When will books reflect the population? [Commentary]

Last year U.S. publishers released an estimated 5,000 books for children and teens. Now, here's a quick quiz. How many were written or illustrated by African-Americans or were about black people or other non-whites? 400? 500? Guess again.

A mere 63 books were by black authors, and just 93 were about African-Americans — those are the documented statistics from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the Department of Education at the University of Wisconsin. For Latinos, the numbers were even lower: 48 by and 57 about. Furthermore, the library world is hardly a paragon of diversity, not when only 563 African-American males and 522 Latino men were credentialed librarians in 2009-2010 out of 118,666 total.

Granted, the Wisconsin study might not have sufficiently counted self-published books and e-books from minorities. And let's also keep in mind minority-created content of all types on the web and elsewhere from companies such as Wattpad.

Still, supply is abysmally short of needs. Racial and ethnic minorities make up 35 percent of the U.S. population, and they are the majority of children born today.

Remember, too, that the book center's statistics focus on racial groups. What about the fifth of U.S. children living in poverty, no trifle when you consider that economic disparities account even more for academic disparities than do racial ones? If you're a 10-year-old in search of titles about people like you, then you'll be far better off white and affluent.

Sharing the blame with publishers and editors for insufficient diversity are U.S. libraries, a natural market for books by and about minorities. Why aren't they working more closely with publishers to close the diversity gap in every way? Yes, the American Library Association's president elect is an African-American; so is Carla Hayden, CEO of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. Of 118,666 credentialed librarians, however, just 6,160 were black and 3,661 were Latinos in 2009-2010, as tallied by the federal government and mentioned in an ALA diversity report. With even fewer minority males — to serve as role models in libraries — black and Latino boys suffer.

The outrages here beg for correction. Hello, President Barack Obama and the Baltimore-headquartered NAACP, are you listening?

A partial solution, beyond industry-initiated efforts, might be a national digital library endowment financed by interested billionaires. Total spending on public library content of all kinds in the U.S. was only $4.09 per capita as of fiscal year 2011.

Even without extra resources from an endowment, here's what we can at least start doing:

•Meaningfully encourage minorities and low-income people to care more about reading. Parents should read to their children, and they should read for their own pleasure. Once again we're talking role models. Good writers tend to be good, enthusiastic readers first.

Books and other items are just a beginning. From family literacy specialists to K-12 librarians, we need enough of the right professionals to facilitate the discovery, enjoyment and absorption of the right books for the right readers.

Promote creative writing among minorities and the poor through special efforts in the schools (time for more scholarships, including those to prestigious writing programs). Schools and libraries should work closely with both for-profits and non-profits online to discover talented young minority writers. For now, kudos to the Santa Clara Library District and JukePop for a new collaboration that validates the works of talented web-oriented writers of all races and economic levels.

•Encourage publishers and literary agencies, not just libraries, to review their hiring policies and practices, with moral as well as legal considerations in mind.

Address digital divide issues related to the reading divide by, for example, helping minority youths read e-books on cellphones, tablets and other devices — either library-provided ones or their own. In some cases libraries should even work toward giving away hardware to the most gung-ho participants in library programs. It's almost cheap enough.

Let's respect the new demographics and think ahead now.

David H. Rothman is a former poverty-beat reporter for the Journal newspaper in Lorain, Ohio and runs LibraryCity.org, a digital library advocacy site. His email is dr@librarycity.org.


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