Reading is an essential activity for developing vocabulary, fluency and the other foundational literacy skills that students need for success in school and in life. In addition, having a diverse range of authors, genres and perspectives for students to choose from is a critical strategy for getting them interested in reading and encouraging them to read more frequently.

We all want to see characters who are like us in the books we read. When we can identify with the characters and relate to their circumstances, it helps us connect more deeply with their stories. In today’s diverse world, it’s more important than ever that students’ reading choices should be equally representative.

Giving Students Mirrors and Windows

In her famous 1990 essay, Ohio State University professor Rudine Sims Bishop coined the idea of books as both “mirrors” and “windows.” Mirrors give students the opportunity to see themselves and their lives reflected in the texts they read, while windows grant them an understanding of and appreciation for experiences that are different from their own.

When they see themselves represented, students feel seen, validated and affirmed. They learn that their stories and identities matter, and they see possibilities for who and what they can become. Conversely, “when children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part,” Bishop wrote. This, in turn, can make them less motivated to keep reading.

That said, it’s just as important for students to expand their worldviews by reading stories that show experiences other than their own. Exposure to characters with different backgrounds and lifestyles can be critical to helping students develop empathy for others.

Overcoming Hurdles

Having a diverse range of authors and perspectives represented in school library collections makes it much more likely that students will find books that interest them. It helps encourage them to become lifelong readers and more well-rounded and empathetic citizens. Yet, school libraries face a number of key challenges in providing more diverse and inclusive reading options for students.

For instance, librarians can conduct a diversity audit to determine how inclusive their collections are and where there might be omissions that need addressing. However, this process can be very time-consuming, and school librarians are often constrained by budgetary pressures that make it difficult to assess their collections and purchase individual titles that fill diversity gaps.

One way school libraries can overcome these challenges is by using their digital reading platforms. Digital books simplify the process of diversifying your school’s collection in several ways:

  • Offer faster access to inclusive ebooks and audiobooks that can help make the school library more representative and appealing to all students
  • Cater to students of all reading levels and abilities with audio support, translation tools and adjustable display options
  • Use data to effectively identify gaps
  • Provide easy access to curated lists of suggested titles to quickly fill these gaps

Plus, a digital reading platform makes it possible to share books across schools in a district and create more equitable access to learning resources.

Success at Orange City School District

At Orange City School District (OCSD) in Ohio, the mission of our school library program is to ensure that students become 1.) effective users of ideas and information, 2.) independent, lifelong learners, and 3.) socially responsible citizens.

To achieve these goals, students need access to a wide range of books and perspectives, and we need to ensure that our library collections reflect the diverse makeup of our own community.

In OCSD, about 70 percent of our students are white, 15 to 20 percent are Black and 9 percent are Asian. In running diversity reports to assess our collections, we discovered that we needed more books exploring Black and Asian perspectives, so we’ve begun purchasing more titles to fill that need and create better balance.

Our students can also browse and borrow titles from our local public library’s digital collection, which greatly expands their access to diverse and age-appropriate ebooks and audiobooks. Our students love the fact that they can get instant access to a larger universe of titles that match their interests and interact with these titles on their devices.

Finally, during this past school year, we experienced an influx of students whose families emigrated from countries such as Ukraine. Many of these students had very little exposure to the English language, and we needed resources to help them learn and thrive while they developed their English skills. Luckily, we were quickly able to add a collection of titles in the students’ native language that they could access—and our public library shared applicable resources as well.

When students have access to diverse titles spanning a variety of interests and perspectives, they are more likely to find titles that spark an interest in reading—and the more they read, the more literate they become. Reading also exposes students to a broader range of ideas and outlooks, which prepares them for success as global citizens.

About the author

Betsey Lee is the school librarian at Brady Middle School, part of the Orange City School District in Ohio. Her district’s digital reading platform has been invaluable in creating a diverse collection of reading materials to engage her middle school students.