Sarah Voels

Steve Thomas: Sarah, welcome to Circulating Ideas.

Sarah Voels: Thank you for having me.

Steve Thomas: So you’ve worked in a number of different roles in libraries, including a new one that you recently started, but how did you first get interested in the library field?

Sarah Voels: Like many people in our profession, by accident. I was a student at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and I had a work study. I was assigned to the athletic department and it was a very rainy season and I got very tired of chasing soccer balls in the rain so I went to the employment office and asked if there was any vacancies and there happened to be one vacancy left in the library. I was like, “Oh, that sounds like an easy gig!” So I started work in circulation there, working at the front desk. After a year, there was a vacancy in the back, in the technical processing, working more closely with some of the librarians. I thought that sounded interesting, so I took advantage of that, and I really enjoyed that opportunity.

That’s sort of when I started thinking that librarianship could be a real career for me, and so I decided to take a summer internship at the Waverly Public Library to just see what that world was like. It happened to be a very momentous opportunity and year. It was the summer of 2008 when most of Eastern Iowa flooded and Waverly was no different. The city hall was flooded out. Emergency services was flooded out. So the library became City Hall, became FEMA, became all of these emergency services for the city of Waverly, while also doing classic summer reading program, and it was just in that moment that I really saw libraries as centers of communities. Overly romantic view of everything, but it really, really changed the trajectory of my career and it simply has progressed since then.

Steve Thomas: And I know you’re currently also doing a PhD program. When did you figure out what it is that you wanna do long term? I know you’ve worked at public libraries for a long time. When did you decide on your long term goals of getting into academic?

Sarah Voels: It has always been a hope to get back towards academic libraries. I’ve really enjoyed my career in public libraries, but I wanted a different type of challenge. I had been tossing around the idea of going back to school for about six years, debating between a second master’s or a PhD. The intellectual curiosity was the driving force and I decided that six years was enough of just tossing around this idea and I finally just decided to do it. I’m very fortunate to be a student at Dominican University.

Steve Thomas: You’ve got a new book out from ABC-CLIO called Auditing Diversity in Library Collections. How did that process of writing the book get started? How did you get interested in the topic in the first place, then how did it lead to a book?

Sarah Voels: At the time I was working as a materials librarian in a public library doing collection development for youth and young adult materials and our library was very siloed. So the materials department was handling all of the materials regardless of age group, programming, they were doing their thing, and it was the programming librarian who did teen services, Molly Garrett, who is now the assistant director at the Muscatine Public Library here in Iowa who I was already friends with, and obviously we worked closely together cause our areas of work overlapped a bit. And she brought forth this article from Teen Librarian Toolbox, Karen Jensen, about diversity audits. It was kind of the very first glimpse of what they could be. And so we read it together and decided it was a challenge we wanted to take on, and that really changed things for us. We were able to work together to assess the young adult collection in our own library and do that a year later to make sure that we were actually seeing some sort of progress, and holding ourselves accountable to actually making that change, not just saying we wanted to make that change.

We had the opportunity then to present at PLA 2020 in Nashville, which was really exciting, but also really terrifying. The world was changing so quickly, and we didn’t know what was next. It was around that time that Molly decided to leave the project. She had other concerns that she needed to focus on. My editor at ABC-CLIO approached to see if we wanted to expand our work into a full length book. Molly left the project, but gave me her blessing to continue on.

Writing this book and interviewing other library professionals who have taken on this huge challenge nationwide to create better collections that are more representative of their communities while also doing so in the backdrop of a global pandemic was a very daunting prospect. And I am glad that the book is out in the world, and I hope that the world is a better place on this end of it.

Steve Thomas: So was that article from Karen the first time you had heard of that concept of a diversity audit?

Sarah Voels: Yeah. Yeah. It really was. That as a library concept, particular for collection development, but certainly for other aspects of library life. It was that article and then another article in Teen Services Underground that kind of came out at the same time. And I’m not remembering the author’s name, forgive me, but it was kind of those two articles for the first glimpses of what diversity audits could be. In retrospect, doing more research for the book and being very focused and intentional about that research, those two articles really were the only things that were out there at the time that we were haphazardly stepping into this world of audits, and so I’m very thankful for their guiding effort, whether they recognize it or not, though I have had the opportunity to talk with Karen Jensen about it, and so I’m thankful for that.

But yeah, everything has just shifted since then and grown and obviously, it’s become a much more popular concept nationwide. I’m thankful for all of the library professionals who shared their stories.

Steve Thomas: So we’ve kind of talked around it a little bit, but just so we have a good foundation, can you tell listeners exactly what is a diversity audit?

Sarah Voels: At its most base level, it’s assessing, in our case a collection, a library collection for its representation of various markers. There’s a lot of different ways you can do that, a lot of different things you could be looking for, different identities you could be looking for. We’ve seen a lot of examples of spreadsheets where people were putting various racial markers or ability markers or queer representation, and then checking to make sure that those identities were represented.

We decided to take the opposite approach. We made a very small list of the markers we were not looking for, and then we recorded everything else. So we were not looking for white, cisgender, heteronormative, able lens, and so we went physically to the shelves and recorded by hand every item that hit at least one marker outside of that “Not” list. So that at the very end of it, instead of a handful of identities we had represented, we ended up with 181 markers of diversity that we found in our collection which was exciting, but not exciting enough.

We ended up doing the audit three years in a row. And so our methodology changed a little bit, which makes us bad scientists, but whatever, we kept learning and we kept applying what we learned. So throughout the whole process, we were very focused about wanting to approach it as though we were a patron, especially for readers of young adult materials. Not a community that’s likely to go to the catalog and do an in depth search, they’re far more likely to go to the shelf and look what’s there, and so we wanted to make sure that we were looking for those markers of identity, the way our patrons would.

In that first year, 2018, we decided to do a random sample audit of 20% of the collection. So just a kind of a smaller percentage of the whole made it more feasible for us. We looked at the covers, we looked at the back summary or the jacket summary, whichever. And then the copyright page for BISAC, which is not the best, but it’s something. We decided that that’s kind of all the further the average person would go for digging into to see what this book is about, and if we couldn’t find that information in those very quick steps, if it didn’t catch our attention, we couldn’t count it which is a whole other conversation to have with the publishing world, on how they market their books because there were books that we had read we knew was about an asexual character, but you wouldn’t know that if you had had not read the book.

 Following all of the work we did, we did go in and like change the catalog and add in local tags so that patrons could potentially find it, but unfortunately like situations like that, we can’t!

Steve Thomas: Yeah, we’ll get into that a little bit later, I think, but again, foundationally, we might think it’s obvious, but if it is not, why is it important to do this? What’s the purpose of doing a diversity audit?

Sarah Voels: You look at all of the research that’s coming out of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at Wisconsin- Madison. You look at the research coming out of Lee and Low Books and they’ve done a tremendous amount of research into particularly racially diverse materials, and it’s stunning how nonexistent those voices appear to be. The famous infographic going around by David Huyck [and Sarah Park Dahlen] of information from Lee & Low Books. You know, 50% of picture books feature a white protagonist, 27% feature an inanimate object as the protagonist, leaving just 23% of all other materials to be every other child ever, and that’s just, it’s wrong and it’s been wrong and it’s really on all of us to fix it. And part of that is having information, concrete data to present to show that this is a problem, and that’s the first step.

Steve Thomas: So how do libraries make that decision to do that, and not only that, but how do they convince the stakeholders, their principal with their school library, their director, their dean, whatever, what would they use to go forward with that to actually make it happen?

Sarah Voels: It is a daunting prospect, because there it represents so many unknowns, particularly the time involved in doing so. I think some of the important things to highlight is the representation within your community. Whether it be, you know, the city that you’re in, your school that you’re in, and how important it is to create a reflective collection, not just a reflective collection, but a reflective collection of the greater world.

This is a question that I’ve gotten a lot, especially in predominantly white communities and I’m in a predominantly white community, and it’s still very important to make sure that we’re having these other voices represented, not only because we’re living in a global world, we’re a full of racial tensions, of violence, of all these things that we need to use, like education and support to retrain so that we can put a stop and do our part to create a better society.

You know, looking at Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s very important research and her 1990 article, the “Mirrors and Windows” concept of looking at having books that reflect yourself, that your mirror that have your own experiences reflected in them, but then also to have as many windows as you can so that you’re looking through literature into the world of somebody else who has had different lived experiences than you. That’s so important.

And what a safe space to learn in, to learn how to be an adult in a global society, through literature. And that’s just so important, and that’s something that we can provide to our young people if we do the work ourselves.

Steve Thomas: So that can be, we mentioned this a little bit earlier, but it can be a little difficult because even once you’ve done this and you’ve identified, you can’t always find things to fill those holes you see in the collection because publishing has been as white and heteronormative and all the same stuff that libraries have been. That’s getting better, I think, but are there ways that you encourage libraries to try to find things, like once you’ve completed the audit, how do we go forward from there?

Sarah Voels: It can be a difficult process, just because publishing is very limited, but there are a lot of smaller publishing houses that are very specifically publishing those stories, making sure that those works are available. I think especially about Lee and Low Books, they’re doing an excellent job that not only do they publish those books, but they have those resource lists available. Diverse book finder at Bates College also has similar lists. And by, you know, doing this work, and more of us doing this work and making sure that we’re highlighting the stories that we have that are more reflective, whether it be through book displays or programming, et cetera, to make sure that they’re getting highlighted and that the communities are crying out for them. I think that sort of positive pressure is what’s needed.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, and I would think that that data would be something that can help you with those stakeholders talked about earlier too. That’s usually what they want is data. Why should we do this? Right. Well, I can give you data and then it’ll tell you why we should do that.

Because one of the quote unquote problems with dealing with smaller publishers sometimes is that, well, they’re not in Ingram or Baker and Taylor, and so I have a limited budget. I don’t get those discounts, but if you have this data to say, well, it’s worth us investing this extra money into it to get these titles, and not just like books about more diverse characters and diverse topics, but also just books in other languages that can be difficult to obtain. So you have patrons in your community who speak all kinds of languages. You know, Spanish is not that hard to find in the US, but anything else is pretty difficult to find.

Sarah Voels: Yeah. Yeah, very much so. We have a large French speaking population here. Cause we have a lot of African immigrants from French speaking countries. We’ve had a hard time finding French language books. So we reached out to a publisher in Canada, in Quebec. Okay. Let’s try it. Except they got lost in the mail and then there’s all that to deal with.

Steve Thomas: Right. Yeah. And they’re not in our traditional channels so it’s hard. Yeah. Cause even like French or German or Chinese, Korean, I mean, all these languages that should be represented in our collections. I dunno is Dog Man available in Spanish and Chinese cause a child who’s in a Chinese speaking family probably wants to read Dog Man too if they live in the US cause that’s what every kid of a certain age wants to read.

Sarah Voels: People just wanna belong. They need to have the safeguards and sense of familiar to be able to safely belong.

Steve Thomas: So, what other things do you suggest that libraries can do after they’ve got this data?

Sarah Voels: I should preface this all by saying, don’t bother doing this work if you’re not planning to use the information. It’s a huge amount of work, and it’s not just a check mark on, oh good, we did this once. That’s a disservice to the employees and the staff time who are doing and putting in all this hard work. It’s certainly a disservice to your community just to be able to say, we did this. We did it the first year and then we used that information to inform our purchasing practices and our weeding policies so that when we did it a second time and then a third time that we were actually seeing actual progress in our policies and behaviors.

But then other things that we’ve done and other things that I’ve heard other folks say and do with their information is using it for collection development, but also using it for readers advisory. Cause now we have all these lists of, oh, hey, I’m looking for a book about, you know, Korean American lesbians. Okay, well, Let’s see what we have. We have this list already made for us, and so it’s been a really fantastic resource for that, using it in kind of more silent ways, doing book displays and highlighting books, but also cuz we have that resource available, we’re able to reach out with our community partners who are looking to us like, Hey, we really need a stack of books about this. Do you have them? Why yes, we do right here. And so it’s been a really great resource for our programming department who are out in the community making those relationships. And so it’s all about working to build our own communities with the information. So that’s been a really, really fun way to see that in use.

Steve Thomas: And then, doing things with intention, you’re looking for books that represent widely, even if your collection is still not diverse, you can still find those titles and put them out.

Sarah Voels: Right, right, and not waiting for like, oh, it’s black history months. So now we put those books out, like, no, these books are out just all year long.

Steve Thomas: And I think that that cataloging work can be really important because like you said, you can put in a search for Korean and lesbian and those are two different terms, but you put ’em together in the catalog and you should be able to find titles because you’ve appropriately tagged or put in subject headings.

One of the tricky things that you’re gonna find in a diversity audit is, we’re thinking about the equitable and inclusive ways of it, but you’re also gonna. What exclusive content, harmful content. Do you have advice for what to do about that sort of thing when you find those titles? The classic example that everybody uses is Little House in the Prairie, especially when it’s a classic like that, what do you do with those titles?

Sarah Voels: Right. For something specifically like that, and this comes from Karen Jensen’s work, my conversation I had with her, and I agree with it wholeheartedly, is that like for like Laura Ingalls’s Little House, we can’t really get rid of it. It’s so ingrained in our culture as a classic, but we also don’t need to help it out, so it doesn’t need to appear on any book displays or recommended reading list. It’s fine on its own, but for our sake, we did not count it in our diversity audit cuz it’s an entirely disauthentic way, a portrayal of indigenous peoples and would do more harm than good.

It’s about striking that unfortunate balance, and then also keeping that in mind when it goes into your collection development policy. Like, where is the line? And unfortunately the line has to be written out so that everyone knows where the boundaries are, and to keep that in mind when it comes to future purchasing practices. A little bit of humility and understanding that you’re not gonna be able to read everything. You’re not gonna be able to make those decisions completely.

Steve Thomas: Right. And something like that. I mean, maybe you’ll buy books that are more inclusive and more representation al of the groups that are harmed in those kinda books.

Sarah Voels: Absolutely. And Philip Nel, who’s done a huge amount of research on the Seuss estate and all of his works has a book called, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? And in it really discusses nostalgic racism is still racism, and so that’s an important thing to confront, and that has to be so individualized.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. I mean, Dr. Seuss again is another good example of that stuff. And the outcry was kind of funny because, you know, the Seuss estate decided not to publish some titles still, and people just went crazy and it’s like, but number one, do you realize which titles it is? Like there’s five of them maybe, and like four of them you’ve never even heard of before, like they were not the popular ones in any way that they’re stopping. I mean, even if they figured out that Cat and the Hat was racist, they probably would not stop publishing it because they don’t wanna lose that money.

Sarah Voels: Yes, absolutely, like the outcry didn’t make sense to me at all. Firstly, because like you said, they were not the most popular titles anyway, but they’re like, oh, you’re ruining the Seuss legacy, like the Seuss estate made this decision to protect Seuss’s legacy.

Steve Thomas: So you have a chapter in your book also about how some libraries have used this data in other parts of their work, such as Charlotte Mecklenburg using it for various things, and you could probably use it to justify getting rid of Dewey decimal system probably, which is inherently racist and sexist and all kinds of stuff. Can you talk about some of those examples of things that libraries have done?

Sarah Voels: Yeah, absolutely. The team at Charlotte Mecklenberg, of which Rosalind Washington was a part of at that time, who provided the forward very graciously, they did an audit of the donated archival materials, kind of the history of pamphlets that had been donated, the artwork that had been donated, and even naming rights to various buildings and rooms and facilities that are part of their library system to really make sure that the things that were going on display for their community was appropriate for the community, but that if there was anything questionable, whether it be the art itself or the artist or how it came to be in the library’s collections. They really dug deep to look at that, to make sure that their literal walls were projecting equitable inclusion, and they found some circumstances in which they needed to improve. And so then they made an action plan and changed what they were doing. I think that’s a really interesting way to take this auditing concept into other parts of library work.

Steve Thomas: Do you think the practices that you mentioned in the book are pretty applicable across library types?

Sarah Voels: I think so. I think there’s a sense of universality about when we deal with such human centered work, which is what we do, that’s what libraries are. We’re here for the people, and so when we’re dealing with the communities. We want to be better for our communities cause it’s a self-sustaining possibility. We work together to exist. And so I think there’s a lot of great applicability. Obviously the book focuses on public and school libraries. During my research I was reaching out to academic libraries, but it was still relatively new concept at time.

 I’m hoping that if I’m fortunate to have a second edition, that I’ll be able to focus more on academic libraries now that more time has passed, but I was able to give a really great presentation in conversation with the Veterans Affairs Medical Libraries, who reached out to me because they were interested in learning more. So again, that’s another example of kinda a non-traditional library wanting to do what they can to be better for their communities, and then we’re all just sharing information along the way.

Steve Thomas: And hopefully your book will help with that too, cause it’s kinda spreading the word about this concept and how to do, but of course it’s a good idea to do this and we should be doing this, but no process is perfect. Can you talk about some of the barriers or limitations that as you’re trying to do this process?

Sarah Voels: Absolutely. I will say that there are a number of publishers and outside companies that are doing this work, this sort of diversity audit work for a price. If you can pay that price, that’s fantastic. Good for you. Not everyone can, so that price becomes a huge barrier to accessing this information.

One big thing that we ran into was the time involved in doing it. So that first year we did 20% of our collection. It was two of us, and so it took us a couple of days to do the physical labor of the work. Many more hours to do the assessing of that information. But then a year later, we took a week to do it and we did 54% of the collection. I think it was everything that was on the shelf, it took four of us, and so it was something that we were scaling up, but it’s also something that can be scaled down.

So like time is a huge factor, but it takes the. You want to take, if that makes sense because you can do just a very small collection or a percentage of a collection, something that’s gonna give you some sort of statistically viable results, of course. But you don’t have to do your entire collection to really gain more information.

So it is time, and I know that especially for smaller libraries with smaller staff, it’s hard to make that sort of time when you’re already wearing so many hats and have so many responsibilities. So I guess money and time would be kind of the big, big barriers as always!

Steve Thomas: Well, your final chapter is an interview with Karen Jensen, and we talked about that a little bit before. Can you talk about, just as somebody interested in interviews, why did you decide just to include it as an interview and not just as like background information or quotes sprinkled throughout the book? Why did you want to have the interview itself just there as a chapter?

Sarah Voels: I thought it was really important to highlight Karen’s own work. She’s done so much work for libraries, been writing Teen Librarian Toolbox for quite some time and provided a lot of really great resources to library professionals for years. So first I wanted to be able to highlight her and her work in this very small way, but also she was one of the first people to publicly start diversity audits, and I felt that I had learned so much from her. I mean, I wanted to do my part to spread her message and working together. And so I thought that was really important to include an entire conversation, but also, she just said so many wonderful things. It was gonna end up being a full chapter’s worth of her work anyway.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. Might as well just put the whole quote in. So what lessons do you hope that librarians learn from performing these diversity audits?

Sarah Voels: The big one is that it’s hard work, but it’s worth it. It really is a daunting and scary prospect, especially when you’re at that moment of considering like, can we do this? Can we audit the whole library? And then that moment of panic of like, but what are the results gonna be because we kind of think we know what the results are going to be, but having that information is so important, if for no other reason, but that it holds you accountable to making change. Cause you can see concretely for yourselves, for your investors, for everyone who’s curious about your library and libraries in general. Here is something that we can prove and here is something that we can change. We can do things about this.

Steve Thomas: And as you said, that accountability and follow up is key to doing this. Don’t bother doing it if you’re not gonna do anything with it.

Sarah Voels: Absolutely.

Steve Thomas: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for chatting with me today, and I hope that your book helps because it gives people the tools to figure out how to do this themselves and some examples that they can work from. If listeners had any other questions for you about this, how could they get in touch with you?

Sarah Voels: I am on social media. Twitter, for now, as well as Instagram @bysarahvoles.

Steve Thomas: So the book is Auditing Diversity in Library Collections and it’s available now. There is a lot in there that we didn’t go into, lots more detail and lots of examples and things in there. So don’t think you just heard this interview and you got everything. So go buy that book and read the book and get it for your collection so you can give it to your collection development department, so thank you again, Sarah, for the book and for this conversation today.

Sarah Voels: Thank you for having me.