It always amazes me how many people write about school libraries and don’t involve school librarians in the conversation. They collect evidence, state “facts” and make suppositions – many of which are untrue – and then seem surprised when said school librarians point out they’re wrong. I’m not sure why as school librarians are in the “information business” – constantly telling our students to check their facts and verify the authority of their sources - and if somebody’s got the wrong idea about what we do then we need to put the record straight; there’s already too much misinformation floating around about school libraries as it is.
An article recently appeared in the TES Online titled “How many LGBT books do you have in your school library?” The author was shocked when a friend discovered there were no LGBT books in her school library, did some sleuthing herself (asking teachers in other schools) and, based on their responses, came to the conclusion that the majority of schools have either a limited selection of LGBT fiction or none at all. They went on to speculate – without any research or evidence - that this was because:
· LGBT fiction was absent from many stockists and bookshops
· School Library Services (SLSs) that supply school libraries provide filtered books
· The bulk of LGBT fiction comes from smaller publishers which SLSs do not stock
· Librarians cherry-pick their stock and favour celebrity authors
I cannot believe that school library did not have a single book featuring LGBT characters. Surely at the very least it would have some Patrick Ness on the shelves considering he is a Carnegie winner? Or John Green, following the popularity of the film “A Fault in our Stars”? The fact a catalogue search did not bring up any LGBT fiction doesn’t mean there wasn’t any … the success of any search depends on the keywords used in cataloguing stock. If neither of the authors mentioned above were catalogued as LGBT, they wouldn’t feature in a search.
The majority of school libraries DO stock LGBT fiction – both books containing LGBT characters and books written by LGBT authors. How they are promoted and displayed depends very much on the ethos of the school and the support of the SMT. In my workshop “Diversity and Inclusion in Libraries” most of the questions raised about challenges to these books are from teachers and other staff, not from the librarians. We do not censor books. Yes, we select our stock. We have neither the budgets nor space to be able to buy everything we’d like to so we have to make choices. Sometimes that means going for the more popular books, those that we know students will pick up and read but a look at the comments from librarians around the recent “celebrity-heavy” WBD books will give you an indication of how we feel about these. If we’re guilty of “cherry-picking” then it’s probably in favour of more diverse authors rather than the popular ones!
The same is true of School Library Services. They don’t provide “filtered” books but, rather, use qualified, experienced librarians to evaluate and assess them. This is a service for busy school librarians enabling us to select stock from SLSs knowing it is appropriate; it merely takes a step out of a process we all do whenever we buy a book for the shelves. It also means that teachers choosing library stock, who do not have the book knowledge or time to investigate every resource, can be assured that the books are aimed at the intended user.
There is a huge amount of LGBT fiction available – both from mainstream and smaller publishers. Book suppliers, as well as SLSs, use a range of publishers, not just the larger companies - it is one of the benefits of using them – and LGBT fiction is not absent from their stock. Besides, if you require a book they do not feature you can request it and you can always ask for a selection covering a specific topic or genre; it is worth remembering that book suppliers employ professional librarians to aid in stock selection and review.
Of course, the problem with all of this is that a school librarian needs to be aware of LGBT fiction in the first place. Most professional librarians are; they are conversant about LGBT authors, books with LGBT characters, how suitable they are for different ages and so on. And if not, they have the skills and contacts to obtain any information they require. They can discuss any challenged titles demonstrating both the legal requirement and well-being needs to stock LGBT fiction. The issues arise when schools appoint a “librarian” who isn’t … just putting somebody in charge of a library doesn’t make them a librarian and too many schools are trying to cut costs by doing this, appointing people who have no experience or knowledge (and thus don’t have to be paid as much), and really aren’t sure how to provide a well-balanced and inclusive collection. And if the librarian isn’t selecting books for the library then it’s more likely that whoever else is doing it is “cherry-picking” rather than looking at gaps and how they can be filled. A professional librarian who is a member of CILIP (the Library and Information Association) also has a code of professional practice that covers equity of resources and services. Furthermore, the CILIP School Libraries Group (SLG) has produced an LGBTQ reading pack, available to all.
Of course, selecting books is only the first step. It is essential they are displayed and/or signposted so they can easily be found, and the library needs to make it obvious that it is a safe space for LGBT students. One of the ways we can do this is with posters highlighting trusted websites where students can get useful information. It’s no good expecting students to turn to a book instead of going online; for many the latter is a more natural environment plus accessing information on their phones or computers gives them privacy.
I’m not saying that every school librarian is perfect, knows every LGBT book that’s ever been published and has them all in their libraries. They don’t and there’s still a lot of work to be done. But far more DO have LGBT fiction that would be suggested by the original article. If you think a school library is lacking in these resources then perhaps the first step would be to look at how LGBT students are supported throughout the rest of the school, particularly in view of the fact that the Stonewall School Report 2017 found that “40% of LGBT students are never taught about LGBT issues” and that only “only 29% of LGBT students said that teachers intervened when they were present during homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying”.
And if you’re looking for some book suggestions, these links might be useful:
The best LGBT books for children, teens and YAs, The Guardian
Teen and YA books with LGBT characters, BookTrust
Books featuring LGBT characters (including picture books, primary and secondary), School of Education, Brighton University