What is a diverse book? What criteria do people use to decide what books are “diverse” or not? Why is it critical to establish a universal definition for diverse books, and how can such a definition help create a more just society?
In recent research published in the Journal of Documentation, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science E.E. Lawrence explores these issues, and offers a new definition for diverse books as “those systematically devalorized literary works we must make an ameliorative effort to promote in order to advance informational justice for oppressed persons in particular.”
Though especially useful for Library and Information Studies scholarship and practice, Lawrence explains why his definition ought to hold for any individual who exerts some control over the flow of print communication in the public sphere, or has power over which books are deemed valuable and thus made widely available, including editors, librarians, booksellers, authors, reviewers, systems developers, and ordinary readers.”
Lawrence published his research in two papers: the first is “The Trouble with Diverse Books, Part I: On the Limits of Conceptual Analysis for Political Negotiation in Library & Information Science.” The second paper, in which Lawrence continues his research from the first paper, is “The Trouble with Diverse Books, Part II: An Informational Pragmatic Analysis.”
In our Q & A below, Lawrence tells SC&I why it is so challenging to define diverse books, describes the method he developed to determine if a book is “diverse,” and explains why a definition is so urgently needed, especially in today’s political climate.
What are some of the reasons it’s so challenging to define what a diverse book is?
The term ‘diverse book”’ is deceptively tricky. Most of us in LIS probably have some intuitive sense of what we think it means, but when you poll people or look at how the word gets used out in the world, you end up with more questions than answers. Is a diverse book just one with an author who’s a member of a particular (or particular sort of) social group? Is it a book that represents people from some social group or groups? Does the quality or accuracy of that representation matter? What about the themes addressed in the work? And which social groups do we mean to include here?
In this pair of papers, I argue that we can’t define what a diverse book is without sorting out first what we’re trying to do with the term. When someone says that a diverse book is a narrative text that accurately represents the experiences of marginalized persons, for instance, this isn’t merely a descriptive claim. It’s not like saying “a hexagon is a six-sided polygon” or “snow is a type of precipitation.” Rather, it’s a kind of normative and political proposition. The speaker, I think, is articulating a claim about what books we ought to be making a special effort to read or promote for particular reasons. So it turns out that the basic question we need to answer—before we get to any of the other ones—is something like, “What are the (proper) political aims we seek to advance by deploying the concept of a ‘diverse book’?” Put another way: what work does—or should—this concept do with respect to the organization of social life? So “diverse books” is, on my account, a political term in need of a political definition.
Would you say then that determining a definition for “diverse books” is especially critical and urgent in today’s political climate?
I would, for a few reasons. One is that calls for diverse books and greater representation of/by marginalized folks in media have reached something of a fever pitch. This is in many ways a victory, but with increased “mainstream” uptake comes a greater risk of harmful misappropriation—by corporations, by would-be censors, by individuals and groups who perceive some threat to their standing social privilege. We’re already seeing this happen. Some instances of it are malicious, others aren’t. Indeed, they can even be well meaning! Regardless, I take it that misappropriation corrodes the anti-oppressive political project underpinning “diverse books” as a conceptual category. Getting clear on the nature of that category can better equip us to guard against this.
In a more optimistic vein, there are librarians, authors, booksellers, editors, readers, and others in the larger print culture who are actively endeavoring to advance the aforementioned political project in the face of myriad and sometimes overwhelming structural obstacles. Here, mine is something of a critical praxis concern (by way of Paulo Freire): amid rising tides of racism, xenophobia, transphobia, and misinformation—to name just a few of the animating features of our current political climate—we would do well to reflect critically on how our aims and actions work together towards emancipatory, transformative institutional change. Defining “diverse books” is a(n admittedly small) piece of that.
Please describe the method you propose to use to define diverse books, informational pragmatic analysis.
Informational pragmatic analysis is an LIS adaptation of pragmatic conceptual analysis that I propose in the latter of my two papers on diverse books. Essentially, instead of asking what necessary and sufficient conditions a book (in this instance) must satisfy to count as diverse, it poses the question: “In what ways does this concept equip us to advance informational justice?”
Kay Mathiesen first developed informational justice as an LIS-specific framework for social justice, one that encompasses justice for persons as “seekers, sources, and subjects of information.” So it’s a kind of tripartite system that captures information practitioners’ particular, role-specific responsibilities with respect to social justice. Informational pragmatic analysis begins with a systematic consideration of the benefits a concept delivers in each of the three parts of that system: distributive, participatory, and recognitional. Because the three parts are mutually-reinforcing, we can expect that our political concepts in LIS will deliver mutually-reinforcing benefits as well. Once we know what these are, we can set about defining a concept in a way that enables and preserves them.
Based on your research, what is an effective definition of “diverse books” for LIS scholarship and practice, and for “any individual who exerts some control over the flow of print communication in the public sphere or power over which books are deemed valuable and thus made widely available, including editors, librarians, booksellers, authors, reviewers, systems developers, and ordinary readers”?
Ultimately, I define diverse books as “those systematically devalorized literary works we must make an ameliorative effort to promote in order to advance informational justice for oppressed persons in particular.”
When I claim that diverse books are “systematically devalorized,” I mean that they face structural obstacles to creation, production, and reception that track persistent patterns of social marginalization that extend beyond the world of print.
It makes sense that such works would require special promotion, but to what end? I take it that the thing we’re trying to achieve here, as information professionals, is justice for oppressed persons as informational agents: as people who seek out, create, or are represented in the items we collect and make accessible. But I also think moral responsibility for this aim extends to other individuals embedded in print culture—to publishers, certainly, as well as booksellers, authors, readers…anyone, as you note here, with some power to influence what books are out there and treated as valuable. The more power you have, on my account, the stronger the obligation to intervene.
How will a consensus on a definition of diverse books help advance informational justice for particular oppressed people and how does the concept of moral urgency apply to the definition?
This is such a great and complicated question! I think an important point to acknowledge here is that consensus on the underlying, pragmatic definition of diverse books does not signal an end to moral and political deliberation on this topic. Rather, it establishes some parameters for meaningful deliberation. Diverse books “designations,” on my account, are going to (a) demand justification in terms of how the book(s) in question “do the work” of advancing justice for oppressed persons as informational agents and (b) exhibit context dependence, since the effectiveness of these justifications will be tethered to a particular time, place, and set of (unjust) institutional constraints.
This explains, as just one example, how a book that faces minimal structural barriers in the fields of creation, production, and reception in one country might yet count as a diverse book when it is translated and introduced to an audience in another. It also means, for librarians, that the needs and projects of the particular communities we serve are going to bear on what books we promote as diverse ones—by which I mean, the books that we promote specifically for the reasons encapsulated in my definition. Moral urgency adds another dimension to these deliberations: What is most desperately needed in the here and now? What books are going to help meet that need? We might reflect here on the flurry of recommendations and reading lists that appeared in the aftermath of some of our country’s more recent incidents of anti-Black police violence and execution, for instance. Following Lauren Michele Jackson here, I think we need greater critical reflection on what we are trying to achieve with and through our book recommendations and other promotional activities. Returning to Mathiesen’s informational justice paradigm, this requires some attention to what distributive, participatory, and/or recognitional inequities we’re endeavoring to redress, and what supplementary activities or scaffolding we may need to build around books for this to actually work.
It likely goes without saying that there is much more to do here. In fact, I just collaborated with my SC&I colleagues Associate Professor of Practice Marc Aronson and Ph.D. candidate Connie Pascal to organize a virtual colloquium event earlier this October, in which a panel of LIS scholars—including Drs. Emily Knox, Beth Brendler, and Melanie Ramdarshan Bold—explored the topic in (lively!) conversation. A recording will be made available on the MI Colloquium YouTube page soon.
What else will such a definition achieve for the public, libraries, and social movements?
My hope is that some of the work I’ve done here to define diverse books can be adapted for other, non-book-related instances of diversity discourse. There are abundant and thoughtful critiques of that discourse, which often evades or even inhibits anti-oppressive political work. I think a pragmatic approach—one that asks what we are trying to achieve by deploying the term or conceptual category—might prove promising for realigning diversity talk with legitimate social justice aims.