an award winning example from

Common complaint

I don’t have time. Too many things to read already. I have to read my library’s bestseller and they are very white. Okay remember the house metaphor. It you only read the white books, of course those will stay the most popular. We have to attack this issue from every angle in order to put our EDI house in order.

But good news, thanks to the Internet-- Reading About Books! This is just as important. I have a longer piece about the things I read every day. I also advocate for EW. Read reviews-- if you don’t get the journals circulated to you and you have NoveList-- they are all there for you. Also we often get caught in our Library world view and forget the reader’s experiences with books.

Think like a reader and read about a book you don’t have time to read by reading reader reviews-- Good and bad on Goodreads. YOu will see their appeal. And here is a HUGE counter point to the I have to read the popular white books-- NO YOU DON’T. YOur library best selling authors will ciruclate without your help. Want to know what happens in them? READ ABOUT them. Then read the #ownvoices titles.

I hear library ppl say all of the time that their white ladies won’t read “diverse” books because they cannot relate. But if that were true, we would see a lot more complaints in the Goodreads reviews of own voices titles to this point. And we don’t, so….

Be the role model for your EDI Mission Statement. Lead by example.

Suggest Diversely

  • Newsflash: You can suggest books you haven’t read
    • Use the words of others
    • It’s a resource, and using resources is what we do
  • Institute an own voices requirement
  • Remember to audit all the ways we “suggest”
    • Discoverability issues
  • When suggesting- focus on appeal NOT diversity

More important that reading diversely is suggesting diversely.

Suggest books you haven’t read. This is not nearly as shocking as library people tend to act like it is. You will not go to library jail. In fact, news flash-- your patrons don’t ACTUALLY care if you have read the book or not. They just want to know that someone did and that said reader thought the book was worth their time. So use the words of others-- speed read the appeal.

Make sure you are suggesting books that reflect a multitude of experiences. Institute an own voices requirement on your lists, displays, catalog add keywords

If you can’t hold yourself to a high standard and consciously and transparently check your work, how can you expect others to do better.

I know there was a session on doing a diversity audit. This is important, but equally as important is requiring every list you publish to be 50% men and women. 33% own voices.

Book Riot!

Stop worrying about the little old ladies not liking it and only book talk the appeal, not the #Own voices issue. When you book talk or write an annotation for a “white” hetero normative abled person book do you point out any of that. NO. But when you book talk a title featuring a hispanic character or gay characters for example why do people go out of their way to point that out. First of all that is a HUGE problem because it assumes those books are the standard. It’s a microagression that well meaning folks don’t realize.

But also, it helps no one because it is not the appeal of the book. The appeal has to do with the way in which the author tells the story. Again our RA basics-- pacing, storyline, characters, language, tone mood, frame setting, etc…...

TItles mentioned:


Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Suggest diverse books:

Severance by Ling Ma

Patsy by Nicole Dennis Benn

Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

Collect Diversely

  • The obvious:
    • Buy books by #ownvoices authors
  • But less obvious, add books from:
    • Small presses
    • Self publishing
    • Genre titles from both
  • Identify resources:
    • Amazon bestseller lists
      • Find titles of interest and back track for reviews
    • Writers’ Associations
      • The Seer’s Table
    • Patrons/Readers/Fans
  • This is an ongoing struggle and more help is needed.

Author Mentioned-- Rebecca Roanhorse

The Readalike Problem

Before we move on to the next step, there is a side note here. A huge problem and it is in how we suggest readalikes. I have multiple posts on this issue and they are linked above. And I didn’t need a whole slide for this but this GIF completely explains the problem

But the basic problem is that we tend to only suggest diverse authors for other diverse authors OR we think we are elevating own voices authors by giving them a “White” readalike. Both of these are HUGE problems that cause a chain reaction that is really hurting those of us who are arguing for EDI in our RA service. If we are creating faulty readalike lists that are- no matter how well meaningly created-- hindering us with their microaggression and privilege, we will never move forward. We need to build readalike lists that are based on appel not race or sexual orientation or whatever that isn’t appeal.

Also a side problem I noticed when looking for David Baldacci Readalikes is that when we have a less well regarded genre like thriller and we have non-white authors for that genre we tend to “elevate” them and give them a “literary thriller” status which is also racist because readers of traditional thrillers don;’t want literary thrillers and can’t discover these books. Remember I said discoverability is key. This is an impediment to discoverabilty.

So read my links above which look at the issue a lot more deeply. And make sure you are suggesting books with your EDI mission statement in mind. Until we are better at doing truly inclusive Readliakes we will keep creating more problems.

Use your EDI mission statement to guide your Readalikes.

Include More Staff Input

  • More voices = more organic diversity
  • Our support staff is more diverse
  • Working together is our most valuable resource
  • Everyone on staff uses the library, encourage them to participate in RA
    • A step-by-step guide
    • Make it easier to participate in staff rec shelves

More voices= more diversity

Yet we make these barriers to paraprofessionals doing professional work.

Reminders: Speak Out- With Your Actions

  • Make incorporating #Own Voices titles part of your everyday work
  • Booktalk diverse books
  • Suggest diverse books
  • Improve Discovery!
    • Lists, displays, stock your shelves
    • The OPAC is your ally
  • Lead by example
  • Inspire and teach others to improve

Reminders as we near the end…..

But Also Don’t Stop Listening

  • RA is 60% listening
  • Shut up and make room for the marginalized voices
    • Listen first, post second
  • Admit when you have misstepped
    • “Multicultural”
    • “Alternative Lifestyles”
    • Not interfiling POC and LGBTQ authors
  • Work to do better
    • Becky learns about fonts
  • Listening and learning not reacting and feeling attacked

Final bullet--

I mentioned the April post and it leading to EDI statement

Here is another example.

Last link Trans book-- I met a trans author and talked to her about her work and life. Listened and read her book and the work of others she recommended.

But if I wasn’t listening-- and if I didn’t see VIctor LaValle listening and reacting exactly like this Gif I never would have met her.

Sonali Dev- Romance author

Keep On Keeping On

  • It’s a marathon
  • Worry about yourself first
  • Set the example
  • Don’t give up or think your work here is done
    • Hint...it is not
  • React Appropriately
    • What does #OwnVoice mean?
  • Read, Suggest, Promote, Collect with an EDI lens
    • Repeat and Repeat and Repeat and Repeat……..

It’s a marathon not a sprint. It took us centuries to get to where we are. Don’t expect change immediately but also don’t settle for less.

Our collections at EVERY LIBRARY are way out of proportion. The amount of materials written by and from the white male perspective greatly out number everything else. We should be striving to bring our collections into proportion with the racial and gender mix of our country. Our collections should represent us as a people. And as we shift and change, so too should our collections.

Why are people upset with a completely rational and well founded argument? Okay I know it is because white people feel threatened by the fact that POC are actively speaking up about injustice, injustice that they have known and fought their whole life, but often without bringing it up in the wider, public discourse. An injustice that white people haven't even noticed because we just made everything white as the standard and never considered how that affects those who don't fit our standard.

Now, imagine that you, as a white person [because let's face it, most you you are] had only ever been in libraries where the vast majority of scholarship and leisure reading was built on a non-white perspective. That is the issue every person who is not white, heteronormative, or abled deals with every single time the are in our libraries or use them for research. You would hate it. You would feel unwelcome. You would feel like the world was against you.

It is a deeper issue than any of us can imagine. Our entire amassed and cataloged knowledge as humanity is built off of one single viewpoint. And instead of trying to recalibrate this, we are getting upset and attacking the messenger.

As a profession we need to act. You should be angry that this imbalance has persisted for so long. You should use your energy to work to make our collections better. Start at home. Because while you may be located in one place, your patrons are citizens of this country and our world and they need to see its wonderful breadth reflected in our collections

Everyone needs to read books about everyone. We need to start recalibrating our collections. Stop being mad that people are calling attention to the problem and start being part of the solution. Period. End of Discussion.

So you are starting that process by having taken this class. A class that ends today, but don’t stop. COmpleting this class is the beginning of your journey. Read bullets after link.

Read, Suggest, Promote, Buy, Repeat and Repeat and Repeat,


Now or Later

  • Slides and more on RA for All
  • Email
    • bspratford@hotmail.com
  • Twitter: @RAforAll
#OwnVoices For All Readers LJ Fall 2019 - Google Slides