Diversifying reading lists should not be skin deep


It may have taken a while, but universities are finally coming around to the idea that their reading lists are too white and too male.

In almost every campus in the UK and US, “decolonise the curricula” pushes are being taken seriously, and nowhere more so than in libraries. The subject is one many librarians feel strongly about, and there is much eagerness to help academics diversify their reading lists. At the University of Bradford, for instance, we are in the early stages of drawing together guidelines that will make clear the practical and ideological issues that academics should consider when reviewing their required reading.

Not that any agreement is likely to be reached easily, of course. For starters, much will depend on what we decide we mean by “diversity” in the first place. Our neighbours at the University of Huddersfield understand it to relate to the ethnic, sexual and gender identities of authors. Others, such as the University of Kent, go considerably further, asking scholars also to reflect on the class, nationality and disability backgrounds of authors, too – while also taking into account intellectual and viewpoint diversity.

Asking scholars to consult checklists to avoid “male, pale and stale” authors might appear to be unwarranted meddling. Worse still, it could appear to subscribe to some of the more divisive identity politics pushed by the National Union of Students in recent years. But university librarians tend to see things differently.

The reason perhaps lies in their culture. On the whole, academic libraries are staffed by helpful people keen to see students engaged with their subject. Broadening the interest and relevance of libraries’ books and articles to potential users is thus a core part of librarians’ professional identity.

So how can we help our academics to achieve diversity of both author and viewpoint – assuming that is what we want to do? And how can we make that diversity more visible to students? On a more practical level, what should a diverse reading list look like?

One challenge that soon arises is that an author’s ethnic diversity is not always immediately apparent. Their picture is seldom included on a book’s dustjacket, so investigating this question can often require internet detective work that leads to an ambiguous institutional photo.

Another issue is whether ethnicity should be taken to concern solely people of colour, or people of all ethnic heritages. And in what proportions should the various ethnicities be included on reading lists? Some librarians suggest a ratio related to the ethnic make-up of those teaching the course. But is this feasible when some reading lists contain only a few items?

Then there is the larger problem of minority authorship in the university’s book and article collections more generally. The University of West London is “aiming to match BAME representation of academic staff in the London region for [all] our purchasing by 2023 (or sooner if we can)”, Davina Omar, its head of academic support, has told me. But it is not yet clear that this kind of acquisition is possible in many subjects without a major upturn in publication by minority authors.

Here at Bradford, one colleague has suggested to me that any ratios should be based on student ethnicity. Another colleague, however, thinks this is “over the top”, not to mention an ethical minefield for academics to navigate.

“Academics are busy and highly intelligent people,” Joe Nyantika, our nursing and midwifery librarian, told me. “Are we really going to suggest that they spend hours of their valuable time looking into the ethnic, gender, disability and socio-economic status of the authors on their reading lists, and then match them to the make-up of their students? I would hope that they’ve got better things to do.”

Then, there’s the key question of getting the author diversity message across. To put it bluntly, how can we make author diversity visible? By attaching photographs to the books and articles? But what about “hidden” diversity, such as disability and/or socio-economic status?

For my part, I believe that the interests of both students and the academic community as a whole are best served not by diversifying author lists at all but by placing more emphasis on intellectual diversity. I accept that at Bradford, as elsewhere, this argument is unlikely to find many adherents, but there are several reasons why I have reached this position.

My main one is that reading lists should remain free of extraneous or extracurricular interference. Put simply, I am uncomfortable with the idea that reading lists should be subject to any sort of author-identity considerations – except where those can be justified on intellectual grounds, such as when primary material is needed to support courses on gender or ethnicity.

Forcing diversity in reading lists is also bad for social cohesion. The idea that any student might choose to read – or, even worse, ignore – a particular book on a science course because of the racial or sexual identity of the author horrifies me. Yet that would seem to me to be a very likely consequence should some sort of author-identity policy be instituted.

Librarians’ hearts are absolutely in the right place on this issue. But universities are already littered with the consequences of well-meaning but poorly thought-out policies. We should be very careful not to add another one.

Author Bio: Martin Levy is a librarian at the University of Bradford.