Diversity and equity are core values of public library service. The American Library Association lists diversity as a key action area. However, a recent survey by Ithaka S&R reveals a continuing shortfall in the academic library community. Library leadership and library staff continue to be primarily female and white. The Ithaka study demonstrated those in management roles were even more homogenous than the academic library workforce as a whole.1
The library workforce fails to reflect the increasing diversity of our communities. No matter which study is looked at, the demographics of the library workforce remain largely white and female. In 2005, Keith Curry Lance showed the public library workforce lacked diversity.2 Over a decade later, the AFL-CIO recognizes “persistent lack of racial diversity” as an issue for library workers. Our circulation and reference desks do not reflect our communities.3 So how can we move toward providing services to audiences our staff does not represent?
This is not a new challenge or a challenge unique to libraries. But it is an essential one for 21st century public libraries to tackle. According to Pew Research, “by 2055, the United States will no longer have a single ethnic majority.” Obviously, our past efforts are not keeping pace.4
According to the Ithaka study we “need look no further than professional development initiatives and growth pathways for MLS-holders to begin diversifying librarianship.” As professionals, we have a duty to take this recommendation to heart. As individuals, we can expand our knowledge of diversity and bias. We can seek perspectives different from our own to expand our understanding. We can use this knowledge to reshape the public library workforce.
An effort we can take as individuals is to better understand our own implicit biases. As librarians, we take pride in offering unbiased service and providing equal access to all. However, our own upbringing in communities less diverse than those of today means we have inherited bias. A tool to help understand your own implicit bias can be found from Harvard University. Project Implicit is a study measuring social attitudes related to race. It takes only a few minutes to complete, and is a window into understanding bias impacting your own unconscious decisions.
Meeting people where they are at is also an important step. It’s easy to slip into assumptions about programming offerings, displays, or collections that “should” be interesting to diverse audiences. Talk to the people in your community as a first step before developing programs and services. Just because a program worked at another library doesn’t mean it will work for your community. Focus groups held in venues outside the library is one way to reach new audiences. Consider the roadblocks to participation as you plan. Is time of day, venue, or location a barrier for the people you are trying to reach? Find members from the specific neighborhood to help you plan culturally responsive outreach.
One initiative from the Public Library Association recently attempted to tackle this issue head on. The Inclusive Internship Initiative grant placed high school students from diverse backgrounds into public library internship roles. Students worked with a librarian mentor and got a chance to meet other interns from around the country. Efforts like these are exactly what is needed to energize the next generation of librarians and recruit them from a broader community.
Some libraries are going one step further and creating specific positions to attract a more diverse workforce. Rethinking job descriptions and position requirements can open the door to a more diverse library workforce. Hennepin County Library developed grant-funded positions that required bilingual skills rather than a library degree to develop services to reach Hmong, Somali and Latino people. The St. Paul Public Library was part of a citywide Racial Equity Initiative taking action to reduce inequity. They altered their hiring practices and job promotion structures to recruit a more diverse workforce.5
A diverse library workforce is essential for public libraries to effectively serve their communities. We each have a responsibility to take action. It is time to change our workforce demographics to better reflect the people we serve. Individual professional development, improved outreach efforts, or restructuring job opportunities are steps we can take today. If we are effective in our efforts, measurable results will follow.
- “The White Face of Library Leadership: Survey reveals overwhelmingly white face of leadership in research libraries”. Accessed October 29, 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/08/30/survey-reveals-overwhelmingly-white-face-leadership-research-libraries.
- Lance, Keith Curry. “Racial and Ethnic Diversity of U.S. Library Workers.” American Libraries. May 2005. Accessed October 29, 2017. https://www.lrs.org/documents/workforce/Racial_and_Ethnic.pdf.
- “Library Workers: Facts & Figures.” Department for Professional Employees – AFL/CIO. October 24, 2017. Accessed October 29, 2017. http://dpeaflcio.org/programs-publications/issue-fact-sheets/library-workers-facts-figures/
- Cohn, D’Vera, and Andrea Caumont. “10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world.” Pew Research Center. March 31, 2016. Accessed October 29, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/.
5Reworking the Workforce | Diversity 2016.” Library Journal. December 06, 2016. Accessed October 29, 2017. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2016/12/diversity/reworking-the-workforce-diversity-2016/.