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.
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.