Recently I read an article in Library Journal about a panel held at ALA Annual that encouraged the ALA to do more to promote diversity in the field. I’m certainly not the first blogger to discuss the uncomfortable racial demographics that exists in the information field and I will not bring any earth-shattering solution to the table. Instead, I want us to think about what diversity really is, why do we care so much about it, how would it help our profession and, ultimately, the population we serve.
Austin’s No-Majority and the iSchool
Talking about the state of diversity discipline-wide is outside the purview of this article; instead, I want to focus on the city where I live, work, and go to school: Austin, Texas. Austin is a particularly unique city because it has no racial majority: the white population in the city has dropped below 50% and the second largest racial group, Hispanics, are sitting right around 40%. This population trend is evident in the services the Austin Public Library offers, namely the New Immigrant Centers located in eight (of 21) branches. NICs have computers with ESL software, bookmarked links to citizenship and immigration websites, and guides to job and house hunting. Austin Public Library is aware of the growing need to serve a diversified (read: non-white) population and, in my opinion, does a pretty good job. Nearly every professional job posting at APL prefers a candidate who can speak Spanish.
Unfortunately, the librarians entering the Austin job market aren’t as diversified as the population. Many professional librarians at APL matriculated from the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information. Let’s take a look at who makes up the iSchool student body:
According to the 2010-2011 Statistical Handbook of the University of Texas at Austin (see page 38 of the “Students” PDF), there were 268 graduate students in the iSchool in the Fall semester of 2010. Of those, 207 (77%) are white; 26 (10%) are Hispanic and the remaining students are comprised of black, Asian, Native American, and Pacific Islander. Not even close to representative of the population we will eventually be serving. And unlike some other programs that require a course in diversity (such as UCLA’s Ethics, Diversity, and Change), the iSchool doesn’t.
The Value of Diversity
Its easy to look at these numbers and think, well, so what? I’m inclined to do the same, particularly because the Austin Public Library seems so well attuned to the changing demographics and implementing new services to reflect those changes. What does a diversified library staff mean, anyway? What is all this diversity fuss really about?
Diversity should mean more than just scholarships, quotas, and pats on the back. Striving for a more diversified library staff should be about the integration of the library into the community. Community-integration requires mindfulness of the library’s location in the city, its collections, its policies and yes, the people working there. In my statement of purpose to the iSchool I talked about entering librarianship to be a part of community building and what I called community-based collections and organizing, a process that involves creating relevant, comprehensive and sensibly organized libraries that engage all members of the community. The fact that so few people of color choose to not enter this field (and yes I realize there are myriad reasons higher education is inaccessible to people of color or why those who do would want to choose something with a bit more earning potential) could mean that we, as librarians and community members, are out of touch with our communities.
What can LIS education do about it?
I’ll be the first to admit that the lack of diversity in the information profession is complicated, messy, and has no straightforward solution. The first step, though, has to start with ourselves. If your program doesn’t require an internship or some other field experience, do it anyway. Find out where you live, who you live with, what services are offered, what services aren’t, and who is satisfied. If your course guide is lacking in critical analyses of race, gender, and other sociopolitical demographics, take one in another department. Bring it up in class. Let’s demand a space for the uncomfortable, challenging, and important conversations.
Secondly, as Melody Dworak suggested in her blog, we should try to consult with other “pink collar” and predominately white workforces. Do they know something we don’t? I think she’s really on to something when she suggests we look for other ways into the profession that don’t cost as much time and money as a two-year graduate degree. We, as the future of the profession, need to figure out what roadblocks to the profession exist and what we need to do about them.
We’re facing a critical time for the information profession. I hope the future brings new meanings and responsibilities to librarianship, but more than anything else I hope we find a way to become an essential service to our communities. And we’re not going to do that by all looking the same.