Diversity: A new perspective

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.

14 thoughts on “Diversity: A new perspective

  1. “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.” —> this is powerful and I think essential for us to remember as current students and THE future of the changing field of information science. I also think the new tech tools popping up will be helpful for us to gather this information (whether or not the community we serve uses them).


  2. Amazing post, Rebecca! Diversity is a hot topic here in Portland, OR which is fast becoming one of the whitest cities in America. It is interesting to hear about Austin, a city with no racial minority, and the work that the public library is doing.

    I think you are spot on with the importance of emphasizing community analysis!


  3. ” 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.”

    Thank you for writing this … I think hackschool is probably one of the few spaces that addresses this head on. But I am unclear as to what you mean by “people of color choose to not enter enter this field” (Teaching has a lot of people of color and earns just about the same with less job satisfaction and librarianship is not all about higher education)


    • Myrna, thanks for your question. I mean that more and more people of color are attending graduate school and, fortunately, entering workforces that require graduate degrees, but still aren’t pursuing information sciences.

      You make a good point about education fields, especially teaching, and I think the library profession could learn a lot from teachers.


  4. I am super happy to see this post, and be linked to other posts on the topic, because I blogged about the exact same thing last week (http://blog.makedamarcali.com/2011/07/diversity-blues/)

    “Bring it up in class. Let’s demand a space for the uncomfortable, challenging, and important conversations.”

    This is SO important. When I I took a class on Library Service to Culturally Diverse Communities, which seemed like a great place to discuss the issue of diversity, it ended up being more a discussion about ESL services. Nobody wanted to veer into uncomfortable territory, and as the only Black person in the class, I had a hard time bringing it up myself, because of existing stereotypes about “angry black women”.

    It needs to go beyond the classroom, though. I think it’s crucial that these discussions happen among hiring committees, and library directors, and senior management, given the ways in which white privilege functions. I realize it must be a difficult thing to look at a predominantly white staff and think twice about the racial/ethnic composition of that staff – to many, it just seems ‘normal’. But people of colour have different experiences which lead to different perspectives, and those perspectives are valuable when designing programs and services because they often make assumptions (sometimes dangerous ones) visible, prompting critical thinking.

    I’ve had my own share of problems as a person of colour having pursued a library education – having surmounted the financial challenges, and dealt with being marginalized on a number of occasions, I am now trying to make my way into gainful employment with a host of other factors stacked against me: a non-English name, very little library experience because I had to financially support myself performing other work outside of the library sector, few opportunities to network due to job obligations or lack of funds, etc., etc.

    But I’ll find a way. And while I’m figuring it out, I need conversations like these to keep happening – they bolster my faith that people out there in the library world are thinking about the issue, and will act to change things.


    • Makeda, I completely agree with your comment about how these discussions need to go beyond the classroom. And while it is important and necessary for these ideas to be critically discussed, what really needs to happen is for these discussions to turn into real actions. It is one thing to be culturally sensitive in everyday micro-interactions with patrons, and it’s another to create institutional policies that really open up services.


    • Makeda, thanks so much! You’re totally right that these conversations need to happen among the “ones in charge.” Here’s hoping that we, the next generation of library administrators, will be able to bring these up.


  5. I came across a call for papers for a special issue of Multicultural Review called “Libraries as a public good in 21st century multicultural societies: Policy and the politics of literacy, libraries and librarianship” (http://libraryjuicepress.com/blog/?p=2932), and it struck me as a great way to continue the conversation that Rebecca began with her post here. While the suggested topics center on serving diverse users, diversity within the profession and LIS education also seems highly relevant.


  6. Ok, so I have to send a response to this girl or guy, because this is funny! We talk talk talk about diversity and then don’t take the time to actually act and reach out and encourage courses and classes to talk about the real issues of inequalities, injustice, racism, poverty, U.S. government actions, state legislation and politics, and we try to involve the local community, but don’t really understand their point of view! As a Native American I like to make people uncomfortable and let them ask me questions, because we are ignorant about American Indians in the U.S. We don’t know our history, we don’t take the time to find out the true stories. We like fiction and love to ignore the truth. Why? Because the truth hurts! When I was in library school, I told my classmates that I didn’t like to read. They were surprised! I told them I love stories, but not books. There are few book written about my tribe. Then I discovered true stories in the archives and museums. I discovered first hand the truth. It’s amazing to me to hear people talk about the future of libraries and technology, because actually the truth is that oral history and people tell our stories not technology. I love libraries and librarians, but sometimes I get angry and annoyed because they don’t understand that not everyone has access and the privilege to grow up loving books and reading. I would like to recommend to all my white colleagues and friends and librarians out there to actually think about how you can welcome people to this field that have a different perspective on things. All kinds of things. I chose this field because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. I hope to follow in the footsteps of the Native librarians before me and improve access, speak up about injustice, educate the public, read stories to little ones, welcome others into the library, share my own story, listen to others tell their stories, help others, look for opportunities to serve communities and genuinely learn about them and care for them, teach students, build bridges, look beyond the traditional library way of thinking and organizing information! Encourage publishers to publish more from Native writers, artists, and communities. I think libraries are sometimes difficult places for people of color, because they don’t often tell the people or communities story. In library school I wish I had more folks of color in my classes, but it didn’t happen. Lucky me I got to attend a ALA pre-conference called the Spectrum Leadership Institute. This gave me the opportunity to connect with librarians of color from all over the U.S. Finally I felt comfortable with speaking my mind and sharing, because people listened, learned, and connected! I encourage all librarians to support Spectrum and other ALA initiatives and affiliates and IMLS programs that encourage librarians of color to be the change that we all want to see in this world!


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