What We’re Not Talking About When We Talk About Diversity

A few years back I read an article by Winston Rowntree titled “5 Responses to Sexism That Just Make Everything Worse,” and there’s a section on questioning institutions that has always stuck with me. Using the example of investment banking and inquiries into why women just don’t seem to be interested in it, Rowntree says that the “point is just to illustrate that what men do is automatically seen as desirable, as opposed to maybe asking if maybe something having no women in it maybe means it’s maybe bullshit maybe.” Every time the lack of diversity in librarianship comes up I think about this line. The field is so overwhelmingly white, female, and middle-class that it makes me wonder if the problem isn’t that we (the people already in the field) aren’t being nice and supportive enough to people of color, people from different economic brackets, people who aren’t mainstream Protestant Christians. Maybe librarianship is maybe bullshit maybe.

Now I’m not racking up crippling student loan debt to go into a field I believe is bullshit. I think libraries are assets to their communities, like parks and robust public transportation. Library school is the most fun I’ve had outside of the penguin habitat at the Detroit Zoo. It’s just that I get the feeling that there’s something wrong with the profession’s culture, something that can’t be fixed by a really nice display for Black History Month and the Spectrum Scholarship. I suspect that I’m so enmeshed in the culture that I’ll never be able to see the problem clearly, but I’m going to try.

This is going to be a bit of a stretch, but bear with me—part of the problem is the narrative casting the library as the Last Bastion of Democracy and Everything That Is Good. You’re not an over-educated barely-paid customer service flunky, you’re a hero! You’re bringing learning to the ignorant, comfort to the outcast, and healing to the sick. You’re special. Anybody can go to the library, but it takes a special kind of person to work in one, says the narrative. So when somebody Not Like You wants to join the special ranks, it creates a cognitive dissonance. It upsets the narrative. People Not Like You are meant to be helped. If they’re looking for a seat at the special table instead, what happens then?

This ties into the second narrative surrounding libraries, where there’s Not Enough. There’s not enough funding, enough resources, enough jobs, enough staff, enough respect. Everything’s been going downhill for libraries since… well, I’m not sure, really. No matter how far back I go, people have been saying the same thing. But that’s besides the point, which is that when there’s a perceived scarcity, people will close ranks. They’re less likely to share, especially with outsiders, and less likely to take risks.

Of course, I worked in retail for a long time, so whenever someone’s trying to sell me something as hard as bourgeoise media sells the specialness of libraries, combined with a constant litany of “sorry, no money here!” my bullshit detector goes into overdrive. This is a capitalistic society—value is expressed in money, not in pats on the back and misty-eyed tales of the children’s librarian who made a difference. I say this not to be a buzzkill, but to try to bring a bit of perspective in. If we can take libraries off of the pedestal we’ve put them on, it will be easier to make them as inclusive as they should be.

Image by Simon Steinberger from Pixabay

Emily is a first-year graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Library school is phase one of her life plan. Phase two involves living in a fancy yurt in the woods.

Categories: Diversity

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2 replies

  1. We make it way too hard to become a librarian for many groups. In fact, we add barriers – by refusing to find ways to help those who NEED to go part-time, by not recognizing that people with multiple challenges may need more help, etc. Two examples from my own experience – I’m white and female, but grew up poor, was homeless once and always close to eviction, often food insecure, 1st gen, etc. I had a hard time in library school, and worked nearly constantly (and did not dare drop to part-time, as I couldn’t afford to lose the scholarship). I still had several very desperate times. I got little help – a small scholarship that covered part of my tuition, but I also lived in the #1 most expensive city, and could not move, as my husband was in a PhD. I got through, and am now middle class, but it took a long time. Only in my 50s have I felt remotely stable. Perhaps partly because of my experience, I am VERY interested in diversity, in opening the profession to all. Second – the smallest demographic group in librarianship appears to be Native Americans. I had a staffer who is Native American, who got into library school after much work. But she withdrew in her 2nd term: she just couldn’t pay the huge tuition. We have no in-state library schools (she was attending online – and why are online-only programs not all counted as in-state????), and perhaps because she worked full time she could not get many scholarships. But she barely made $30K, and had complicating factors – several disabilities, plus she was a single mom. She was unwilling to fall further into soul-crushing debt; she still had lots from undergrad. She struggled tremendously. I helped where I could, both with recommendations and direct financial assistance, but I could not cover $8K in tuition; my professional development budget is under $6K for a staff of 40, and I still provided $1500. We are NOT providing near enough help, especially to those who fall into multiple categories of under-representedness – disabilities, non-white, economic struggles. We need to recognize that some people need extra funding. There is also very little to help those who really need to go part-time – the assumption is that they’ll find a way to cover the lower amount. But some people go part-time because disabilities make full time school and full time work challenging. She’d have been a terrific librarian – now she won’t. We also do very little to encourage people with disabilities to go into librarianship – I’ve hired several people with disabilities, and they were stellar employees, who needed just a bit of accommodation. We are not helping people with multiple barriers, or folks with disabilities, much at all. We need to recognize when there are multiple complicating factors, and find a way to adjust the assistance, both financial and hopefully with mentoring and more.

    Liked by 1 person

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