Some call it multicultural, some call it Africana, some call it a “special collection.” Whatever it’s called, the procurement of materials that reflect African-American culture is part of a librarian’s job, and we wanted to hear how it’s done across circulating public, school, and academic libraries. PW spoke with some librarians and vendors to hear their experiences of collecting materials for and by African-Americans, and what tips and sources they recommend.
According to the American Library Association, there are an estimated 121,169 libraries of all kinds in the U.S. today, with every library system choosing its collection differently. Broadly speaking, some systems are centralized and work with a collection development (or selection) committee to designate the selections for that system; others are decentralized, and each branch does its own collection development.
Traditionally, libraries with African-American collections build their collections based on industry reviews, publisher catalogues, and patron requests. For additional selection tools, title recommendations, and to place actual orders, they turn to the library services departments of vendors such as Brodart, Baker & Taylor, and Ingram. These vendors consult with their client libraries to create a profile of collection interests, which may then be used for one-time or ongoing orders. In the case of special collections—or simply where there is an activist librarian in the house—more creative, nontraditional collection methods are employed; these may involve independent vendors or tools that expand knowledge of available books.
PW interviewed the following professionals:
Steven Bell, Temple University associate university librarian for research and instructional services; president, Association of College & Research Libraries
Fern Hallman, collection development librarian with Brodart
Sandra Hughes-Hassell, professor, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Andrew P. Jackson (Sekou Molefi Baako), executive director, the Queens Public Library’s Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center; adjunct lecturer, Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies
Melissa Jacobs-Israel, coordinator, Office of Library Services, New York City School Library System, New York City Department of Education
James Boyd Jones, collection management librarian for the adult collection at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Systems and adult selector for Brodart
Lauren Lee, senior manager for collection development at Brodart
Cara Ann List, chair of the Collection Development Librarians of Academic Libraries interest group in the ALA’s Collection Management Section and art and architecture librarian at the Univ. of Oregon.
Peggy Murphy, collection services manager at the Los Angeles Public Library
Sandra Payne, retired coordinator of YA services at the New York Public Library
Catherine Royalty, acquisitions senior librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library
Joyce Skokut, director, collection development, at Ingram Library Services
Martin Warzala, director of B&T’s collection management group
Public Libraries: Listening to the Community
Peggy Murphy: LAPL has a central library and 72 branches. Each branch has its own budget and does its own collection development. Some have an African-American community nearby and may collect more heavily. In 2001, I was the branch manager in the John Muir branch, located in an African-American community. When we started getting requests for more African-American books, I started an African-American collection there. I was James Fugate’s first customer at Eso Won bookstore, where I spent my direct money! About five years later, when I arrived at the Central division, so many branches were interested in African-American books that we created special [pre-pub] sheets [from information provided by publishers and vendors].
Many people feel differently about where African-American works should be classified: i.e., do we classify it as romance or urban fiction? We went back and forth about that at first. So now I just classify everything as African-American, and the branches are pretty cool with that. We try to go by what it says in the back of the book, or what the publisher says. Some of the categories the branches have used are urban fiction; African-American nonfiction, African-American biography, African-American history. Whatever name the branch chooses to call it, we’re cool with that.
Catherine Royalty: I get e-mails from publishers and vendors like Brodart and B&T. [From the vendors,] I get a nice pre-pub selection list that I use to make up a special pre-pub sheet. There are only two ways we order books: either the Central Library orders from the system for the branches (from the selection list), or branches can order from bookstores at their discretion, although not from online. We have a list of bookstores that we’ve done business with, so the branches will go to the store with purchase orders.
As for e-books, there hasn’t been a lot of demand. We do buy the African-American popular authors who come out with e-book versions. But e-books is its own animal, and it’s not possible to get every title as an e-book. I buy from OverDrive [the library digital distributor] and Access 360. OverDrive has quite a few African-American titles, but since they’re not popular fiction, they’re not the type of e-books we’d buy for the collection, unless the reference departments want them. Each reference department is given a small annual e-book budget.
James Boyd Jones: Atlanta has interesting communities. We have 32 branches and a bookmobile. Some branches request selections “as racy as you can get without getting us into trouble.” But we provide a good mixture, even for the ones who say “We do not want urban fiction in our branch.” We only have one branch—the Auburn Avenue branch—that is all African-American; all the other branches have an African-American section. We have a separate African-American collection because the patrons rebelled; they didn’t want to have to weed through everything to find what they wanted.
A few years ago we changed from a decentralized system, where each branch makes its own selection, to a centralized one. Previously, we allowed each branch to handle its own selection and its own budget, and we noticed that at the end of the year there would be money left on the table. Because sometimes they’d have no staff, or no time, or they just didn’t want to. So we decided that the money would be better spent, and we’d have a more balanced collection, this way. We keep up with the procurement process and expenditures, and make the best decisions. So far, it’s working. We can spend money from December to August. I come up with a spending plan and keep my eyes on the money. I make the selections and get input from the branches. We look at PW, LJ, Kirkus, blackbookreviews.net, Essence.
Brodart is the only vendor we have right now. Sometimes our patrons are more up on things than we are, so we have a secondary vendor, Enrichment Book Store Art Center, who provides books that are out-of-print or no longer in stock. Our county government requires that we have at least one minority vendor. Between Brodart and our secondary vendor, we are pretty well covered. We take very seriously what our patrons have to say. They are taxpayers and keep our doors open.
Sandra Payne: My last role at the New York Public Library was coordinator of YA services, which was collection development for teens. We were always concerned that books represent the population. We developed book lists; invited authors and illustrators who looked like America; let librarians know who the authors were; sat on awards committees; were active in the social literary world, present at social events. So we were not in some office; we were really about making sure those books were in the hands of the public to interpret for themselves.
Andrew P. Jackson: Langston Hughes is the circulating black heritage branch of the Queens Public Library. It’s an alternative to New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center, because they are a research/reference system; we are the largest circulating black heritage library. We have over 45,000 volumes of print and nonprint items.
We are a special collection, and special collections do not always use traditional methods of collecting books. For example, other libraries weed out their collections if items haven’t circulated for six months or a year. Our collection is not weeded unless the book is torn up, and then we replace it and maybe even keep that copy. We also have a separate collection development policy.
I teach graduate school library science. Some librarians are geared to what they learned in school, but if they are not creative enough they won’t be resourceful. I’m an activist librarian. I don’t think like a traditional librarian. I use the Malcolm X approach: [collect] by any means necessary.
If you are a traditional library, you would go through the usual channels like Brodart, B&T, Ingram. If you are a specialized library, it would be more advantageous to use an independent vendor. For videos and film we use California Newsreel; for books, we use Africa World/Red Sea Press, Third World Press, Sister’s Bookstore in Harlem. We used Liberation Bookstore before it closed. Sometimes we are allowed to go to Barnes & Noble, because it’s a vendor the Queens Library system uses. We meet vendors at library conferences. When I’m in any city I’ll browse bookstores. Also, we have a whole literary program where authors do readings of their books, and we will buy books from them. I can use any online vendor to buy self-published books. We have small publishers, like Just Us Books and Seaburn Publishing Group, to introduce us to books about the black experience. Going to local, state, and national library conferences, you get introduced to those types of publishers. Even for traditional libraries, it’s just as important for little white kids in Long Island to learn about the black experience.
School Libraries: The Right Tools
Melissa Jacobs-Israel: We at the central office do not make choices; each school does its own selections. Each population is unique, and they want to see themselves in a book. We provide resources for collection development, from program planning tools and policies to ourselves as a professional staff. So we teach librarians to build a collection based on the population and the needs of the library and the school. As professional librarians, we look at reviews from Horn Book, SLJ, PW, Booklist, Book Links, Teacher Librarian. Also award winners: ALA, NBA, the Caldecott, Newbery, Coretta Scott King—all of those empower librarians. We push librarians to read professional reviews in selecting a title. We also have a program with the public libraries. In New York State we developed a collection development system with Bowker’s Books in Print, and customized it for New York City as a list building tool. The system allows you to select up to three vendors, who must present a request for proposals. The last three years we’ve worked with Follett, B&T, and Permabound.
Sandra Hughes-Hassell: Most school librarians use standard selection tools: PW, Booklist, SLJ, Voice of Youth Advocates magazine (which rates books according to the quality of the writing and appeal to teens). They also use select lists, like YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the award winners (Caldecott, Newbery, Printz). What we found out over the years, including from graduate students doing content analysis, is that there are not enough books being reviewed.
In the past, you had to go to specialized selection sources like Multicultural Review, which I believe is out-of-print. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center keeps statistics about literature for people of color by major publishing houses.
With the emphasis on urban lit, it’s easy to find that because publishers are pushing them out to be reviewed. But it’s almost impossible to find nonurban characters. From my perspective, it’s easier for librarians to find books set in urban communities, which reinforces the stereotype that they live in ghettos and are involved in crime and drugs. There are great voices who write about urban youth, like Walter Dean Myers and Sharon Flake. But I wonder if any want to write about other groups? I think it’s absolutely important that their voices are heard. For readers living in rural areas, the race and the issues (such as identity development) are the same, but the setting is not, and the reader cannot identify with that. We did interviews with African-American male teens. They each read two books for us, kept a journal, then had a focus group. One said he liked the book, but he couldn’t relate because his friends didn’t belong to gangs. When I worked in a nonprofit, I saw African-American kids who were bright and motivated—but at night I didn’t see them on the news.
We’ve created a lot of resources for librarians on the issues of African-American literature and why it’s important for teens to see themselves in literature in order to become more fluent readers and better thinkers. Librarians should be making specific efforts to include the populations they serve and go outside the standard tools if necessary. In most systems, it’s left up to the individual librarian, but they’re often told they can select only from certain vendors, which can be limiting. However, I always found that if I said to the vendor, “I’d really like to have this book,” even if it wasn’t in stock they’d try to get it. I was very proactive. In some school systems, you can order directly from the publisher or small presses, or even a local bookstore. If you have the demographic data showing who your kids are, that the books are not available from the vendor, and you can show the mismatch, perhaps you can get the vendor changed.
Or you can write grants. There are different nonprofits that might provide grants, then that money would not have the same restrictions as the school system’s money. When I worked for a nonprofit, I worked with the school librarian to write the grant from First Book to provide books—we wanted each child in a particular school to have a book with an African-American character. Donorschoose.org is an organization with a Web site where teachers can list what they need for instruction and [people can] see what the school in their area needs—it’s a form of crowdfunding. A book fair is also an alternative. Schools have book fairs, publishers bring in books, and librarians can use the money raised to buy more books.
The latest statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center: there are 74.2 million children under 18. Of those, 46% are children of color. CCBC received 3,400 books published in 2011. Of those, only 8.8% were by or about people of color. There’s something wrong here.
Right now, so many school libraries are still sorting out the print thing, and digital is in flux. Some school districts provide devices, some require kids to have them personally. School librarians need to be involved in that conversation, too: it would result in the devices being compatible with the kind of recreational reading that the [library supplies].
Academic Libraries: Reinventing Models
Steven Bell: There are 3,500 institutions of higher education in the U.S., from two-year colleges to huge universities. Building a collection depends on the institution. You can still find institutions where the library gives the money to the faculty, and the faculty does the collecting. More common is where the library staff includes people with different specialties, like a master’s or advanced degrees in African-American studies [to do the collecting]. No matter what the institution is, or how big or small, when it comes to collection building we are seeing all kinds of new models evolving and different experimentation taking place.
We typically work with some middleman—often called “book jobbers”—companies like B&T’s YBP [Library Services] or Ingram’s Coutts. We use an automated selection system where you log on and find what you like. There are two basic ways: the “approval plan,” where you set up profiles and the company identifies as appropriately as possible books for your subject, because most libraries do not have enough staff—they may be doing instruction, reference, and outreach activity in addition to their other tasks. Another is “firm order”: the library hand-selects books for the collection based on [staff’s] knowledge of the faculty, curriculum, and trends, and decides what price to pay and what format to order.
A newer trend is for demand-driven or patron-driven acquisitions: instead of “just in case” ordering, community members influence the ordering. So you work with the vendor and you load into your catalogue thousands of records linking to the books. After three to five people click on the book, you order it; you are not figuring out in advance what they want. Research has found that patron-selected books get the most use. So we want to make sure we get bang for our buck. But the priority is building a collection that reflects the breadth and depth of the curriculum and supports scholarly research or student learning. In a research library it might even reflect how we see the future, thinking ahead and building collections for future generations.
Cara Ann List: We are part of several consortia, including the Orbis Cascade Alliance, which contains 37 academic libraries. Within this alliance, there are different collection specialties where there are African-American studies programs. In universities, we call these “area studies” programs, where the focus is on a particular group of people—such as women’s studies. Each area studies program has a subject librarian, or “subject specialist.”
We buy materials that we think will be of general interest in that area. We have a broad understanding among university librarians that we collect for diversity. We are moving from a “just in case” strategy (buy everything) to a “just in time” strategy (buy what people want). It’s also because of space and budget concerns. So there’s patron-driven acquisitions.
[For collecting] we use a vendor that supplies us with a database. We have an approval plan with them. I get huge amounts of materials from publishers; I read Web sites, monitor faculty interest, student requests. I’d like to believe we have a full resource list. Because we are part of this consortium, we try not to duplicate books within the system. Some topics may be in demand, but lots of duplication is a waste. This is how a big academic library does it; smaller academic libraries without “collection specialists” may have “bibliographers” (an old-school term) where they focus on certain areas. I get a great deal of my knowledge of what to collect from students in the classroom and at the reference desk.
Vendors: Speaking the Librarian’s Language
Lauren Lee: We have nine specialist librarians whose job it is to consult with each of our clients. One works with African-American, another with graphic novels, etc. This collection development is a Brodart value-added service.
We have our own set of general subject categories, i.e., mystery, sci-fi, business, Africa/Middle East, Caribbean, etc. Within that, we have an African-American subject heading—when the subject matter or the author is African-American. Then the clients have us provide lists: they give us the parameters and we create the profiles. We also have a free monthly list of 15–20 titles, which is called UrbanFix. So, for example, the Free Library of Philadelphia has one list of authors on standing orders, so they tell us to look every month for books by those particular authors. Then they have a second profile where they choose by publisher, to make sure they know about any new releases. And they also use our Urban Fix list in case something new comes up in between. This is an example of a very customized list. This is probably because they are centralized, doing selection for 54 branches.
Fern Hallman: Brodart feeds me a giant list of book titles that are coming out. I sift through the database every week and pick out what I think [ public libraries will] want, weeding out expensive or very specific titles. Of 1,500, 250 are the main ones. Then we divide them into topics that most libraries care about, filtered by publisher or subject, or the clients make up their own criteria. They give us a lot of detail. A lot of libraries require a book to be reviewed in PW, LJ, or Kirkus before they buy it. We give them a monthly catalogue. Formerly it was paper, now it’s digital.
We do general African-American nonfiction (more mainstream, historical, biographies) and fiction. Urban fiction a lot of people consider to be gritty, some trashy, but it’s super popular. Our libraries either love it or stay very far away from it. It’s popular in big cities, but in other more conservative areas they would die—“Libraries buy this?” (But there are libraries where patrons complain about Harry Potter books.) Then, there are those libraries that are very sincere about serving all people. Here in Atlanta, people at one end of the county are different from the other end. Everybody buys Stephen King and Danielle Steel. But not everybody buys Iceberg Slim.
Brodart does not handle e-books. Publishers do it themselves and are still inventing it. I don’t think they’re ready for a middleman. Libraries are buying them, but not through a wholesaler.
Libraries have had a lot of budget cuts, affecting staff. So they look for tools that can make collection development more efficient. We offer standing orders, a menu where they can order from genres/subcategories or popular authors. Every time a new book comes out, we either place an order on their behalf or they get a notification. On average, this is three months prior to publication.
Our collection development librarians read all the industry journals and catalogues and have meetings with publishers two to four times a year to get familiar with their titles and learn about things not included in the catalogues, like print runs and publicity, which help us predict popularity.
Joyce Skokut: We service K-12 classrooms and school libraries, public libraries of any size, and four-year and higher institutions, around the world. To date, the industry term our customers use in requesting support [is] “African American,” so we have gone with their characteristics. It’s either sweeping African American, which covers all genres–fiction, nonfiction, mystery, romance– or Urban Lit, which is edgier so very conservative communities will know that it’s edgier. (Those communities prefer what we call “bonnet romances”: chaste covers, no mention of drugs, no graphic sex.) We’ve had the Street Lit category for about seven or eight years, initiated at the request of the Detroit Public Library system. Of the 21 librarians, paraprofessionals, and teachers on our team, two or three of them cover African American titles.
Libraries have had a lot of budget cuts, affecting staff. So they look for tools that can make collection development more efficient. We offer Standing Orders, a menu where they can order from genres/subcategories, or popular authors. Every time a new book comes out we either place an order on their behalf of they get a notification. On average, this is three months prior to publication.
Our collection development librarians read all the industry journals and catalogs and have meetings with publishers two to four times a year to get familiarity with their titles and learn about things not included in the catalogs, like print runs and publicity, which helps us predict popularity.
Martin Warzala: [B&T’s] team is 22 librarians and paraprofessionals, so we can speak the language of librarians. We have a program we put together where New York Public Library and other major systems request ongoing monthly recommendations of titles in urban fiction or street lit. We marry that with a list of publishers they provide us. The biggest growth that we’ve seen is forthcoming new title recommendations.
It’s really an exception that we can’t find a title or that they are out-of-print. When we first started in the category, Donald Goines was not widely available. But those things [urban or street lit oriented popular fiction] seem to be perennially popular.
Where one library might want to see so-called urban fiction or street lit, another might say they want African-American romance. We use the publisher’s metadata, our profiling mechanism, and our knowledge of the product and the publishers. Typically for African-American collections, it’s current titles that are requested. But recently, in support of building an opening day collection, the Lee County Library in Florida wanted the canon authors in that category. That was very exciting for us: we could address not only the popular frontlist but we got to collect literature by authors like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
To have seen the literary canon in my youth to be the dead white guys and to now be part of a team that can supply materials beyond A Tale of Two Cities or Moby-Dick, which now reflects the diversity of American society, makes me very proud.
The following is a list of the collection development resources referred to or recommended by the librarians interviewed.
Independent Vendors/Publishers/ Distributors
Africa World Press/Red Sea Press (AfricaWorldPressBooks.com)
California Newsreel (Newsreel.org)
Just Us Books (JustUsBooksonlinestore.com)
Seaburn Publishing Group (SeaBurnBooks.com)
Meabooks Inc. (formerly Hogarth), new and out-of-print African books Meabooks.com
Sister’s Uptown Bookstore & Cultural Center, 1942 Amsterdam Ave., New York, N.Y. 10032, 212-862-3680
Third World Press (ThirdWorldBooks.com)
Thorold’s, Randburg, South Africa, African books, Thorolds.com
Independent Collection Development Resources
Africa Access Review, AfricaAccessReview.org
African Books Collective, AfricanBooksCollective.com
Cooperative Children’s Book Center, pwne.ws/1cfnZOY
Enrichment Book Store Art Center, (Ebaconline.com)
Voice of Youth Advocates magazine, Voyamagazine.com
Resource Guides and Books
Sandra Hughes-Hassell’s list of resource guides, pwne.ws/18bJp2i)
List of publishers and booksellers specializing in Africana, pwne.ws/12etWKq
The 21st-Century Black Librarian in America: Issues and Challenges, edited by Andrew P. Jackson, Julius Jefferson Jr., and Akilah S. Nosakhere, Scarecrow Press
The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Classic Street Lit by Vanessa Irvin Morris, ALA Editions