We need to talk about diversity and neutrality in libraries

Libraries have a diversity problem and a neutrality problem. We all know this; and a lot of us even actually acknowledge it. But, we’re still fighting to shift the tide and fix the problems. Why am I bringing this up again now? Well, you may have noticed that the United States is busting with activism right now over the continually mounting, flagrantly illegal instances of police brutality against visible minorities, largely black people. Systemic racism is a problem, not just in the United States, I fully acknowledge that Canada has a problem too; and we’re not the only two countries. Diversity issues in our industry and the continued saga of the myth of neutrality are just symptoms of this disease and others like transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and Islamophobia, just to name a few.

Some Numbers from the ALA

As of 2017, in the United States, librarians are 81% female and 86.7% white 1. That’s the same percentage of females as 2014 and only a 0.4% decrease in the number of white identifying librarians of any gender 2. The report that contains these numbers doesn’t even offer the option to specify non-binary or anything other than male or female. So, right off the bat, you see a diversity issue and a reporting issue. If someone doesn’t even see their identity listed as an option, they’re not going to waste their time submitting your survey; so you’ve already told them that they don’t count in your eyes. For an industry that prides itself on providing accurate information, that seems pretty hypocritical.

There’s a minuscule glimmer of hope, though; but it’s a minute nugget and the barest of hints of progress. From 2014 to 2017, the number of American Indian and Alaskan Native identifying librarians increased by 0.1%; and the number of Asian-identifying librarians? 0.1% increase. What about Black or African American librarians? You guessed it: 0.1% – what a trend! Unfortunately, Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander-identifying librarians were down 0.1%. The largest increase was in the “Other” category and there is no information on what that included in 2014 or 2017; but it increased by a whole 0.3% 3. What these numbers tell us is that no significant inroads have been made in trying to address the diversity issue – we just keep paying it lip service. I don’t know if ALA is planning another demographics survey, but 2020 seems like it would have been the year given that the last two happened three years apart. Given the current situation in the United States, though, I don’t foresee that happening; but the current situation is also exactly why it should. We need to commit to making a real effort, to make last change. Sadly, I think even if they did do a survey this year, I don’t think we’d see nearly as much movement in these numbers as we need to.

So what?

I acknowledge that I am in this conversation as a white woman ally. I am aware of the privileges that my skin color affords me. That’s why I force people to talk about this with me I want them to understand how much of a problem it is. How can we say libraries are for everyone when they are not representatively staffed or led? As the clear dominant majority in this industry, white people, it’s on us to use our privilege to speak up and force change to happen. We can’t sit back idly and wring our hands and try and pass the problem off to someone else. That’s how our industry got into this situation. We need to stop just acknowledging that the problem exists. We need to actually come up with solutions to fix it and then enact those solutions. It really shouldn’t be hard, and it absolutely should not still be an issue we’re dealing with in 2020 when we’ve been discussing it for years, at length:

Now I know that most of the readers of HLS are future, current, or recent MLIS students – we’re not the ones with the power to actually make changes, but we do have the power of choice and of raising our voices and making it known that we are not happy about this problem and not stopping until the people above us actually listen. One of the first steps we need to take is getting the people up the ladder listening to the experiences of the people who we are failing. They’re telling us what we can do to actually help change the system. Amy VanScoy and Kawanna Bright state the point that right now, in 2020, we’re still faced with the experiences of librarians of color remaining hidden; they have very little power in the conversation and a disproportionate need to be heard because of that lack of power 4. This is knowledge echoed by Janice Y. Kung, K-Lee Fraser, and Dee Winn as well who in January 2020 published a systematic review of the diversity initiatives in Canadian and American academic libraries 5. So, what do we need to do to actually start fixing it? According to Bharat Mehra and LaVerne Gray, we can start with an honest acceptance of the impact of racism; which is important to remove the vestiges of racial discrimination and micro- and macroaggressions in LIS and actively toward greater inclusivity in the remainder of the twenty-first century 6; which brings us to our neutrality problem.

The Myth of Neutral Libraries and Librarians

There are endless articles, books and blog posts out there about the relationship between libraries/librarians and the principle of neutrality including one from February 2020 by HLS contributing writer Mary Elizabeth Allen. More and more librarians are getting fed up of being told that librarians are supposed to be neutral, that libraries have to be neutral for everyone. We’re tired of being told that we have to say yes to racist xenophobic speakers and that libraries are neutral so we have to give them a platform even if we disagree with them. The view that neutrality means not denying access to library services and resources, and not seeking to silence people on the basis of their backgrounds or beliefs 7 is wrong and dangerous. Librarians and libraries have a social responsibility to be safe spaces for our communities as well as a mandate to protect free speech laws where they exist. But, behavior is not speech and it’s not protected. As a librarian and a human, I have the responsibility to my community of users to look at a situation and say this is wrong, I don’t support this if the action will hurt my community. Individuals are not free from the consequences of their actions, and neither are libraries; and there do need to be consequences. Our issues with being neutral feed into our diversity issues – neither exists in a vacuum. Stop being neutral. Stand up and fight for truth, fight for facts, and fight for the vulnerable people in our communities.


  1. Rosa, K. & Henke, Kelsey. (2017). 2017 Demographic Study. ALA Office for Research and Statistics. http://www.ala.org/tools/sites/ala.org.tools/files/content/Draft%20of%20Member%20Demographics%20Survey%2001-11-2017.pdf
  2. IBID.
  3. IBID.
  4. VanScoy, A. & Bright, K. (2019). Articulating the Experience of Uniqueness and Difference for Librarians of Color. Library Quarterly, 89(4), 285–297. https://doi.org/10.1086/704962
  5. Kung, J. Y., Fraser, K.-L., & Winn, D. (2020). Diversity Initiatives to Recruit and Retain Academic Librarians: A Systematic Review. College & Research Libraries, 81(1), 96–108. https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/17484/32063
  6. Mehra, B. & Gray, L. (2020). An “Owning Up” of White-IST Trends in LIS to Further Real Transformations. Library Quarterly, 90(2), 189–239. https://doi.org/10.1086/707674
  7. Carlton, A. (2018, February 12). Are Libraries Neutral? American Libraries Magazine. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/are-libraries-neutral/

Image credit: adapted from ATC Comm Photo. (n.d.). Diverse, diversity, female. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from https://www.pexels.com/photo/diverse-diversity-female-girl-305531/ licensed under a Pexels license.

6 replies

  1. Thank you for this post!

    I’m so happy to see that you mentioned LaVerne Gray, she was my professor for my first ever MSIS course, Development & Management of Collections at UTK, & she provided me with an awesome introduction to grad school!

    Liked by 2 people

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