The Importance of Diversity in School Libraries

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Lucas Maxwell


Lucas Maxwell has been working with youth in libraries for over fifteen years. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, he's been a high school librarian in London, UK for over a decade. In 2017 he won the UK's School Librarian of the Year award and in 2022 he was named the UK Literacy Association's Reading For Pleasure Teacher Champion. He loves Dungeons & Dragons and is the author of Let's Roll: A Guide for Setting up Tabletop Roleplaying Games in Your School or Public Library. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

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The book market here in the UK is experiencing a boom, at least in my opinion. In the past seven years since I’ve been working here I’ve noticed a huge amount of new material, so much so that it’s hard to keep up.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it means there’s tons of choice out there for children of all ages. Yes, it’s now overwhelming when it comes to choice, which is just one of many reasons why a school librarian plays a vital role in ensuring the right books get into the hands of the right children.

But what about diversity? What about ensuring that those students who come from BAME backgrounds get the books that reflect their culture, heritage and ethnic backgrounds?

In the past I’ve run a “Read Woke UK” reading competition aimed at slightly older students and hoped to celebrate diversity in UK YA. The idea was that students could read books from diverse UK authors and win prizes for writing reviews of them. I created the competition and then looked for books from diverse authors and it proved to be a huge challenge. Not a very smart move on my part, but it was a huge eye opener for me.

I have since made it my mission to not only fill the library with as many diverse stories as possible, but to bring in authors who have had as many varied experiences as possible. One of the most engaging and mind blowing author visits we’ve had was from Alex Wheatle, who has a life story so gut wrenching that you have to hear it to believe it. You can listen to his interview with our students here.

Alex’s visit opened the eyes of many students who saw him, as some of them may have seen themselves going down the same path as he did in his youth. It was a tremendous visit that hammered home for me the importance of having an inclusive library.

Despite the glut of books being pumped out, the charity Booktrust has reported that fewer than 2% of children’s book creators here in the UK are British people of colour.

I’ve touched on this topic before, using Booktrust to display a list of 30 MG & YA books by authors of colour.

Nothing Ever Happens HereIt goes way beyond just statistics, though. When Sarah Hagger-Holt visited our school, she was interviewed by two of our students. Sarah’s novel Nothing Ever Happens Here features a character that is transitioning and is aimed at a middle grade audience. It’s a unique book here in the UK and not without its controversy. Sarah was asked by our students the importance of ensuring students see themselves reflected in the books they choose from the library.

Sarah’s response to this was:

“Yes it’s important to see ourselves in the books we read, whether it’s our sexual orientation or religion or background, but it’s also important for students to step into the shoes of other people and see the world through someone else’s eyes.”

Jason Reynolds, named the Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, couldn’t find books or characters that reflected his life so he didn’t read until he was an adult. The stories he writes today are a reflection of that experience.

As part of his role, Reynolds will be recording interviews with students from around the U.S. to create a story archive of America’s children. It’s an amazing project, and one that the school library has an important role in because the library, managed properly, can be a beacon of hope and refuge for children from all backgrounds.

Diversity in school libraries isn’t just about the numbers, it’s about the impact it has on the lives of the students who use them.