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Diverse STEM Reading: a Layer Cake of Problems

Discover some of the diverse STEM books, documentaries, podcasts, and other items available from the ISU Library and on the web, and learn how to find more of these materials. This guide was made to accompany a 2021 ISCORE presentation.

Diverse STEM reading: What's the problem?

As librarians we are frequently asked “How do I find books by trans scientists?” or “How do I research what it’s like to be a black engineer?” but while there is increasing interest in these types of works they remain difficult to find, recommend, and purchase. This is frustrating for educators and librarians, but especially for readers who want to see diverse experiences and cultures reflected in media and education.

The truth is that not all experiences are captured in “literature.” Marginalized populations face barriers - in education, in careers, in publishing - limiting the number of formal accounts of their lives in “academic media”. Podcasts, videos, blogs, documentaries, self-published memoirs, etc. are all valid forms of personal expression and experience, so why are they not valued and included in STEM? In this session, we’ll discuss systemic participation and inclusion barriers marginalized groups face and ways we can fight this pattern in the classroom, the library, and beyond.

This guide and presentation will be of value to educators hoping to diversify and expand “reading” lists and students researching these topics.

Embedded above is a copy of the slide deck used during the presentation given at Thomas L. Hill Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE) 2021 preconference on March 3, 2021. The preconference is a day dedicated to Iowa State University staff development. We hope these slides, and guide, will be helpful to educators and librarians beyond Iowa State.

How did we get here?

There are multiple layers contributing to the problem: the STEM, publishing, and library worlds all play a role.


  • All three fields have known diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.
  • "Traditional" media formats and publishers continue to be valued more highly than alternatives.
  • Publishers and librarians can use their power to amplify diverse voices... and for gatekeeping against them. Historically, the latter has been more common.

In short, libraries can only provide access to materials that exist. Barriers in STEM and publishing prevent many accounts from diverse authors from being shared or published. And when those accounts are published, there are more barriers that make it harder for librarians to identify and purchase those materials (if they choose to do so), and for library visitors to discover them.

Explore: a novel that critiques the publishing industry's lack of diversity

Zakiya Dalila Harris' debut novel, “The Other Black Girl, critiques the publishing industry through a story of an African-American woman who works in the nearly all-white industry. 

What you can do

The situation isn't great and there's a lot of work still to be done to make sure the many diverse voices in STEM are recognized, seen, and heard. Here are some steps you can take to help make things better: decorative

  • Seek out and amplify BIPOC, queer, and female voices in STEM when and where you can
  • Learn about ways to decolonize and diversify your curriculum and reading lists without resorting to tokenism (Google it)
  • Form a reading group and engage with diverse materials in meaningful ways
  • Stop viewing books and articles as the only legitimate forms of authentic expression and experience in STEM!

If you know of diverse STEM materials not in the ISU Library collections, REQUEST A PURCHASE. :D

Why cake?

decorativeWhen we were gathering the crumbs that became our presentation's proposal Megan called the issue a "layer cake of problems". There are other analogies that we could have used, such as a puzzle or a maze, but cake is what first came to mind. Erin decided it was a great name and Megan probably watches too much Nailed It!

The decorative icon images used on this guide from Icons8

a slice of cake

This guide was made to accompany the 2021 ISCORE presentation:
Diverse STEM Reading: A Layercake of Problems :-/

Presented and created by:
Megan O'Donnell, Data Services Librarian &
Erin Thomas, Engineering Librarian

Both presenters identify as white women and recognize that this group has a disproportionate representation and influence on two of the industries that act as gatekeepers on print media: publishers and libraries.