Monthly Archives: November 2019

How diverse is your collection?

Submitted by Barbara Opar, Librarian for Architecture, Syracuse University Libraries

This is the latest piece in what has become an ongoing dialogue about existing architecture collections, censorship and diversity.

This past April, my initial 2019 ARLIS Collection Development SIG column addressed the Shitty Architecture Men list of 2018 and the reactions of some library patrons and staff to certain materials in our small branch.  See https://arlisnacdsig.wordpress.com/2019/04/12/metoo-and-the-library/. My second column, written earlier this month: https://arlisnacdsig.wordpress.com/2019/10/02/gatekeeping-and-library-ethics-101-barbara-opar/ includes the results of a brief survey distributed late spring to both the ARLIS and AASL listservs as well as students and faculty here at Syracuse.  Some suggestions to “downplay” those architects include refraining from displaying their books, removing such titles to storage and/ or not purchasing new works on those architects. One recommendation from the survey: “I’d say simply stop buying new materials on this person.”

Should we/Could we?  What are the consequences?  How would this affect our image as a library that prides itself on keeping up with new acquisitions? Would we be limiting access to current projects by some major architects? Many current publications focus on the newest works and those are often the projects selected by faculty for study. One response could be that periodicals address the newest works. At the same time, in most institutions current periodicals do not circulate. So we could be restricting easy access to research by failing to buy new titles.

Another respondent stressed “Invest in alternative voices. Seek out more resources on female architects and people of color, etc.–i.e. give more choices to patrons.”  Diversifying our collections is an excellent strategy. It coincides with one of ALA’s 11 core values. However, this task also requires additional work on the part of the selector. The librarian must research the alternative voices and then determine if there are indeed published resources available to add to holdings. Comparing the holdings of other institutions- such as historically black institutions-is one tactic. Libraries with robust budgets may have also collected more broadly.  Institutions with strong gender studies departments may have more diverse library holdings. Organizations within schools may be able to assist with the research and identify names, topics and/or terms.

That introduces another issue. Students need to know these names.  As a librarian, you can certainly create new book displays around these resources. What about after that? Faculty have to be willing to take the time to create assignments that include a more diverse list of architects. Often we see the same names and same projects appear year after year in coursework. How can you help students expand their understanding of the field? The Library of Congress categorizes general histories of women in architecture as NA 1997. That does not address the issue of individual women architects. What about black architects? The call number NA 2543 covers gender and race! What if students do not know that Merrill Elam is a woman or that Paul Williams was a highly regarded black architect in the 1930s. The use of reference works has somewhat gone out of fashion but should be encouraged (including over Google). Bibliographies and pathfinders too are no longer regularly consulted or being compiled with any frequency. However, they remain important ways to extract such information.

Historical biases, lack of publishing possibilities, and even the academy have led to uneven collections. Diversifying our collections is well worth the effort. “The fix” though will take time and effort.  Collection analysis will not be straightforward.  Tools like the Diverse Bookfinder focus on children and picture books. Reference tools, bibliographies and the other methods suggested earlier in this column will be more helpful. Are there specific publishers to add to approval plans?  In terms of cataloging, though, metadata in itself is limiting. Access and exposure to unique resources requires catalogs to be more explicit and nuanced. Does that labeling create other issues?

So we return to the theme of the Starchitect who is often a white man and could have been on that 2018 list. What should we do? I would side with those who stress we have no right to censor our collections. Our collections need to align with the resources needed by faculty and students for teaching and research. These two points are key. Yet in order to provide new and diverse materials we may have to choose a new and different title over adding more material on an architect on whom we have sufficient material. We must weigh the decision and be sure that we are not compromising collections we do hold. At the same time, we must not be passive selectors. We have a responsibility to seek out diverse resources. Institutional funds might be available to address legacies of bias. Being mindful will eventually improve the scope of our holdings. We must become more proactive in how we address collections holdings and gaps.  Finally, we must help each other to identify new and different resources and improve diversity  across the discipline and our institutions.

Comments and ideas welcome. Email me at baopar@syr.edu.