When I applied to library school, I knew I was taking a risk. I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in American Ethnic Studies (AES) and my classes were always filled with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Sure, my English classes, my other major, were full of white people and I had grown up in a predominantly white suburb, but I felt lucky that I had so many positive experiences in AES. But looking around at my MLIS orientation I knew that this would be different. My program, and as an extension the field, looked nothing like me. How was I going to survive three years, especially as an online student?
Librarianship continues to be overwhelmingly white and many MLIS programs reflect this. White librarians make up over 80% of the field compared to BIPOC. From 2011-2017 at Simmons SLIS, white students made up an average of 72% of students. Meanwhile, the University of Washington’s MLIS program reported that 74% of students entering the program in Autumn 2018 identified as white. This is not meant to single out individual programs but to demonstrate the difficulty of MLIS programs in recruiting BIPOC. However, with the dominance of whiteness, it isn’t surprising that recruitment efforts are still waiting to see significant results. For many BIPOC in MLIS programs, we often experience feelings of isolation, microaggressions, racism, and the pressure to educate our white peers and professors. What can we do to survive, thrive, support and open doors for other BIPOC? This series will explore resources for BIPOC in MLIS programs as well as advice from and interviews with BIPOC in the field.
Why is this important to me?
I’ve had to deal with other students arguing that social justice doesn’t belong in archival work and that librarians should focus more on LGBTQ patrons rather than immigrants since “small immigrant populations will eventually assimilate and there will always be a next generation of LGBT youth in every area.” Often there would only be one or two other BIPOC in my class, and sometimes I was the only one. There’s constant pressure to be the face or champion of diversity. Moreover, I’ve taken on so many responsibilities since I started my program because I know that, as an Asian American woman, I have to work twice as hard to be considered on the same level as my mediocre white peers. I work three jobs, have numerous volunteer positions (including this one), and serve on two different student organizations. I don’t have the privilege of being unaware and ignorant of white supremacy in librarianship and archives. I have to delve into my traumas in scholarship applications, laying out my struggles as a woman of color for white reviewers who determine whether I have suffered enough. But you also have to be careful not to be that person who alienates their white peers with too much criticism. And while imposter syndrome plagues most MLIS students, it is tenfold for BIPOC when they don’t see themselves represented.
How do you connect with other BIPOC when you’re an online student? What’s the benefit of and where can you find BIPOC mentors? How can you combat anti-blackness and white supremacy in libraries, archives, and your own MLIS program – especially as a non-black POC? What are some important articles/books/resources that are not mentioned in MLIS classes? This series will address these issues and more.
To my fellow LIS Black, Indigenous, and People of Color: how have you hacked library school and what would you recommend to current students?
Cover photo by Markus Spiske
Kelli Yakabu is a MLIS student at the University of Washington focusing on archives. You can follow her on Twitter @kelliyakabu.