>Diversity in LIS Education

>A couple things have happened lately that have caused me to spend some serious time contemplating diversity issues in LIS. The first was a post made on a professional listserv I follow. One individual shared a letter she had written to Iowa legislators about a number of issues, including library funding. She mentioned that the letter included other issues, but that she shared it on the list for those who were struggling to find words when talking to elected officials about libraries. For those of you who aren’t from Iowa, you may or may not know that a lot of people here are very divided at the moment over the issue of gay marriage, and the fact that this woman’s letter included mention of her support for gay marriage was upsetting to some other list members.
One member’s response was basically, “if she wants to go against what THE BIBLE says, that’s her right, but keep libraries out of it.” I tend to stay away from angry listserv discussions (people get riled up about everything from tuna fish to book boards on the lists I follow, and most of the time I just sigh and delete the thread), but this instance was one where I felt compelled to respond and say that the list included non-Christian individuals, and that not only did that response make them uncomfortable, it took time and attention away from the library issues the list was created to discuss. I did not mention my stance on gay marriage in the hopes that I could diffuse things rather than add my own anger to the discussion (but, for the record, I’m an ardent supporter!) I also wanted to avoid belittling the author’s views, because she has most likely formed them with as much care as I have formed my own.

This angry response, and a number of others on both sides, gave me a chance to reflect on what was happening. Are these discussions we should be having on professional listservs? I think the answer can be yes, but the trick is how we approach it. As librarians and info pros, we are in charge of providing information to people and (I hope) focusing more heavily on what their needs are than what about them we don’t like. I suspect most of us do this very well, and so the list might be a place we can talk about how to provide services to diverse groups or, maybe, even to discuss our own views or how we react when confronted with a patron we find challenging. My request is that we refrain from the anger and divisiveness I saw in some of those responses and focus instead on the issues and on discussion rather than on tearing each other down. About a week later, Micah Vandegrift published this awesome diversity post on the Hack Library School blog, and it made me think that maybe now would be a good time to share some of the thoughts I’ve had on diversity since I’ve been in LIS.
Anyone who’s in LIS (probably) knows that our field is *white.* It’s mostly white, middle class women to be exact. There are some men in my program, but only a handful, and the same can be said for racial diversity. Like Micah, I’ve done my share of studying hegemony and could write papers on the way our society is structured to create and reinforce privilege. As someone who’ll be devoting quite a bit of my life to the academy, this is interesting to think about, because academia, in many ways, is an institution accessible to those with some degree of money and privilege. Sometimes, I feel like participating in the academy is another way I’m participating in an institution that supports hegemony. It can be frustrating, and it makes me feel like I’ve gotten progressively more stumbly and awkward discussing diversity because there’s so little opportunity for those discussions.
I’m grateful that we have awesome faculty, and that I’ve found a couple students here and there who I can sit down with and grapple with these issues. That being said, I also feel like not everyone feels especially comfortable having discussions about privilege and the ways in which institutions support privilege, because it forces them to confront the fact that being a white, middle class woman comes with a pretty hefty dose of privilege (want some good examples? See Peggy McIntosh’s awesome article). In Social Informatics, I remember students getting visibly uncomfortable during discussions of difference and privilege, and this made me feel uncomfortable too! The important thing to remember is that these discussions are *really* uncomfortable, but that’s not a bad thing. We have to confront our discomfort at being told that things that we take for granted (like the color of bandages!) are privileges not shared by everyone. I think this would be a huge help for LIS students both as providers of services (how does our social structure shape those services, how well people can access them, etc.?) and as members of a field where diversity is something we hope to promote! I think we also need to broaden our concept of diversity to include not only racial diversity, but also sexual orientation, disability, gender (more men!), and any other myriad ways in which we are all unique. LIS students (and faculty, new professionals, and anyone else): what are ways we can engage in constructive and respectful discussion with the end goal of educating and fostering understanding?
So how do we promote diversity in our field? This is a question I don’t really have an answer to (and if you have ideas, I would love to hear them!) One thing I think we should avoid is measuring our success in building a diverse field through numbers alone. Saying, ‘wow, the percentage of black librarians has gone up from 2% to 5%!’ (I have no ideas how accurate those numbers are) is a great jumping off point for saying our field has gotten more diverse, but if we just look at the numbers we risk narrowing our vision of the field by focusing on how we appear on paper than on why we want to be diverse in the first place! It also risks turning a group of people into nothing but numbers rather than the complex creatures all people are, which isn’t fair to the professionals we’re talking about or to the people discussing the numbers. I propose that one way to help make LIS more diverse is to include everyone in the discussion: what makes this field attractive? Are there ways that we can promote access to education for underprivileged groups? Most importantly, what does diversity mean to LIS? By this I’m thinking how much we gain from increasing diversity: by bringing in a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, we can better understand the people we work with and the world we live in. Thoughts? Ideas?

12 Comments

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12 responses to “>Diversity in LIS Education

  1. >I love this post! I think one of the things we librarians can do to help diversify the profession is to start by diversifying our programs and collections, and also diversifying the cultural norms we perpetuate when we invite people into libraries.I've worked at a library that, although it viewed itself as "progressive," actually discriminated against behaviors that were not culturally "white and privileged" — in other words, it disproportionately disciplined and even banned poor black and latino teens. One way to look at this is issue is that these teens had been loud and disruptive, which are not acceptable behaviors in libraries. But to me, that can often be an (unintentional) way of reinforcing privilege and power structures. I think a more diversity-friendly way to approach this issue would have been for the library to recognize that this set of patrons were actively using the library and not hurting anyone, and then for the library to reassess its explicit and also tacit policies in order to be more welcoming to non-privileged user groups.I think libraries are often in a position of wanting to do the right thing, while also unintentionally promoting an agenda of assimilation. Think of the iconic "shh-ing librarian"!!! If we can work on dialogues and actions that continue to change this cycle of thinking, I think we could see more diversity in the profession.

  2. >I just want to add that libraries have already started trying to embrace a more "hip" image, which is great! Gaming, Wikipedia, Facebook, Flash Mobs… this is fantastic, and I hope we carry on. But I think it can be harder when you're the one sitting at Ye Olde Reference Desk day in and day out to relax and not caught up in power dynamics with diverse or disadvantaged patrons. This is where I'd love to see dialogue happen.

  3. >Rachel–this is an awesome insight! And I agree, libraries as institutions do sometimes promote assimilation. In my history research, I've run across materials from ~1900-1930 that talk about 'Americanization' of immigrants, and your comments reminded me of that. I think libraries have gotten away from trying to (overtly) promote certain behaviors, but your example reinforces the fact that assimilation is still something we do, whether or not we realize it (how many times have I gotten annoyed by people's behavior and not stopped to analyze what's going on there?) It seems like the folks at that library may have benefited from a bit of awareness, both of the social norms they were perpetuating and the role they were playing in upholding those norms.

  4. >I just saw your second comment too–btw, Ye Olde Reference Desk is an awesome term. Again, I agree that some exciting stuff is going on–I wonder how we could more actively involve the patrons in having those discussions, and give people more agency by finding a variety of ways to say 'what is it you want/need from your library?' People who are using computers for job searching are going to have a much different answer than someone like me who goes in to check out fun books.

  5. >Hm. Is there a way to start a diversity discussion by inviting the community to talk about things like the quiet policy, whether the library should actively promote Black History Month or Ramadan books or other not-WASP subjects? Because I think you're right. Diversity is going to have to start with discussion, and it's going to be tense, but maybe looking at what lots of different people think about what function the library serves and whether its policies assist that function is a place to start.

  6. >That's a great idea–it seems like including the community in discussions that shape library policy is a way not only to promote diversity, but to help people feel more involved in their library too! It seems like a good way to include underrepresented groups, and I imagine library Boards wouldn't be opposed to having extra folks who felt a connection to their library (and thus might be more likely to advocate for it).

  7. >Hi Julia, great post. Thoughtful and important. I think the thing that's keeping libraries from being a tool for diversity is America's history of inequity in wealth distribution. Libraries are almost completely beholden to existing powerful institutions in society for funding, and those institutions were established for the benefit of the wealthy, in order to elicit the complicity of the middle and lower classes. I know you said that you can write papers all about about hegemony theory, and wanted to set that aside, but I don't think we can, and still seek to make real changes. Having diversity programs and changing collection development policies can only take us so far. As long as 1% of the U.S. population controls more than 34% of the wealth in this country, we're more or less tilting at windmills. It's nobler to be the knight errant who undertakes the quest for diversity than to be passive and cynical, but at the end of the day, nobility is inadequate. It's so important to remember that lack of diversity is a symptom, where inequitable distribution of wealth is the cause. I think that a partial solution is to start teaching social and economic advocacy along with traditional librarial topics such as intellectual freedom and privacy. Real security only comes with power, and power in America comes from money. The trick is to help library students become socially conscious and active without becoming radicalized. The perceived political neutrality of libraries is all the keeps us from being targeted like NPR and Public Television. It's not something I have an answer to yet obviously, but IMO it's something I hope we figure out, and sooner rather than later.

  8. >This is an incredibly important point: one thing that we (myself included) sometimes forget is the idea of 'interlocking oppressions,' that all forms of oppression play off each other and become symptoms of a larger system of inequality. Class distinctions are becoming increasingly pronounced, and I'm glad you brought both wealth and its impact on access to education into the discussion. When you mention educating LIS students, I feel like at least some students are socially conscious and active, but I agree, it's a balance between making ourselves and our institutions forces for change and avoiding being targeted to such an extent that we can't create that change. Definitely let me know if you think of ways to encourage activity amongst students–I'll think on it too!I keep having this pipe dream that we'll find a way to detach both libraries and education from large funding bodies and thus from their agendas–I think making education more accessible would, as you say, go a long way in making for a more diverse field.

  9. >Hi Julia,I am currently writing my masters paper and avoiding it by reading blog posts related to my research topic. *sheepish grin* I came across your post through Melody's page and wanted to share with you some work the SILS student body is doing at UNC. A group of us were struck by many of the same issues you and melody have been discussing. Long Story short, we have developed a Diversity Task Force and Advocate Certificate. You can find the information here: .Our movement was a grassroots one, to be sure. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what we're doing. It's a small step, but definitely a step. Also, you might want to check out ALA's Diversity Counts report: and the UNC WILIS study .Most importantly however, thanks for being a part of the conversation! I enjoyed your post.Katy

  10. >Hi Katy!I'm so excited you liked my post, and huge kudos are due for you all talking the initiative to add elements to your program that you want (reminds me of my other beloved shared project, Hack Library School!) I didn't see a link to the certificate, but I can definitely Google it–I would love to see what you're doing and chat about the great steps you're taking!

  11. >: o) Apparently blogs don't like links in their comments, which is understandable. Happened over at Melody's blog as well. I've been following the Hack lib School blog as well, and I'm really enjoying it. do try googling UNC SILS Diversity and steal as you wish!

  12. >Excellent, I shall! I'm glad you like HLS too–so many exciting bloggy things happening! I'll definitely give it a Google and let you know what I think. It might be something I'll bug you about a guest post for!

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