By Elizabeth Wroten
The State of the: Biography Collection
On 21, Mar 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
One of my goals and major projects this year has been to examine the different sections of our collection, weed and update them, ensure they are being used, and introducing more diversity into them. I’m going to start sharing the numbers and my ideas on how I’m going to improve the collections.
The biography collection is broken into two sections- yellow and red/blue- that very loosely indicate the reading level of the books. Many of our picture book biographies are in the red/blue section. The colors are indicated by stickers on the spines of the books. There are two series that are set aside on the shelves (more on them below).
There are 533 books in the collection about 423 subjects (people). There are 270 books in yellow about 219 subjects and 216 books in red/blue about 204 subjects. Note that there are books in the red/blue section and in the yellow section that overlap on subject (person) which when you look at the pie charts makes it seem like there are more subjects than there are.
329 are men 138 are women
338 are American 129 are not (as per traditional curriculums we study a lot of American history which in part explains the big difference in these numbers)
319 are White, 83 are Black, 2 are Asian, 22 are Native American, 26 are Latino/Hispanic, and 15 are Other.
(If you want to see the charts and graphs in Google Sheets click here.)
If you want me to name names here’s a link to my list that’s broken up into the series and sections. The Childhood of Famous Americans series is yellow (it’s not listed as such in the document). The Who Is…?/Who Was..? series is considered red/blue. And the DK Biography series is yellow.
We have two series of biographies, the Who Is…?/Who Was…? and Childhoods of Famous Americans.
The former works well enough for our third grade biography project and the later is hit or miss. My biggest complaint is that they read much like a novel with dialog and detailed scenes from the person’s life. I think this gives the wrong impression for our younger readers who are not nearly as savvy as older readers and may confuse this for fact. I also find they have a huge range of reading levels (400L-980L with most falling in the upper 500s to 700s range) which makes it hard to say they work well for classes with a mix of readers. It’s also very hard for kids in lower school to pull information out of what they are reading, understand it, and put it into their own words. Adding the invented dialog and novelization of the information makes that even harder for them.
I decided to find Lexile numbers for the Who Is…?/Who Was…? series. Turns out they are just as high if not consistently higher than the Childhood series. I think it works out well enough, though. The Who Is…? breaks up the information more and intersperses pictures more frequently. They are also more factual than novelized. This makes pulling information out of them a little easier.
As a side note I don’t find Lexile numbers especially useful except in relation to one another (is one book harder than another). I find their grade level ranges often don’t apply to my students and overlap a lot. I also hate to limit children’s reading based on reading level. I’ve talked about this before at length, but thought I would mention it again. I do like them as a reference point though which is why I include them with my chapter book reviews and in this series.
Thoughts & Concerns
Well, the numbers don’t lie. I know this is just a slice of our collection, but I’m sure it’s a microcosm. To be honest, it’s probably a better balance than most of the rest of the collection. I also know it directly supports curriculum and learning of our students. We may say we support diversity, but these numbers are pretty abysmal. I don’t think this is intentional, however we can do better. MUCH, MUCH BETTER. I can think of two ways we can do that. First is by weeding out biographies that are old, incorrect, or don’t circulate. Second we can buy more, A LOT MORE, biographies of people who are not white and who are women. For an expensive private school we have a surprisingly diverse population and our library collection needs to reflect that. Our students, white and not white, deserve that.
One aspect I want to look at are the picture book biographies. I want to be sure that they are in the correct reading level sections. None of the collection sees much circulation outside the third grade biography project and I think picture books for older readers, unless they are being hand sold to kids, don’t tend to circulate. I think they might circulate better if they were in the red/blue section, but only if they aren’t way too hard or contain older content. Plus, the third grade tends to rely on our yellow biography section and while the picture books are great starting points they do not often contain enough information to be a single source for the project and so they may be better down in red/blue.
Per my observation a few weeks ago that many children’s nonfiction books perpetuate incorrect information I am concerned that our biographies do just that. I am also concerned that they do not portray history accurately enough e.g. they whitewash a lot of it. I am at a loss of what to do about it considering that I cannot read and fact check all the books in our collection. I am withdrawing the worst offenders, but that only goes so far and admittedly doesn’t get rid of the most egregious books or worst offenders.
Just a few more thoughts about these statistics. The first is that there are a few books missing out of the collection that are checked out. They won’t actually make much, if any, difference in our numbers, though.
I also want to add that this doesn’t actually drill down deeper into the collection. I did not examine the books about people of color to see who wrote them. I suspect many were by white authors (although not all) which makes a difference. And the same is true about the authors in the collection in general- I don’t know how many are people of color.
I largely ignored sexual orientation and religion. Quite frankly the numbers are just so overwhelming that it wasn’t worth it. There are maybe three Muslims in the collection (Muhammad Ali , Saladin, and Malcolm X). There are maybe as many jews (Anne Frank being one and a man in connection with her). As far as sexual orientation, we don’t really deal with that too much in the lower school as a stand alone issue. We do have biographies of Bill Peet and a few others who were gay, but I’m not sure that’s even mentioned in the biographies.
I would also like to add that while many biographies about white subjects can and should be weeded, unfortunately many of the biographies about people of color need to be weeded too. I just read yesterday one of our biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. In it the book uses the n-word twice. TWICE! And says nothing about the word and only implies it as an insult, to say nothing of calling it out for the racial slur that it is. The book is also so old it refers to African Americans as Negroes and colored people. If I’m not mistaken, these terms are outdated and maybe even insulting.
Finally, going back to the idea that our numbers aren’t intentionally bad. This is problematic, though, because with the current state of the publishing industry we need to be intentional in what we are adding to our collection. This is especially true when we want to ensure we have a diverse collection. To that end I will be looking at the books we’ve added just this year.