Earlier in June, We Need Diverse Books announced that they will no longer be using the term #OwnVoices to describe children’s literature or its authors. Going forward, they plan to use more specific terms which refer to the identity and life experience represented in a story.
Here at NoveList, we have also recently been discussing the importance of specificity when it comes to human identity. We’ve started speaking with librarians, consultants, and others about some of our vocabulary terms, which provide access to materials in NoveList. Our goal has always been to give librarians tools to amplify marginalized voices, and it causes us concern to think that this effort to facilitate access may be interpreted as reducing the infinitely varied human experience to a handful of very broad, sweeping access points.
The headings we are currently reviewing include the “own voices” appeal term and the character appeal terms of ability diverse, culturally diverse, LGBTQIA diverse, and religiously diverse. While we’ve received a variety of opinions about the best approach, the overwhelming feedback we’ve gotten in the use of these broad terms is the importance of specificity. Librarians told us that their readers aren’t looking for “non-white characters” or characters with “any random disability.” They are much more likely to want a character that represents their identity, or a particular perspective which they may want to explore. The good news for us here at NoveList is that we have always provided a high level of detail in our subject headings.
Our story elements help librarians practice inclusive readers’ advisory and enable readers to find diverse books, but we believe that we can do better by making clear the connections between broader terms and the specific examples found in individual books. For example, the broad term LGBTQIA diverse can help a librarian fill a book display, while subject headings like “transgender teenagers” and “African American gay men” can help readers looking for more specificity. The goal is to streamline our more specific identity-related headings so that users can easily find them and more reliably bring in all related books. This requires more behind-the-scenes work on our part, which is currently underway.
To summarize, while we recognize the problems with “own voices” terminology, we believe that the benefits provided in terms of access to materials is a good reason to keep it in place while we work on a better solution. We are very much undergoing a process of learning more and want to be intentional about the way we approach this work. If you’d like to share your perspective and insight, we’d welcome your feedback at email@example.com.
Stay tuned for an update on this project in the fall.
Victoria Caplinger Fredrick is the Director of Book Discovery at NoveList. She is currently reading The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones.