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Woman looking for books in a shop. Photo by Darwin Vegher on Unsplash

Participating in Power and Speaking to it: Making a Diversity Index

Sayward Schoonmaker and Rachel Ivy Clarke won the 2018 ASIS&T Best Paper Proposal Award for their paper, “The Critical Catalog: Giving Voice to Diverse Library Materials through Provocative Design.” Schoonmaker and Clarke also won the 2020 Jesse H. Shera Award for their article, “Metadata for Diversity: Identification and Implications of Political Access Points for Diverse Library Resources.” Their research project mentioned in this post, List of Lists: An Index of Diversity Book Lists for Adults, was supported by the ALA Carnegie Whitney Grant.

My friend is an orphan. She speaks about her identity openly—the lifelong impact of her parents’ deaths, the sudden cold shift of energy when someone new learns this information, understanding her multi-ethnicity when she is routinely read as white, existing as a cis woman in the world. We, avid phone chatters and kindred spirits, exchange the vagaries of our daily lives and speak in long intertwining tendrils of thought about, well, everything.

I told her about my experience of making an index called List of Lists: An Index of Diversity Book Lists for Adults. At every juncture—articulating the index’s scope, defining diversity and deciding what constitutes a ‘diverse’ book list, developing taxonomic terms for access, implementing an order, designing the index’s visual presentation—I was struck by the indexer’s position of power in giving name and structure, with humility and hubris, to the exceedingly complex, beautifully tangled concept of identity. In short, the index/er not only delivers messages about what diversity means, but also constructs meaning; and meaning making is a powerful enterprise.

I found it difficult to reconcile the broad strokes of the index. Many book lists speak to diversity, but my analysis remained at the list level: I did not assess the books included in any given list I encountered. One day, I told my friend that I had found a book list about orphans. Marvelously frank, she interjected that orphans in literature are either plucky youths freed from the constraints of parental influence, the wretched waif, or the foundling. In short, most books about orphans are stereotypes. I read aloud the books on the list, and she swiftly sorted them into one of the aforementioned tropes.

This was neither the first nor the last time I conversed on the shortcomings of indexing or information work at large. The index, funded by an ALA Carnegie Whitney Award, is a collaborative project with Dr. Rachel Ivy Clarke, Assistant Professor in the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Rachel and I spoke weekly about the index and every decision about the taxonomy. Oftentimes, these conversations solidified some components of the project, spurred provocative ideas, and often concluded with Rachel reminding me that “all taxonomies are wrong; some are useful.”

This is not to say that there isn’t value in the existence of the orphan book list. Someone is thinking about a particular experience of identity, marginalized or maligned in our social landscape, and this is a good thing. Broad strokes are important. We must promote the experiential breadth of marginalized individuals and communities; and providing a means to access this rich diversity of identities through indexing is vital work. We also need keen, piercing specificity of experience represented, without which we live in a land of tropes.

I think work in advancing diversity, inclusion, and equity makes an impact like an exquisite gestural drawing: broad strokes that define the picture plane intermingled with strikingly acute marks that resound of the drawer’s facture. And any good art, or any good indexing art, engenders conversation and questions. This project called forth the conversation with my friend, from whom I learned, just as I learned from every exchange with Rachel.

I see List of Lists as a slice of the landscape—of what we’ve got, both abundance and paucity of representation, and of the vital work done by library and media workers to provide access to diverse materials. I hope that List of Lists is a useful tool that expands reading horizons and provides a platform for transparent discussion about how we construct meanings of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Sayward Schoonmaker

Sayward Schoonmaker

Sayward Schoonmaker '19 is a graduate of the iSchool's M.S. in Library and Information Science program. Her academic research with Rachel Ivy Clarke won the 2018 ASIS&T Best Paper Proposal Award and the 2020 Jesse H. Shera Award for Distinguished Published Research.

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