By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Following the death of George Floyd, the University of Minnesota Libraries leaders and staff turned their attention to ways they could make a difference. One response is the recently created Libraries Racial Equity Collections Fund. The Fund has a clear purpose: “to supplement Libraries-wide collecting efforts to amplify diverse voices and perspectives in all subject areas, especially with regard to race, racism, and intersectional histories of prejudice and liberation.”
Each of the five Racial Equity Fund committee members invited to serve bring commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility — and also a long view of their purpose.
“We don’t see this as just money to be spent,” says Kat Nelsen, committee member. “We see it as an opportunity to take a hard look at our collection practices and make recommendations for sustainable changes to those practices that will ensure racial equity in the voices contained in the books, magazines, papers, journals, and media that make up our collections.”
They seek to create a working model of diverse collecting practices, an expansive goal that will encompass all subject areas.
“This responsibility [to amplify diverse voices] does not just fall on African American Studies, Gender Studies, or Sociology librarians,” says committee member Wanda Marsolek. “The work this group is doing will help support the collection work of our colleagues in all disciplines from Computer Science to Public Health to Economics and beyond.”
Initially, committee member Malaika Grant has had some success by purchasing canonical works by Black authors, such as the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and “Race Matters” by Cornell West, in the form of e-books that may be used by multiple people. (The Libraries has these titles in print but access to our print collection currently is limited.)
“Our collections help support our users’ need for reading to support not only their own personal learning and growth, but also to share with students, colleagues, and reading groups,” Grant says.
Grant also has added online access to a few recent bestsellers on race, such as “Becoming” by Michelle Obama and “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. “Multiuser e-books can cost many times the cost of the print and our funds are limited, so the extra funding provided by the Racial Equity Fund makes it possible for us to expand access to these important works,” Grant says. Still, the much greater cost of e-books is a major issue, as the current funding could easily be spent several times over.
Hard at work
The work of changing collections practices will require research and work.
“We are a really engaged group of librarians who are passionate about racial equity.”
“We are a really engaged group of librarians who are passionate about racial equity,” says Marsolek. They recognize that the lack of voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color is not due to lack of trying on Libraries’ staff part, “but access to these materials has been made difficult by publishers who don’t value the publications or make e-book versions that users can dive into.”
Collecting and sharing information about diverse publishers, vendors, review sources, and more can be integrated into our collections processes, Grant says.
Focus is important for Kim Clarke, committee member and a former chair of the Libraries’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.
“I’m very aware of the ways that our library as an institution falls short regarding diversity and equity [and I say somewhat because doing diversity work is hard, tiring, and the dial moves slowly but meaningfully — but it’s work that’s so rewarding, necessary, and work that we need to prioritize!],” Clarke says. “There’s a lot to do on all fronts! But I see my participation in this group as a small but important task in the work to start to make headway on a few collection-related issues for the Libraries and our community.”
Clarke is working on automating the e-book selection process. “I think that the choices that we’re making, and the processes that we’re developing, can easily be shared with other library institutions in Minnesota and beyond who are struggling with these same institutional issues of bringing more underrepresented voices into their collections in a more systematic manner.”
Along with Clarke, Grant, Marsolek, and Nelsen, the other committee member is Cecily Marcus.
Grant says: “Making change requires time and focus; we have to prioritize this work to make a meaningful difference.”
Marsolek says they are grateful that Dean Lisa German is committed to begin to look at racial equity in the collections and has given the committee members sanctioned work time for this project.
“This work will not be done overnight or during a single semester,” they say. “This is ongoing hard work.”