A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Diversity in Public Libraries Strategies for Achieving a More Representative Workforce

by Sarah E. Larsen on December 7, 2017

SARAH E. LARSEN is the Outreach Librarian at the Minnesota State Law Library and an MLIS candidate at St. Catherine University in St. Paul (MN). Contact Sarah at sarah.larsen@courts.state.mn.us. Sarah is currently reading I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley.

Diversity is a term that has become something of an empty buzzword recently, having been used so frequently that it has lost nearly all of its meaning. Yet it remains an issue that is crucial to the success of public libraries. As used in the library and information sciences context, diversity is de ned as “inclusiveness with regard to differences in age, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, and ethnic, racial, or cultural background within a given population.”1 It is no secret that the field of librarianship lacks diversity. According to the most recent data published by the American Library Association (ALA), 87.1 percent of librarians identify as white and 81.0 percent identify as female.2 The populations being served by public libraries are steadily becoming more and more diverse, but the library workforce remains predominantly white and female and bears little relationship to the populations served. According to ALA, a mere 4.3 percent of librarians are black, 3.5 percent are Asian, and 3.7 percent identify as “other.”3 While ALA has not maintained statistics designating the racial background of public librarians since 1998, it can be assumed that these statistics about general librarianship do reflect the trends in public libraries as well.

The general population of the United States is far more diverse that the library profession. Only 62 percent of the United States population identifies as white, and 12 percent are black, 6 percent are Asian, and 19 percent identify as Hispanic or as more than one race.4 This disconnect between the demographics of librarians and those of the general population results in some stunning contrasts: there is one white librarian for every 1,830 white people in the general population, compared to one Latino librarian for every 9,177 Latinos in the general population.5 The statistics regarding black librarians are also alarming. Of nearly 120,000 credentialed librarians, a mere 6,160 are black, and there are only 138 African American library directors in the entire country.6 Despite the fact that African Americans and Latinos are among the biggest supporters of libraries, they are not reflected in the ranks of the workforce.7

This lack of diversity has been lamented as a problem for decades, yet in spite of efforts to increase the diversity of the library workforce, there has been minimal progress. Much has been written about how to increase diversity in libraries, including suggestions for improving every step of the process from library and information science education, to hiring and retaining a more diverse workforce, to developing diverse collections and library programs. Libraries are not the only work setting that faces a problem with diversity.8 However, given that the public library is a forum that serves a variety of communities and interests, it is critical to develop a public library workforce that more accurately reflects the diverse backgrounds that public libraries serve.

Why Do We Need Diversity?

The history of the library in the United States is fraught with sexism, racism, and inequality. Todd Honma notes that while many disciplines have struggled with diversity, the library remained fairly oblivious to racial issues in particular.9 The lack of diversity in American libraries and their collections has its roots in the history and development of libraries by whites serving an ethnically white populace and promoting Western European (that is, white) values and ideals. This blindness to racial inequities found in libraries is especially problematic, he argues, given that libraries often promote themselves as “egalitarian institution[s] providing universal access to information for the general public.”10 In order for the library to live up to its aspirational goal, Honma argues that libraries must recognize the reasons racial inequity persists and move beyond perpetuating institutional discrimination.11

The U.S. population is steadily becoming more diverse, and public libraries cannot hope to adequately serve minority patrons without members of those minority groups among library staff. The goal of a successful public library is to be integrated into its community, and as Jaeger, Sarin, and Peterson observed, “that means being a member of the community, being knowledgeable about the community and the various populations it comprises, and being welcoming of all populations in that community.”12 Studies have also shown a correlation between libraries that value diversity and patrons’ satisfaction with library services and the ability to retain required information.13 Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a public library can adequately embody the values of the profession and serve its patrons if it does not value diversity within its own workforce.

Diversity is beneficial not only because it facilitates a greater ability to understand and provide service to diverse communities of patrons, but because organizations that embrace diversity are ultimately more successful.14 Organizations that rely on individuals who are all the same gender, race, and age, and who think similarly and have similar backgrounds and approaches, are more likely to fall prey to biases, which can diminish the success of the organization.15 Public libraries that wish to succeed in a rapidly changing environment need diversity in the workforce to be a part of their strategies.

How Can We Create a More Diverse Library Workforce?

Diversity initiatives are not a new phenomenon for libraries. ALA first established minority caucuses in the 1970s, and diversity was officially included as a Key Action Area starting in 1998.16 Today, ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services promotes diversity through educational initiatives, training, and support for library professionals. ALA’s policy manual also includes a section on diversity, which offers general goals supporting diverse workforces and collections.17 Library and information science publications have also embraced the call for diversity and proffered solutions to solve the lack of diversity. While much of the literature focuses on improving diversity in a wider context (such as improving library education, library collections, or other types of libraries, such as academic libraries), many of the lessons provided are applicable to the public library setting.

Despite the numerous articles and proposals providing best practices on building diverse workforces, ALA’s statistics demonstrate that little has actually changed in the eld of librarianship.18 In 1998, ALA found that 86.55 percent of public librarians were white, compared to 6.33 percent black, 3.93 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 2.95 percent Hispanic.19 These numbers are nearly identical to the statistics reported by ALA sixteen years later on libraries generally. This disconnect reflects the fact that changing the organizational culture of public libraries is an immensely difficult undertaking requiring effort and resources at all levels of the organization. The literature on this subject has pointed out time and time again that merely seeking diversity for the sake of diversity is not enough, and numerical representation does little to effect real change within an organization.20 Unfortunately, it is extremely challenging to change the attitudes of individuals, let alone an entire public library’s culture.

Moving forward and correcting past injustices of sexism and racism is not a simple undertaking, even when an organization acknowledges the value of attempting to do so. Truly achieving diversity and equality in the library field (and in other areas of society as well) will require an immense effort by all members of society, not just those who have been directly affected by sexism or racism. Such a complex subject is influenced by myriad factors as well, resulting in no easy solution or quick x. There are many barriers facing those who wish to improve diversity in library and information science. It is extremely difficult to change a library’s culture, because, as one minority librarian lamented, “We are so passive as a field.”21 It is generally accepted as the status quo that there may be only a handful of minority librarians in any given specialty. Robin Bradford, a collection development librarian at the Timberland Regional Library in Tumwater, Washington, noted in a recent interview that both she and the director of her library are black, which she described as “unusual,” and noted that she could only recall four other minority librarians working in collection development.22 Bradford further observed that the library eld in general must make a concerted effort to change and embrace diversity. She observed that libraries tend to stick with what they have always done, “and it’s not that people are doing it out of malice, but if. . .you do what you’ve always done. . . you get what you’ve always gotten.”23 Even with a concerted effort, individuals still fall prey to the “like me” bias and are inexorably drawn to others who are similar to them- selves in some way.24 Many in the field are also not comfortable addressing issues involving racial inequity and find that “organizational inertia” persists.25 Many professionals also do not acknowledge a lack of diversity as a pressing issue. A survey of public library managers found that only 23 percent recognized multicultural or diversity awareness as an area where training was needed and a similar number reported viewing multicultural awareness as a necessary skill for managing a public library.26 Finally, many people experience “diversity fatigue” in the face of unchanged demographics despite years of messages of the importance of diversity.27 Indeed, there is a perception among minority librarians that diversity efforts are actually meaningless.28 Without making a sincere, systematic effort and using multiple approaches, the problems of inequity will continue.29 However, there are some strategies that can be effective in improving diversity within a library organization.

Management Promotion of Diverse and Inclusive Organizational Culture

It is absolutely essential that managers understand why gender or racial inequality exists, and are motivated to remedy those issues, as opposed to simply fulfilling quotas or statutory requirements. As Honma points out, it is not enough to say diversity is a goal without understanding how the system developed in such an un-diverse manner.30 For public libraries, this means understanding that the public library as an institution in the United States developed out of a paternalistic instinct to lift up the masses by imposing the culture and morals of traditional white society on those who were different. It also means understanding that recruitment of a talented and diverse workforce is difficult due to low salaries in the field compared to other industries, which are rooted in the historical undervaluing of women’s work. If the motivation behind a public library’s diversity initiative takes into account the societal wrongs that a diversity initiative seeks to correct, the likelihood of success is far greater than simply using the word “diversity” as a buzzword and an abstract ideal.31 This also means more than increasing the visible diversity in an organization or relying on quotas.32 Management must set, enforce, promote, and model policies that reinforce inclusion and value diversity at every level of the library organization.33

Improving Hiring Practices

Hiring practices are absolutely essential when recruiting a diverse workforce. Whether it is acknowledged or not, everyone has subjective bias; people are instinctively drawn to people who are like them.34 To combat this bias, an easy strategy is to ensure hiring decisions are made by more than one person, and preferably a diverse group of people. Using thoughtful job postings and hiring criteria that effectively capture traits and behaviors promoting diversity and inclusion will help attract qualified candidates who will contribute to the library’s mission of creating a diverse workforce.35 The University of Arizona sought to recruit and develop a workforce that was not only diverse in its makeup but was composed of individuals who value diversity. The University of Arizona library incorporated the cultural competencies they wished to achieve into job descriptions and hiring criteria. This change in the hiring process was a contributing factor in the University of Arizona’s development of a workforce that mirrors its patrons in terms of demo- graphics and values diversity in all areas.36

It is also important to evaluate candidates in terms of their competencies, rather than their compliance with arbitrary requirements. Wagner and Willms evaluated the Urban Library Program, a joint effort of St. Catherine University and the St. Paul Public Library to recruit, educate, hire, and retain a diverse paraprofessional workforce. They discovered that many libraries had a perception that only individuals who had a college degree or an MLIS degree were capable of working in libraries. The Urban Library Program attempted to recruit individuals who would not have otherwise considered working in public libraries and provided them with the professional mentoring and real-life job experience they would otherwise not be able to get. The program was ultimately a success in that many of the participants continued to work in libraries and had the motivation, and support, to obtain additional education to advance their careers. Without the program, which placed these candidates in libraries in positions for which they otherwise would have been overlooked or considered unqualified, the library would have lost out on many talented diverse library staff.37

Diversity Training

Training is also essential to building a diverse workforce. Cultural competency is not an intuitive skill, and it requires ongoing diversity training at all levels to learn and develop the skills and comfort level in working with other cultures.38 Training must be continuous, because “building an environment that is inclusive and diverse is never finished.”39 The University of Arizona adopted the approach that the whole workforce needs cultural competency, and that it is not appropriate for minority staff to provide the token diversity or explain the needs of underrepresented communities to other staff. As part of its efforts to increase diversity within the library, the University of Arizona implemented a series of diversity training sessions that brought in speakers from many different disciplines to discuss issues related to diversity and cultural competency. The ongoing training was well-received by employees, and provides a vital piece of the University of Arizona library’s overall initiative to create a more inclusive organizational culture.40

Mentoring and Support

Hiring a diverse workforce is certainly a positive step for organizations seeking diversity, but it means very little if the organization is unable to retain those employees. Mentoring and professional development opportunities are essential in order to keep minority employees employed within a particular organization.41 Empowering minority employees to take control of their careers is also an important factor in enabling those employees to advance through an organization’s ranks.42 It is important for managers to recognize that there are still many barriers to advancement faced by minority librarians.43 Many minority employees and employees belonging to disadvantaged groups do not have access to the same types of mentoring and support networks as their white, middle-class peers who currently dominate the library workforce.44 ALA’s policy manual offers suggestions for preparing diverse individuals for advancement and management opportunities, and indicates the importance of providing mentoring opportunities and training within the library organization itself. The importance of providing opportunities for employees to attend workshops and conferences is also emphasized. ALA’s policy manual stresses that a diversity initiative must include leadership development as part of the plan, recognizing that hiring diverse employees is simply not enough if those employees are not appropriately pre- pared to become the future leaders of the profession.45 It can be time consuming and difficult to provide these services, but offering mentoring and professional development to employees is essential to any employee’s continued success in the workforce. Employees who do not feel supported and valued will not remain with an organization or even in the profession for long.


Assessment is another key component of a successful diversity initiative. Kreitz recommends completing a diversity assessment prior to implementing a diversity plan so that libraries can identify the most pressing issues. This assessment also enables libraries to analyze the causes, not just the symptoms, of a lack of diversity, and provides data to allocate resources appropriately.46 It is important to assess the perceptions of success internally among staff while attempting to implement a diversity initiative.47 A diversity initiative cannot be successful if library staff are not invested in its success or do not perceive the initiative as helpful. Collecting information on the perceptions of the community from staff is also of value. Even anecdotal evidence can support a diversity initiative’s success. A Muslim woman participating in the Urban Library Program commented that many veiled women approached her to seek help. These women informed her they did not usually ask for help because they “did not want to bother” other library staff, but they felt comfortable reaching out to her.48 In the same vein, it is also important to survey the community about their perceptions of the success of any diversity initiative.49 A diversity initiative loses its value if a public library’s community does not receive the benefits or see the value of the library’s efforts.


Diversity benefits everyone, particularly in a public library setting where individuals from all walks of life can gather to gain information and meet as a community. However, public libraries have a long way to go when it comes to achieving diversity in the workforce. It is plain that achieving diversity is not a simple or instantaneous endeavor. Libraries are certainly not the only organizations facing the challenges of inequity, and this societal problem is not one that can be solved by libraries alone. Indeed, solving the issues of discrimination and lack of representation will require changes at all levels of library and information science: library and information science education will need to be improved to better teach diversity and recruit a more diverse faculty and student body; libraries will need to focus on building more diverse collections; and libraries will need to recruit, train, and retain diverse staff. Public libraries, which serve as forums for equal access to information for diverse communities, need to be more active in initiatives to diversify their workforces. While debate continues over what are truly the best practices to achieve diversity and equality, what is clear is that staff of all levels in the library have a part to play. It is incumbent upon the highest levels of management to set policies and procedures that encourage diversity and inclusion in the library, and upon middle-managers and supervisors to ensure that appropriate hiring practices and training occur at all levels. Mentoring of employees and assessment of the library’s policies and practices are also key components of ensuring that a diversity initiative does not fizzle out and provides adequate results. The effort, time, and resources required to successfully implement a diversity initiative may seem daunting to most public libraries at first, but the effort is worth the end result of a library that can more effectively serve its patrons and communities.


  1. Joan M. Reitz, Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science, s.v. “diversity,” last modified 2014.
  2. American Library Association (ALA) Office for Research & Statistics, “ALA Demographics Studies: September 2014,” Sept. 2014, .
  3. Ibid.
  4. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Population Distribution by Race/Ethnicity,” accessed Sept. 2, 2016, .
  5. Anjali Gulati, “Diversity in Librarianship: The United States Perspective,” International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions Journal 36, no. 4 (2010): 290, doi:10.1177/0340035210388244.
  6. Michael Kelley, “Diversity Never Happens: The Story of Minority Hiring Doesn’t Seem to Change Much,” Library Journal 138, no. 3 (2013), .
  7. Ibid.
  8. See Rachel Deahl et al., “Why Publishing Is So White,” Publisher’s Weekly, Mar. 14, 2016; Charlotte Roh, “Library Publishing and Diversity Values: Changing Scholarly Publishing through Policy and Scholarly Communication Education,” College & Research Libraries News 77, no. 2, Feb. 2016; and Mary C. Schaefer, “Creating a Corporate Culture that Empowers Women in STEM,” Employment Relations Today 42, no. 1 (Spring 2015), doi:10.1002/ert.21483.
  9. Todd Honma, “Trippin’ over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Science,” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies 1, no. 2 (2005): 1–2.
  10. Ibid., 2.
  11. Ibid., 18–20.
  12. Paul T. Jaeger, Lindsay C. Sarin, and Kaitlin J. Peterson, “Diversity, Inclusion, and Library and Information Science: An Ongoing Imperative (or Why We Still Desperately Need to Have Discussions about Diversity and Inclusion),” Library Quarterly 85, no. 2 (Apr. 2015): 130.
  13. Ricardo Andrade and Alexandra Rivera, “Developing a Diversity- Competent Workforce: The UA Libraries’ Experience,” Journal of Library Administration 51, no. 7–8 (2015): 696, doi:10.1080/01930826.2011.601271.
  14. Patricia A. Kreitz, “Best Practices for Managing Organizational Diversity,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34, no. 2 (Mar. 2008): 105, doi:10.1016/j. acalib.2007.12.001.
  15. Howard Dean, “Hiring Diversity and Sharing the Power,” Leadership Excellence, Oct. 2010, 9; and Kreitz, “Best Practices,” 103.
  16. American Library Association (ALA), “Details of ALA History,” accessed Sept. 2, 2016.
  17. American Library Association (ALA), “ALA Policy Manual: B.3 Diversity,” accessed Sept. 2, 2016.
  18. Samantha Kelly Hastings, “If Diversity Is a Natural State, Why Don’t Our Libraries Mirror the Populations They Serve?,” Library Quarterly 85, no. 2 (2015): 133.
  19. Mary Jo Lynch, “Racial and Ethnic Diversity among Librarians: A Status Report,” American Libraries, Nov. 1998.
  20. Honma, “Trippin’ over the Color Line,” 13; see also Kreitz, “Best Practices.”
  21. Kimberly Bugg, “The Perceptions of People of Color in Academic Libraries Concerning the Relationship between Retention and Advancement of Middle Managers,” Journal of Library Administration 56, no. 4 (2016): 439, doi: 10.1080/01930826.2015.1105076.
  22. An Interview with Robin Bradford, Genre Avenger and RWA Librarian of the Year,” Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, podcast audio, Aug. 12, 2016.
  1. Ibid.
  2. Dean, “Hiring Diversity,” 9.
  3. Mary M. Wagner and Debbie Willms, “The Urban Library Program: Challenges to Educating and Hiring a Diverse Workforce,” Library Trends 59, no. 1–2 (2010): 129.
  4. Mary Wilkins Jordan, “Competencies for Public Library Managers: Diversity in Practice,” Library Management 36, no. 6/7 (2015), doi:10.1108/LM-12-2014- 0139.
  5. Denice Adkins, Christina Virden, and CharlesYier, “Learning about Diversity: The Roles of LIS Education, LIS Associations, and Lived Experience,” Library Quarterly 85, no. 2 (2015): 146.
  6. Bugg, “Perceptions of People of Color,” 429.
  7. Kreitz, “Best Practices,” 101.
  8. Honma, “Trippin’ over the Color Line,”10.
  9. Hastings, “Why Don’t Our Libraries Mirror the Populations They Serve,” 134–35; Kreitz, “Best Practices,” 102–3.
  10. Hastings, “Why Don’t Our Libraries Mirror the Populations They Serve,” 134.
  11. Ibid., 134–35; Kreitz, “Best Practices,” 104.
  12. Dean, “Hiring Diversity,” 9.
  13. Kreitz, “Best Practices,” 104–5.
  14. Andrade and Rivera, “Developing a Diversity Competent Workforce,” 701–6.
  15. Wagner and Willms, “Urban Library Program.”
  16. Sarah Leadley, “ReFLections on Diversity and Organizational Development,” Reference & User Services Quarterly 54, no. 4 (2015): 8.
  17. Hastings, “Why Don’t Our Libraries Mirror the Populations They Serve,” 135.
  18. Andrade and Rivera, “Developing a Diversity Competent Workforce,” 708–9.
  19. Wagner and Willms, “Urban Library Program,” 136–38.
  20. Schaefer, “Creating a Corporate Culture,” 16.
  21. Bugg, “Perceptions of People of Color,” 435–36.
  22. Wagner and Willms, “Urban Library Program,” 136–38.
  23. ALA, “ALA Policy Manual.”
  24. Kreitz, “Best Practices,” 105–6.
  25. Bugg, “Perceptions of People of Color,” 429; Andrade and Rivera, “Developing a Diversity Competent Workforce,” 709–10.
  26. Wagner and Willms, “Urban Library Program,” 142.
  27. Adkins, Virden, and Yier, “Learning About Diversity,” 148; Wagner and Willms, “Urban Library Program,” 137, 142.

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