Recognition of the need to address diversity in education has steadily increased in recent years yet a clear definition of what diversity means remains elusive. The Council for Exceptional Children defines diversity as “understanding and valuing the characteristics and beliefs of those who demonstrate a wide range of characteristics. This includes ethnic and racial backgrounds, age, physical and cognitive abilities, family status, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religious and spiritual values, and geographic location” (CEC website). This broad, yet accurate, view of diversity must drive the work of elementary educators including information professionals and library staff. Specifically, the approach and strategies used by school libraries to address the needs of a diverse student population must be as wide-ranging and all-encompassing as the definition of diversity itself.
Ethnicity, Race, and Culture
Perhaps more than any other element, differences in ethnicity, race, and culture are traditionally thought of when discussing diversity. It remains critically important for school librarians to recognize and respect the needs of the increasingly diverse school population. Minority students are more likely to face challenges in accessing information, technologies, and educational opportunities. So, while important, addressing cultural diversity is more than simply stocking books and materials that reflect the cultural and racial background of each student. In addition, students from minority populations may also belong to one of the other areas of diversity, creating complications and conflicts in the librarian’s ability to meet their needs.
What is more, even in the most homogeneous school populations, the library must be the arena to promote awareness of cultural diversity. A reading program in which students are presented Cinderella stories from a number of different cultures can be used to increase student understanding and appreciation of different cultures.
Physical and Cognitive Ability
In today’s public schools, students with varying physical and cognitive abilities are being increasingly mainstreamed. This mainstreaming does not stop at the door of the classroom. School libraries can make an important contribution to the education of students with disabilities, especially in teaching them information skills that will assist them in accessing information that will be important to their daily living. School librarians must understand these needs and, specifically, work with the Special Education staff to ensure these needs are met.
According to Murray (1999), school libraries can, and do, positively contribute to students facing physical challenges, “particularly in providing opportunities for collaboration and teamwork, in exercising independence, and in creating perceptions of value and acceptance.”
Credaro, A. (2006). School Libraries: Catering to the Special Needs of Children. Warrior Librarian. http://www.warriorlibrarian.com/LIBRARY/kidsneeds.html. Accessed November 29, 2009.
Love, E. (2007). Building Bridges: Cultivating Partnerships between Libraries and Minority Student Services. Education Libraries, 30(1), 13 – 19.
Murray, J. (1999). An Inclusive School Library for the 21st Century: Fostering Independence. IFLA Council and General Conference, August 20-28, 1998.
Murray, J. (2000). Training School Library Staff To Cater for Diversity. Education for Information. 18(4), 313-23.
Murray, J. (2001). Teaching Information Skills to Students with Disabilities: What Works? School Libraries Worldwide. 7(2), 1 – 16.
Murray, J. (2002). The Implications of Inclusive Schooling for School Libraries. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education. 49(3), 301-322.