News databases: Diversity without equity or inclusion

The Problem

Back in September, 2020, I sent out a call for help across AISL and other school librarian-oriented lists in hopes of finding databases that provide “diverse, inclusive, and equitable access to perspectives mirroring the composition of our country in magazines, historical newspapers, and contemporary news.” Generally, database companies sell “core” collections that are positioned as “high quality sources,” comprised almost entirely of white-perspective news outlets. Then they up-sell from a menu of discrete “ethnic” packages to provide “alternate perspectives.” Students deserve better.

Thank you to the many folks who responded hoping to hear of a good database in which to invest. Sadly, the answer is…so far I’ve found no way to buy this unicorn of the database world. Ultimately, I started doing my own diversity audit of our databases and others on the market to try to better articulate the nature of the problem.

I am currently only part way through this process. First semester ended up (happily) being much more crowded with instruction than I had anticipated. Even the terminology I use to think about this set of issues is still in crude form. Here is an update on what I have learned so far, however. To date I have focused on US news, historical and contemporary, and have only been able to compare offerings from two companies. This work has served — at the very least — as evidence that the problem is real and pressing.

Inclusion

In the fall, I had not yet fully realized the insidious nature of the juxtaposition we often attribute to databases: quality sources vs. alternative perspectives. I’ve been sitting with this formulation increasingly in the intervening months, and contemplating how our professional narrative around databases is driven by the marketing efforts of the database companies themselves. Consider the act of marketing a database as “providing researchers access to essential, often overlooked perspectives” that exists because the perspectives have been intentionally overlooked and isolated to sell us another database. So how much does the title list of an intentionally curated “ethnic” database (which mysteriously includes the LGBTQ+ collection, by the way) overlap with a product intended for high school?

ProQuest: Compared title lists for Research Library Prep and Ethnic Newswatch databases.

Please note that the “Overlap (%)” column conveys how many of the “specialized” Ethnic Newswatch titles also appear in “general” Research Library Prep. It does not convey the percentage of Research Library Prep that are/are not white perspective — those numbers would apparently be vanishingly small. 

An issue that struck me immediately as I got started was that scholarly journals comprise, by far, the largest mass of content in Ethnic Newswatch that is also available in Research Library Prep. These sources differ distinctly from newspapers or popular magazines; academic discourse may well be quite removed from the community it studies. That is, a large percentage of the authorial and editorial work is carried out within a realm of authority modeled on European institutions and constructed in our academic halls of privilege. To put it plainly: the perspectives appearing in the University of Pennsylvania Press’ Hispanic Review may not reflect community voices in the same way that those appearing in La Prensa Texas newspaper do. Both source types provide important points of view; their creation does not serve the same purpose.

Important as it is to have a diversity of voices in our scholarly works, they provide fundamentally different types of evidence from newspapers. Not to mention, they are not accessible to most K-12 students.

Gale: General OneFile, In Context: High School, OneFile: High School Edition, OneFile: News, In Context: US History

It has been challenging to figure out how to do a diversity audit, but since many database companies seem to start monetizing diversity with Black American newspapers, I decided to work from lists of existing and historical Black papers, including: National Newspaper Publishers Association Current Members and Princeton University Library – African-American Newspapers (1829-present). I used titles from these lists to search within Gale’s title lists, and found:

Checking Black American newspaper titles against Gale title lists yielded vanishingly few overlaps.

In the process of looking at the titles that are listed, the Atlanta Daily World and the Chicago Defender — historically both very important publications in the 20th Century United States — only had coverage from 2014-present, with exceptions from 2015/16 to the present. Meaning, in fact, they only have a handful of issues of each paper.

Once again, these databases provide news sources that almost entirely reside within historically white readerships.

Equity

In another sense, it does not functionally matter if a database includes sources from diverse sets of communities. When the algorithm privileges white perspective publications, searchers may never encounter other points of view.

Spot checks of ProQuest’s ranking of newspaper results in Research Library Prep confirmed that their methods for ranking heavily favored specific titles. Specifically, the New York Times dominated results, with a smattering of hits from the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, US Fed News Service and Targeted News Service

I ran a series of searches, noting how many unique titles were returned for each search, as well as those titles’ spreads across the top 100 results. In essence, how many pages would I need to scroll through to access more than a few titles? I searched for [ the ] — as a word that appears universally in English-language newspapers — and also for words like [ miami ], [ skagit ], and [governor] — each of which strongly suggest local news. In every case, the results looked something like the results for [ the ]:

  • Returned 81 unique titles
  • Top 100 results:
    • 95 results from the NYT
    • Other titles ranked: #37, 41, 71, 91, 95
    • Other publications in the top 100 results: Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Targeted News Service 

Progress!

However, there is good news. A Gale sales rep who is on one or more school library lists began wondering about this issue themselves, and carried out an independent audit that they then presented to their acquisitions department. As a result, when I last checked in this past November, Gale publisher relations personnel have identified:

  • Licensed periodicals where the issues aren’t current
    • Updates are in various states of progress 
  • Important periodicals with lapsed agreements 
    • Updates are in various states of progress  
  • Over 140 new periodicals from the following communities:  “African Americans, Arab Americans, Hispanic Americans/ Latinx, Native Americans, Ability Diverse, LGBTQ+, Women, & more”
    • Requests have been sent to publisher relations to pursue license agreements

Though not within the scope of my current work, Gale has also taken a look at their reference overviews and biographies and have made efforts to offer more coverage, as well.

The solution?

Does this issue interest you? Would you like to join me in fighting for single databases that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive? Whether you would like to audit a database you have, suggest a consistent method for auditing, share findings at your state conference, or talk to your database companies once we have a clear report — kindly reach out. If the idea is that we are better together, let’s unite and make a difference!

I am deeply grateful to my director, Jole Seroff, for being so invested in and supportive of this exploration, and colleague Sara Kelley-Mudie for helping me focus my thinking.

Self-auditing

Last summer, I attended the excellent AISL Summer Institute on diversifying collections (offered by the wonderful people at John Burroughs School).  During the iceberg activity (my quickly-sourced reference, not theirs), I felt a much needed slap to my privileged face to realize that when I walk into a room, people see a white, middle-aged woman. Gender and age may preoccupy my attention a bit, but thinking about my race is something that I, as a white person, am not forced to do on a constant, relentless basis.  If you’ve had any uncertainty about white privilege, THIS IS IT.

I am grateful for all that I learned at this SI and have been applying it to my senior school library. For example, an audit of the past 7 years of our summer reading program revealed a preponderance of white, male authors, so we were very intentional in having better representation in this year’s list in terms of authors and characters – the smallest of baby steps.

I’ve recently realized though that I’ve been slow to turn my eye inward – looking at the books and blogs I read, the podcasts I listen to, the social media accountsI follow. Keeping in mind that this is very much a cursory glance and I have much more work to do, here’s what I found when I dug in:

Books: while my taste runs to narrative nonfiction (heavy on anything involving food – I love reading cookbooks, the older the better), I am a high school librarian and so read quite a bit of YA. While much of it offers racial diversity, it turns out that I read more with plots involving socio-economic diversity and/or featuring LGBTQ+ characters. When it comes to race I’m still leaning heavily towards mirrors, rather than seeking out windows and sliding glass doors.  Noted and on it, with my summer goal being to alternate YA/popular fiction and NF books specifically about racism/antiracism.

Social media: I tend to use Twitter for professional development and Instagram for personal use (I have two accounts – one private, and one public).  My Twitter feed is much more racially diverse than my IG feed, so I am grateful for IG recommendations such as @ava and @cleowade. I am now following authors whose books have made a profound impact on me (@ijeomaoluo, @ibramxk). A shoutout to @monachalabi, a remarkable data journalist and artist whom I had the good fortune to hear from at this past January’s provincial library conference – the work she shares through her IG feed is superb (appalling, heart-wrenching and superb).

Podcasts: Looks like I’m pretty selective, heavily on NPR and CBC content. While their stories are fairly diverse, all of the hosts are white men. So again, I’ve been grateful for suggestions from others; as  I enjoy learning about personal finance, I am currently enjoying Frugal Chic Life and Popcorn Finance. 

The more I learn, the more I feel that what I am doing is inadequate, but the alternative is to let myself become overwhelmed and do nothing. Which I refuse to do as this is too important. I’d love to hear what you’re reading/watching/listening to – more recommendations welcome!

We See You #aislsi2019

What a great pleasure it was to attend my first summer institute, put together by the phenomemal team at John Burroughs School in fabulous St Louis!

Our two days together were founded on the importance of acknowledging who we are so that we can participate in conversations about who others are. Having a diverse library collection allows for a wide variety of representation reflecting a range of human identifiers – reflecting diversity of content not equality of numbers.

So much important content was covered, I can’t do it justice here, so I simply offer some nuggets from the valuable presentations, engaging activities, phenomenal panels and all the wonderful ensuing conversations. (Thanks and credits below)

Deep Dive into diversity in the library

Defining diversity

I appreciated learning about “The Big 8” identifiers (most common but not exclusive and can be adapted as relevant), which offer such a useful framework:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Mental & physical ability
  • Socioeconomic status 
  • Race (skin colour)
  • Ethnicity (cultural/geographic background)
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion

There was good discussion around the importance of recognizing which identifiers are more visible than others, and how that visibility affects our decision-making.

Representation matters

“That teenage feeling of being social awkward, the strangeness of finding love for the first time, the importance of discovering lifelong passions, and being supported by loving famiies – none of these things are exclusive to white, straight cis people and so should not be relegated to white, straight, cis characters.” – Sadie Trombetta Bustle Jan 31/18

Cue mike drop.

Booth’s work on mirrors, windows, and doors is more relevant than ever. What are my readers looking for? What will they find in our collection, and what won’t they find? 

Student Voices

One of the most amazing parts of #aislsi2019 was a panel of 12 teen readers who spoke with us about why they value representation in our collections. They were honest, articulate, and appreciative of how their librarians support them, as well as being well-read in such a wonderful variety of genres. Everyone listening left with some serious insights and solid recommendations.

It was interesting to hear that their defaults for finding good books are Google searches and asking their librarians for suggestions; they really reinforced my goal to better train my students on meaningful use of our catalogue (and how it differs from our databases). It was also great to hear how much these students appreciated curated lists for different types of representation.

Diversity Audits

I truly appreciated the time to wrestle with the logistics of preparing and performing a diversity audit. It is critical to set a goal that is uniquely relevant to our library, and achievable (it was immediately clear that there are many rabbit holes to be avoided if I want to complete an audit in the foreseeable future). Don’t be afraid to set narrow parameters to keep the audit manageable, and carefully consider the timing of the audit in your school year.

A variety of models were offered:

  • using a print checklist vs using a Google form to populate Google sheets or your own version of one or the other
  • auditing print books by hand vs auditing online (looking at a catalogue records) vs doing an audit of recent book orders

I’m excited by how local and creative I can make this process – loved the suggestion about doing an audit of a book display. I also appreciated the encouragement to start with the end in mind; think about how you’ll want to manipulate your data so that you get the data you want in a format you can use.

Diversity Audit IRL

On Day 2, we had a good chunk of time to test an audit out. We reviewed a great variety of possible goals, and with encouragement to choose a couple specific to us, we set out to independently audit a small group of books (from an available selection of print, or accessing our own through our catalogues).

I chose to audit the first 20 audiobooks in my library’s Overdrive fiction collection. Keeping in mind that this is a VERY subjective process, I chose a very small sample size, and this is my very first time doing this, I share the results in the spirit of collegiality (with a red face and gigantic face palm):

50% feature white male protagonists
30% feature white female protagonists
15% feature female protagonists of colour
15% feature indigenous protagonists
15% feature protagonists with a disability
75% written by white authors (male/female equally represented)
10% written by authors of colour
10% written by indigenous authors
40% offer own voice

I have some work to do, people.

Everyone present was very encouraging, reminding each other to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Engaging in this process will be of benefit to those we serve through our libraries, however imperfect our first kick at the can may be. I truly appreciated doing this in such a judgement-free zone (although found it hard to silence my inner critic).

Thank you to hosts, organizers and presenters Linda Mercer, Jennifer Gosnell, Jennifer Jones, Jennifer Kinney, Jennifer Millikan, Marybeth Huff, Kate Grantham and everyone else who made this happen – it was truly meaningful time together. John Burroughs is a beautiful school and St Louis is an amazing city! #gocardinals

PS: I highly recommend attending SI in the future – it was lovely having post-school time to delve into some amazing PD without being distracted by what was happening back at school 🙂

Following Through on Book Clubs, and, Windows & Mirrors

Over the last few years, avid and ambitious readers among the students and staff have pitched their book club desires to me. Naturally I’m game, but as our clubs and organizations already are challenged by finding time to meet I admit I’ve been pessimistic about book club success. A handful of times such an effort would result in one meeting and then fizzle out. This year I’m giving it another go, inspired by two things. First is our newly formed Global Diversity Council, comprising students and faculty members and tasked with ensuring “effective diversity engagement, inclusive excellent practices, a multicultural environment and curriculum, equitable activities, and social justice actions.”

The second was a recent well-timed article from Teaching Tolerance, in which Chelsea Tornetto writes:

“A story is often the most effective way to create personal connections between very different people. Reading a novel allows us to see the world through someone else’s eyes, remove the context we are used to and replace it with something new. We are more prepared to accept things beyond our own experiences because we know we are reading a ‘story,’ and yet we also actively search for similarities between our own lives and the lives of the characters. A novel can begin to open students’ minds and shape their hearts, without doing battle against their sense of self.”

While this is something we all know already, evoking Rudine Sims Bishop’s often referenced “windows, sliding doors, and mirrors” metaphor, I read it at the right time. This past summer our faculty and staff read Global Dexterity by Andy Molinsky, and the last line of this quotation points beautifully to the concept of this title; that we can find and should seek ways to effectively engage, identify with, and relate to people who are culturally different from ourselves without compromising our own identities and values. Reading about a fictional yet realistic character’s experiences is a safe way to practice this, which our school community wants and needs to do.

This article reminded me how simple yet powerful a program this could be, and with the right book, the right group to participate in and promote it, and enough (widely publicized) pizza, it could be a success.

This feels a little hard to say, but one of the stumbling blocks our book clubs have faced in the past is perhaps too much student ownership. I think my belief in wanting to give students voice and choice in this type of activity may have deprived them of a valuable experience. Of course I would like student voices heard and student ownership of our selections and discussions, but well-intentioned as our students may be, they, like all of us, just don’t always have time to do “extra” things like prepare, make posters, and successfully book talk an extracurricular novel. Reminder to self – reading promotion, awareness of current publications, and facilitating discussions about literature are my job. Those things aren’t “extra” for me. So maybe, for the students to have a great experience, a little adult (read: librarian) ownership is not such a bad thing.

I went to a GDC meeting last week and shared this idea. Rather than asking for book suggestions from the students, I said “The first book will be The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and first meeting will be during lunch on December 13 in the library with pizza. I hope that if we decide to continue the book club that you folks will have some suggestions.” An interested buzz made its way around the room, so that’s good enough to forge ahead.

Then I sent this poster to Upper School students, faculty, and staff:
Window and Mirrors Book Club

With interest and partnership from the GDC, I think this will go very well. Our library collection holds copies of this particular title in three formats, and the GDC was able to purchase a few copies for students, faculty, and staff to bring home over Thanksgiving break. The books came in yesterday and three copies had already been claimed by 8:30 this morning. I’ll spring for the pizza.

I would love to hear about others’ Windows and Mirrors Book Club successes, stumbles, and book choices. My hypothesis is that we will need to choose very current titles representing diverse identities and experiences, personally invite some folks who might not be paying attention to emails and announcements, and make sure everyone knows about the food.