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Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America

Innovative Initiatives by ILAB members worldwide: The ABAA Diversity Initiative promotes a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the rare book and manuscript trade

ILAB spoke to James Goldwasser and Brad Johnson at the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) about bringing new voices from diverse backgrounds into ABAA leadership and membership. An initiative that deserves attention and is setting an example.
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1.) Please explain to us the background of the ABAA's Diversity Initiative. What motivated you to initiate and drive this project? Where do you see current needs for this project?

I think Brad will be in a better position to answer this.* When I came onto the ABAA board of governors in early 2020, he asked me to chair this initiative. The association had already been at work for some time on a Women’s Initiative aimed at increasing representation and equity for women in the trade. For far too long, the ABAA has been pretty much an entirely white and predominantly male organization. Recent years in the U.S. exposed and re-energized some long-standing fractures and disparities along racial lines. Many people don’t realize that this initiative began before the widespread unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, but certainly that event and its aftermath reinforced the feeling that we all really need to do something, and that as booksellers, we are not exempt. It is easy to think of our profession as existing in its own world, separate from such concerns. This initiative is a first step in what will need to be a long-term, sustained effort.

*Brad Johnson comments:

Promoting diversity in the trade is important to me, and I believe it’s vitally important to the future of the trade. When I took office as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America in February of 2020, I made it a priority of my term. This review of our policies and traditions and how they can be updated and improved is necessary for us to be promote inclusive and remain relevant, now and into the future.

2.) What is your short-term and what is a long-term goal for you?

In the short term, I would hope for the initiative to take hold more firmly throughout the ABAA and be less tightly tied to a single committee. We have made progress in that direction, but there is plenty more to do. In the long term, I would hope that we will eventually see more people of all backgrounds feeling at ease in the ABAA and the broader rare book world, whether as customers or ABAA members.

3.) Do you work with third parties such as libraries and archives or other art market representatives and organisations linked to the rare book trade?

One of our first actions was a survey of librarians to learn from them how they see the issues and where they see the greatest needs. The special collections community has been pretty far ahead of us in pursuing diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have been in touch with several people involved in those projects. I would certainly hope that, given the close and functional relationship between the library world and the bookselling world, cooperation in these efforts will lead to mutually beneficial relations.

4.) Is the ABAA working on particular guidelines, policies or planning open debates and symposia?

We are working on recommendations for cataloguing and display of sensitive or potentially offensive materials. The aim is not to impose certain codes, but, as our mission statement suggests, to foster a welcoming community. We have heard numerous stories of people who’ve been put off by encountering things like lynching postcards on display, or racist caricatures described as “African Americana.” There are small steps that we can take as individual booksellers to make sure that we are not alienating people.

5.) How has the initiative been communicated to the members and how has it been perceived?

The initiative has been communicated mainly via minutes of board meetings and announcements published via our internal email listserv, as well as through more informal conversations –although pandemic restrictions have made that part particularly difficult. The perception of it has been sort of mixed and not without controversy. These are difficult issues to discuss, and email threads don’t always provide the best means of communication. I think that there is widespread consensus that the pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion is and should be an important goal.

6.) What is your wish for 2022?

In 2022 we will be launching one of our most hopeful efforts: a paid internship program that aims to place advanced students or recent graduates from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) with ABAA dealers for a ten-week summer internship to learn fundamentals of the rare book business. We have obtained some generous corporate and private funding for this program specifically, so, I hope that it will be able to get off to a robust start. I also hope that we will be able to build on an effort that came out of the Women’s Initiative: a mentorship program pairing young booksellers with ABAA mentors to help prepare them for eventual membership and participation in ABAA fairs. I hope that we may be able to have a representation of greater diversity as that program continues to develop.

James and Brad, we thank you for this interview and background and wish you much success with the programme. Please keep us and the book trade informed about future developments.

Summary (source ABAA website): The ABAA formed the Diversity Initiative to promote a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the rare book and manuscript trade generally and the ABAA membership in particular. Its aim is to foster a community welcoming to all participants irrespective of race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, physical disability, or gender identity. The Diversity Initiative is an organization-wide effort, advising the Board of Governors and its committees to ensure that ABAA acts against any barriers to participation of LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and underrepresented groups in the world of book collecting; to bring new voices from diverse backgrounds into ABAA leadership and membership; and to maintain policies, procedures, and communications that are free from bias.

Interview: Angelika Elstner