Profiling a Book Collection

Profiling a Book Collection
by Julia B. Chambers


Last fall, I was hired to be the middle school librarian at an independent middle school in Danville, California. One of the many orientation meetings I attended involved the theme of equity and inclusion in the classroom. All new hires were asked to choose one aspect of our curriculum that could be improved by re-examining it through the lens of equity and inclusion. Some teachers chose to include a greater percentage of non-Western ideas, images, and points of view in a particular lecture. Others chose to develop new curriculum that incorporated a broader spectrum of life experiences.

I decided to profile the middle school library’s fiction collection to get a snapshot of how our 2000+ titles represented different cultures, ethnicities, lifestyles, and socio-economic statuses. My initial impression of the collection was that the fiction titles skewed toward the upper-middle class, Caucasian, straight, middle-school-aged patron who enjoyed nuclear family status. My goal was to use this analysis to guide collection development so our books better reflected the diverse demographics of the school community and the greater Bay Area.

Step One: Preparing the Project

With a volunteer staff of 12, I set a goal of analyzing the collection in four months. Working with a lead volunteer, our library director, and the high school library associate, I identified the areas of analysis, including the protagonist’s gender, race, socio-economic background, family structure, religion, sexual orientation, and if applicable to the plot, the protagonist’s learning style, physical abilities/disabilities, and physical/mental wellness. I took the opportunity to note the book’s setting (U.S. or non-U.S?), country, and even whether the story takes place in a rural or urban environment. In addition to these factors, I asked volunteers to note the book’s genre (so I could later reorganize the titles by genre, which was another goal of mine). I created a spreadsheet that listed every fiction title we owned followed by a grid for analysis, and then developed codes with clear definitions for the volunteers to use throughout the process.
Step Two: The Process

Most of my volunteers took to this project with enthusiasm. They enjoyed going beyond the back-of-book summary and delving deep in search of the book’s unique profile features. Many discovered titles they wanted to either read or check out for their child.

All of the volunteers started their analysis by reviewing each title online. I guided them toward Titlewave, which is linked to our Follett Destiny library management software, but I also suggested they research these books through Goodreads and Amazon. Some of the books’ profiles were easy to identify (gender, setting, and race — often by just looking at the cover art). Other elements were harder to identify, like family structure or religion. I advised the volunteers to avoid assumptions and to leave factors that weren’t easily identifiable blank. I also asked them to spend no more than five minutes per book, knowing that our analysis would not be exact, but rather a rough sketch of our collection’s content.
Step Three: The Analysis

Having recently completed the data collection, our analysis is incomplete at the time of publishing. However, I have reviewed 70% of the data and can project an overall thumbprint. With only partial numbers recorded, our collection appears to be very unbalanced in terms of equity and inclusion. Our protagonists are mostly Caucasian and more likely female, with only three in the entire collection demonstrating gender questioning or ambiguity. Two-thirds of our collection feature characters from middle- or high-income families (of which almost all are nuclear in structure). And most of our literary characters are straight (only 13 books featured LBGTQ characters.)

While our analysis is not yet complete, the data reveals obvious inequities in our collection, which has the potential effect of excluding students whose backgrounds differ from mainstream Americans of European descent. While our school year is quickly coming to a close, I would like to use the data collected from this project to guide my future selections with the aim of creating a more diverse, inclusive collection.

I would also like to involve students in a Phase 2 analysis of the data, for instance, by having students review all the titles featuring African American characters and conducting a deeper analysis of how these characters are portrayed. I would like to take the opportunity to have students answer the question of what picture our collection paints of the African American experience, or down the line, the Asian American or Hispanic American experience. (At quick glance, most of our titles featuring African American characters are historical fiction with themes of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or Civil Rights struggles. The black Harry Potters are simply not there.) This project has opened up the opportunity for students to discover on their own the lack of diversity and inclusion in contemporary young adult fiction, while providing me with clear direction on how to fill in the gaps to create a more diverse, inclusive collection.




Julia B. Chambers is the middle school librarian at The Athenian School in Danville, California, where she develops and implements the school’s information literacy and 21st century skills curriculum through integrated collaborations with teachers. Prior to the field of librarianship, she was a writer and editor with over ten years of print journalism, web, commercial, newsletter, and book writing experience. Chambers served as Treasurer for ALASC for the 2013-14 year. She plans to graduate from San Jose State University’s Library & Information Science Master’s Program in December 2014 with a focus on youth librarianship. Visit her LinkedIn  profile to learn more.