Diversity in LIS Education

This is a post I originally posted on my blog after being inspired by Micah’s post on diversity in LIS. I agree with Micah that the best way to start promoting diversity is to start talking, and I’ve already had some really great comments in response to this post. I’d love to hear what you have to say too!

A couple things have happened lately that have caused me to spend some serious time contemplating diversity issues in LIS. The first was a post made on a professional listserv I follow. One individual shared a letter she had written to Iowa legislators about a number of issues, including library funding. She mentioned that the letter included other issues, but that she shared it on the list for those who were struggling to find words when talking to elected officials about libraries. For those of you who aren’t from Iowa, you may or may not know that a lot of people here are very divided at the moment over the issue of gay marriage, and the fact that this woman’s letter included mention of her support for gay marriage was upsetting to some other list members.
One member’s response was basically, “if she wants to go against what THE BIBLE says, that’s her right, but keep libraries out of it.” I tend to stay away from angry listserv discussions (people get riled up about everything from tuna fish to book boards on the lists I follow, and most of the time I just sigh and delete the thread), but this instance was one where I felt compelled to respond and say that the list included non-Christian individuals, and that not only did that response make them uncomfortable, it took time and attention away from the library issues the list was created to discuss. I did not mention my stance on gay marriage in the hopes that I could diffuse things rather than add my own anger to the discussion (but, for the record, I’m an ardent supporter!) I also wanted to avoid belittling the author’s views, because she has most likely formed them with as much care as I have formed my own.
This angry response, and a number of others on both sides, gave me a chance to reflect on what was happening. Are these discussions we should be having on professional listservs? I think the answer can be yes, but the trick is how we approach it. As librarians and info pros, we are in charge of providing information to people and (I hope) focusing more heavily on what their needs are than what about them we don’t like. I suspect most of us do this very well, and so the list might be a place we can talk about how to provide services to diverse groups or, maybe, even to discuss our own views or how we react when confronted with a patron we find challenging. My request is that we refrain from the anger and divisiveness I saw in some of those responses and focus instead on the issues and on discussion rather than on tearing each other down. About a week later, Micah Vandegrift published this awesome diversity post on the Hack Library School blog, and it made me think that maybe now would be a good time to share some of the thoughts I’ve had on diversity since I’ve been in LIS.
Anyone who’s in LIS (probably) knows that our field is *white.* It’s mostly white, middle class women to be exact. There are some men in my program, but only a handful, and the same can be said for racial diversity. Like Micah, I’ve done my share of studying hegemony and could write papers on the way our society is structured to create and reinforce privilege. As someone who’ll be devoting quite a bit of my life to the academy, this is interesting to think about, because academia, in many ways, is an institution accessible to those with some degree of money and privilege. Sometimes, I feel like participating in the academy is another way I’m participating in an institution that supports hegemony. It can be frustrating, and it makes me feel like I’ve gotten progressively more stumbly and awkward discussing diversity because there’s so little opportunity for those discussions.
I’m grateful that we have awesome faculty, and that I’ve found a couple students here and there who I can sit down with and grapple with these issues. That being said, I also feel like not everyone feels especially comfortable having discussions about privilege and the ways in which institutions support privilege, because it forces them to confront the fact that being a white, middle class woman comes with a pretty hefty dose of privilege (want some good examples? See Peggy McIntosh’s awesome article). In Social Informatics, I remember students getting visibly uncomfortable during discussions of difference and privilege, and this made me feel uncomfortable too! The important thing to remember is that these discussions are *really* uncomfortable, but that’s not a bad thing. We have to confront our discomfort at being told that things that we take for granted (like the color of bandages!) are privileges not shared by everyone. I think this would be a huge help for LIS students both as providers of services (how does our social structure shape those services, how well people can access them, etc.?) and as members of a field where diversity is something we hope to promote! I think we also need to broaden our concept of diversity to include not only racial diversity, but also sexual orientation, disability, gender (more men!), and any other myriad ways in which we are all unique. LIS students (and faculty, new professionals, and anyone else): what are ways we can engage in constructive and respectful discussion with the end goal of educating and fostering understanding?
So how do we promote diversity in our field? This is a question I don’t really have an answer to (and if you have ideas, I would love to hear them!) One thing I think we should avoid is measuring our success in building a diverse field through numbers alone. Saying, ‘wow, the percentage of black librarians has gone up from 2% to 5%!’ (I have no ideas how accurate those numbers are) is a great jumping off point for saying our field has gotten more diverse, but if we just look at the numbers we risk narrowing our vision of the field by focusing on how we appear on paper than on why we want to be diverse in the first place! It also risks turning a group of people into nothing but numbers rather than the complex creatures all people are, which isn’t fair to the professionals we’re talking about or to the people discussing the numbers. I propose that one way to help make LIS more diverse is to include everyone in the discussion: what makes this field attractive? Are there ways that we can promote access to education for underprivileged groups? Most importantly, what does diversity mean to LIS? By this I’m thinking how much we gain from increasing diversity: by bringing in a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, we can better understand the people we work with and the world we live in. Thoughts? Ideas?

Categories: Diversity

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4 replies

  1. Thinking about Micah’s post last night, I was looking around my classroom and realized I am a bit spoiled. Our IS program really is diverse, in every sense of the word. Our faculty, however, is not. It really reflects your point on the privilege of academia. UCLA has such strong and amazing ethnic and gender studies programs; I would love to see what the combination of a specialization in say, Chicano Studies and IS would look like. I really believe that a solution to a lot of challenges in IS can come through interdepartmental and interspecialization projects and partnerships.


    • A bit off topic but I have also thought that interdepartmental projects could really work with LIS. Simmons has a very strong Social Work program and I know that they do some collaboration at the LIS PhD level but I think it would be great on a Master’s level.


  2. I agree! It seems like we are in a field that would be great for interdisciplinary work, especially for studying work with different populations or getting different perspectives about our work. Britt, I am glad you mentioned the lack of diversity in faculty, because it is a symptom of privilege. It will be interesting to see how (or whether) diversity is expressed in future generations of LIS faculty.


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