The Color of Knowledge: Diversity and Librarianship

Stacie Mari Williams will complete her M.S. in Library Science and Archives Management at Simmons College?s Graduate School of Library and Information Studies in August 2011. She currently works in Access and Reference Services at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library and sits on the board of directors of SLA-Boston as the organization’s archivist. She is interested in accessing all of the known information of the world on her smartphone, and reaching out to librar* folks, DJs, pastry chefs and Jedi knights via Twitter (@Wribrarian).

Working as a second-shift reference and access librarian at a major medical research library here in Boston, I am asked all kinds of questions. People want to know about course reserves, they want to know how they can access a certain article, they’re looking for specific information on histopathology, or want to be able to find their h-index. And of course, many people still just want to know where the bathroom is. One slow May evening, when these requests had trickled down to an intermittent drip, a regular patron came to the desk with a decidedly unrelated medical reference question. “Who is Oprah Winfrey,” she asked in her still-strong accent, “And why is she so famous?” The patron, a researcher from Eastern Europe, kept hearing references to the queen of talk’s final show and was quite curious. I answered, but the patron persisted with a line of questioning that took an interesting and unexpected turn. “She is from humble background, yes? How did she get to be so famous and rich and not others?”

It turned out as we waded through this particular reference interview that what she wanted to know was how did a black woman, and this black woman in particular, manage to rise above what she understood to be oppressive American racism to become so wealthy and influential. Each subsequent question took us down more of what I refer to as “reference rabbit holes.”

“What kind of last name is Winfrey,” she asked. Then I have to give a miniature history lesson about how slaves were generally given their owners’ names, and how those last names became the names of many African `Americans in this country. “She is brown like you,” the patron says, “and not darker, so she has different blood, yes?” Then I explained that while yes, there is significant dilution among African Americans (and all of us, really, as this book reveals), we come in so many shades that a skin color is not the best indicator of your family bloodline. It became a  discussion, about how slavery destroyed the black family structure, rape of slaves by their owners, lynchings, Thomas Jefferson, “The Color Purple” and Stephen Spielburg, along with a brief discussion of the Holocaust, and Jim Crow vs. institutional racism.

Now if you’re reading this and you are thinking that my patron is racist or unintelligent, I would beg the contrary. The fact is that it’s easy to underestimate what an average person knows about America. Luckily, I work in an information services field. My library has an extremely international patron population; there are people studying and teaching medicine from all over the world. How must Jim Crow look to people from another country?

This is where diversity comes in. I am the only visible black librarian at this library. We have an African-American man who works in the bindery department and another African-American female who works in the publications department, but I am the only one who regularly interacts with patrons, answering questions, taking calls and greeting others from a main location in the library. In the days after that conversation, I wondered how might it have been different if one of my co-workers had been asked those questions. I believe that she waited to ask me and she felt comfortable. Is this a bad thing? No. I think it is a perfect illustration of how we can better serve our patrons by having a diverse staff.

We all bring something different to the job. We comprise a variety of previous experiences, undergraduate degrees (no, not all of us majored in history or English), socioeconomic experiences, living experiences, and learning experiences. But the one glaring area that the field is lacking is in regard to race. According to the 2011 Current Population Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 83.9 percent of current librarians are white. Even though we as people are not just limited to our color, the fact is that color shades our cultural experiences and affects how we move about in the world and receive and share information. Having a diverse staff can help people access resources and receive information in a way that they are comfortable with.

I reflect on this post after having attended ALA 2011 annual conference in New Orleans as a Spectrum Scholar, the program created by the ALA to counteract the underrepresentation of librarians of color in the field. I sat in a room with dozens of library students receiving an intensive series of panels and discussions designed to help us with interviewing, mentoring, brand building and integrating diverse resources into our organizations. It was an incredible experience, and one that hopefully is prepping all of us for leadership roles to make it that much more likely that we could have the hiring power to increase diversity. I believe in the program and am honored by the responsibility. But I also realize that diversity is bigger than the program. It is the interactions I have with my patrons, the suggestions I make to the collections development manager, ideas that I make for outreach and instruction, and my willingness to also take advice and suggestions on those things. I look forward to collaborating with my co-workers, who have shown me that they care just as much about this issue as I do. I can only hope that others see it as a priority, too, and that it can only enhance all of the many things we offer to our patrons.

Categories: Diversity

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13 replies

  1. This is a lovely anecdote and an interesting perspective on the issue. With all the resource-driven coursework we might take, we must not forget that *we* are a resource for information, too. This is a great reminder that points to the importance of building a staff with diverse backgrounds and experiences.


  2. Thank You! Thank you! Thank You! I too have had many similar types of reference questions at the desk from students and even faculty about Native Americans. I have so many opportunities to interact with the public and educate them on American Indians in the 21st Century and American history past and present. I love these opportunities, especially with international students, because they have such great questions! They want to know about things not published in the books we have on our shelves. They want to hear stories and see pictures of my home in Arizona and growing up in the city and not on a reservation. Sharing with students and faculty is contributing to the academic learing environment especially because there are few courses in the curiculum at this institution that focus on American Indian Studies. I am continually recommending books to our American studies and history librarians, and enriching the collection with good books that are helpful to students and researchers. Thank you for writing this post and sharing this story!
    In 2009 I also participated in the Spectrum leadership Institute and I will never forget the experience! I too agree and “believe in the program and am honored by the responsibility. But I also realize that diversity is bigger than the program. It is the interactions I have with my patrons, the suggestions I make to the collections development manager, ideas that I make for outreach and instruction, and my willingness to also take advice and suggestions on those things. I look forward to collaborating with my co-workers, who have shown me that they care just as much about this issue as I do.” 🙂


  3. I love the thoughtful, measured way you handled that potentially-awkward reference question. I agree with you in that her question was not racist or even ignorant. What would have been racist/ignorant was if she just made assumptions and did not ask any questions at all. Part of what I enjoy about working in diverse population is that things that I thought I knew get tested.

    It’s a lot like science in general. I remember my favorite de-motivational poster about science reads “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t correct those mistakes, you’re doing it really wrong. If you can’t accept you’re mistaken, then you’re not doing it at all.”


  4. I am so proud to be your mother because I can see that I have steered you on the right course of world wide thinking! I can only continue to thank God for sending you to me. Mom


  5. Great perspective! I’m proud to be adding myself to the future librarians of color list. I’m biracial, Jewish, and adopted, so I hope that adds a lot of diversity to the field. And I’m glad to see that I’m entering Simmons and the Spectrum program as awesome people like you are leaving it! It makes me feel like I’m going into something really rewarding and thought provoking. Thanks for this.


  6. Thank you for providing such a wonderful narrative of your experience. I haven’t come across experiences/stories posted in the web from librarians of color, so your HLS entry was a real treat to read. I will be entering my first year for a MLIS degree and am a 2011 Spectrum Scholarship recipient, and am excited to dive in and become an information professional such as yourself.


  7. Barely looked at this since it posted, but just wanted to say good luck to the upcoming Spectrum recipients. It really is an amazing program and there’s a considerable amount that you can get out of it.


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