Unlocking Imagination and Representation: A Librarian's Vision for Diverse Children's Collections

Dawn Woodward
August 2, 2023
Librarians, Collections

Want to learn about developing diverse children’s collections? Dawn is here to help! With a newly cultivated digital skillset and a history of achieving her goals, Dawn is a creative head librarian and educator who brings over 15 years of experience with educational standards, and programming to promote and build on child and family literacy skills.

But most importantly, Dawn is a beautiful human being whose "kind and cautious" motto helps children and adults find joy and meaning in life, at the library. Read the article to learn what Dawn has to share about developing collections.

Libraries and Community

Libraries aren’t just gateways to information, they’re also a reflection of the society and community we’re part of. And who reflects on the world more than children do? That’s why developing well-rounded library collections for children is crucial.

Well-rounded collections foster inclusivity, expand their perspectives, and encourage empathy by exposing children to a wide range of cultures, experiences, and ideas from an early age. Which promotes and fosters more understanding and connection in our society.

I’ve been fortunate to learn from, and witness the positive impact of my work. The community learning initiatives I took resulted in a 60% increase in patron attendance, and my efforts to diversify collections led to a 40% increase in usage and circulation.

These experiences taught me how important it is to read between the lines, and respond to the unsaid needs of your patrons and community so they feel heard, seen, and understood.

In this article I share deep insights - gained from my expansive career - into the importance of developing well-rounded, diverse, and inclusive collections for children. If you’re a librarian in charge of collections at a school, a public library, or a private organisation, this article is for you.

Serving Collections in Multiple Formats

I cannot stress enough the importance of making available a multitude of formats for children and their caregivers. In our digital age, it is vital to cater to diverse preferences and accessibility needs. These can include eBooks and audiobooks that are readily available alongside physical books and promote literacy in various ways. 

Young readers with visual impairments or learning difficulties can benefit immensely from audiobooks, while tech-savvy kids may find eBooks more engaging and interactive. By offering resources in different formats, we bridge the gap for those who face challenges in visiting the library physically. 

Moreover, investing in braille collections is a must to empower visually impaired patrons with an equal opportunity to explore literature.

When I requested additional funding for braille materials, I saw it as an essential step towards fostering inclusivity and creating an environment where everyone feels represented.

I was determined to go beyond conventional formats to engage young minds even further. Incorporating read-along books, like the innovative Vox Books, proved to be a successful addition. This unique format brought a whole new level of excitement to the library, and parents appreciated the opportunity for their kids to experience literature in this interactive manner.

You can use a system like Koha to manage your collections in multiple formats.

Catering to Community Needs with Collections

Children's book called All Are Neighbors (Photo by Dawn)

Catering to the community's needs has been at the core of my work as a librarian, and I can't stress enough the importance of truly understanding patrons (in this case, children) and their backgrounds to serve them better. 

It goes beyond just providing books; it's about being able to read between the lines and find out what diverse content can truly resonate with them, and inform other community members about such diversity around them.

Identity and Inclusion

Hana's Hundreds of Hijabs children's book (Photo by Dawn)

For instance, after learning that Muslim immigrant families were joining our community and seeing more hijab wearing girls coming into the library, I took the initiative to add books like "Hana's Hundreds of Hijabs" to our collection. This simple act of inclusion not only made these young women feel seen, and heard but also allowed people from other backgrounds to understand their identity.

Diversity and Patron Backgrounds

Creating a well-rounded library collection also means being keenly aware of who makes up our patron base, and tailoring our collections accordingly. Diverse materials based on religion, ethnicity, and otherness are essential to ensure that everyone feels represented and valued. 

For example, during Christian festival periods, I made sure to have books on Christmas and Easter available, but I also extend this principle to other religious and cultural celebrations. 

However, balancing various community preferences can be a challenge, and it requires careful curation and open communication with patrons.

Promoting New Collections with Engaging Events

As an avid book lover and an advocate for promoting reading in the community, I have found great success in utilizing social media and print platforms to spread the word about books. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of my journey in promoting books has been organizing events like the Story Walk. This unique initiative has been a hit among patrons, as they get to combine their love for reading with the joy of nature. 

As participants walk through scenic trails, they engage with the pages of newly added books at designated stations. It's like a treasure hunt for literature! To make it even more enticing, we offer a prize or special recognition to those who complete the entire story.

Making Collection Decisions

When making collection decisions as a librarian, several factors come into play. It's essential to remain responsive to specific patron requests and adapt our collections accordingly. 

Here’s a list of the factors that come into play here: 

  • Choosing between physical books or digital formats
  • Assessing available physical space, budget constraints 
  • Learning about the needs of the patrons we serve. 
  • Understanding the preferences and access preferences of library users.

Reading Between the Lines

Maps of My Emotions children's book (Photo by Dawn)

Understanding patrons' needs beyond their explicit requests is a fundamental aspect of my work as a librarian. One memorable instance involved a young adult seeking books on sexuality but feeling unable to ask directly due to their parents' presence. Sensing their unspoken need, I guided them towards the relevant titles discreetly, ensuring they felt comfortable checking out those books.

Another heartwarming example was a woman who approached me solely for workbooks as she was teaching herself to read and learn math. Over the course of 3-4 years, I provided her with resources and support, witnessing her remarkable progress from 1st-grade skills to 5th-grade proficiency. Her determination and progress filled me with immense pride.

Recognizing Privilege and Curating Collections

A child reading a book featuring basketball stars (Photo by Dawn)

I've come to understand the importance of curating collections that cater to a thriving, diverse community's needs and interests. When I saw a young boy engrossed in a book about basketball, proudly sharing his aspirations with me, and a girl with beautiful, voluminous hair connecting with a character who looked just like her on a book cover, it reinforced the impact of representation and inclusion in our collections.

As a member of the community who has considerable privilege because of my identity, I think it’s crucial for people like us to realize how our actions impact those around us, and take steps to make everyone feel included.

Benefits of curated collections for a diverse community

  • Helps individuals with representation
  • Positive emotional development
  • Encourages more people to frequent the library
  • Adds more patrons to libraries
  • Community support by way of volunteerism, donations, and approval of levies

Overcoming Pushback and Ensuring Diversity

I had an eye opening experience while trying to ensure diversity in library collections. When I heard that Muslim immigrants would be settling in our, city I thought it was a great opportunity to add books representing these minorities to our library, and, I faced some serious pushback from higher-ups who couldn't comprehend why titles like "Hana's 100 Hijabs" should be included in an Ohio library.

However, I didn’t back down. I successfully and passionately advocate for the inclusion of this diverse title as well as many others. 

Things you can try to overcome pushback for adding books

  • Use circulation stats, and other key stats to back up your decisions.
  • Cite data from sources like CLEVNET to show how other systems are doing similar things.
  • Use numbers on how in-demand a book is by showing how long the waitlist is for those particular titles and read alike titles with a similar message.

Strategies to Keep Children Engaged at a Library

Photo by Dawn

In my quest to keep children engaged in reading, I came up with some creative strategies, implemented as library programs, and you can try them too. Here are three of the most engaging creative strategies to engage children at a library.

Adopt a Shelf

I introduced the "Adopt a Shelf" program, assigning each child the responsibility of maintaining a designated shelf in the library. This not only encouraged a sense of ownership but also taught them organizational skills and the importance of taking care of their reading space. 

This also allowed them to add a little bit of themselves to the collection. Some of them added stickers to the bookends or a photo of their dog or cat if it went along with their assigned shelf topic.

Library Brag Tags as Rewards

Brag tags for to award children at the library (Photo by Dawn)

I crafted brag tags at the library to accompany the ones children earned at school or other shared spaces. The children at my library loved wearing their tags as a reward for doing new things like exploring a new genre or reading aloud to a grade below theirs.

Genre Passport to Encourage Making Choices

Another way to engage children that worked well was introducing the genre passport, where kids received stickers for every book they checked out in various genres. This allowed me to recognize and celebrate their reading choices, acknowledging their efforts without delay. I would give our brag tags to children for this activity as well.

Better Support for Children & Parents

I firmly believe that we need to tweak the existing system to better support and encourage both children and parents. One pressing issue is the burden of fines, which can act as barriers to library engagement. It's heartening to see that fine forgiveness is being embraced by most libraries, making it easier for families to return to the library.

I advocate for the adoption of sensitivity and leniency when young patrons lose library resources. Instead of shaming individuals, we should focus on educating children about responsible resource management and the importance of returning borrowed items on time.

One story that resonates deeply with me is about a parent who was charged an excessive $45 for lost books. This financial burden not only deters parents from actively providing books to their kids but also creates an unnecessary strain on their relationship with the library.

Acts of Kindness Rooted in Sensibility

It’s not always children or parents who need our support. Sometimes, it’s educators, librarians, or teachers who need support and kindness. As someone who benefitted from public spaces like the library while growing up, I know how critical these spaces are for people who may not have enough to make ends meet.

I can recall the incident of two Stuart Little books being checked out for a public school and unable to be retrieved from the kids. It felt unfair to see that underpaid teachers would have to pay for the items lost by children. Since my library had the budget, I took it upon myself to adjust the cost of recovering those books from that budget.

My profession puts me in a place where I have the privilege of helping others who may not have the privilege to help themselves. Among some of the initiatives that I took part in was donating coats to people in need during winters, which saved lives, and a kindergarten readiness panel, and third grade reading guarantee activities. 

Building a kind and cautious world, one community at a time.

Even though some librarians might feel burdened by vocational awe, from my experience growing up, and serving at the library I’ve learned that librarians have a responsibility to do more than just put books on their shelves. 

In the end we get to help build young, impressionable minds who will shape the future of this world. It’s almost like a superpower to be in this position. To build a world, one book, in one community, at a time.

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About the Author

This article is part of a collaborative series between GR Techand industry leaders, aimed at bringing new ideas andinsights to our readers.

Dawn Woodward

project manager

With a Master in Library & Information Science degree, Dawn is a highly creative and personable head librarian and educator. She has over fifteen years of experience with educational standards and programming to promote and build on child and family literacy skills. She's motivated to work with a team to promote diversity and inclusion, innovative ideas, lifelong learning, and fresh perspectives.