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Reflecting Community: The Importance of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Library Staffing

by Rachel Masilamani on April 26, 2018

By Rachel Masilamani, rachel.masilamani@gmail.com.

PLA2018 offered several excellent programs related to serving diverse communities, and improving institutional equity and inclusion.  As a beneficiary of ALA’s Spectrum Scholarship Program, I have been personally and professionally engaged with these needs in libraries for my entire career.  I believe that a crucial component of any public library’s success in supporting lifelong learning for all, is taking the time to assess its own staffing practices.  For this reason, Reflecting Community: The Importance of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Library Staffing, topped my list of programs to attend.  The presenters, Christina Fuller-Gregory, Spartanburg County Public Libraries, and Bethany Wilson, Oro Valley (Ariz.) Public Library, provided an opportunity for administrators and staff to discuss needs and challenges together in a safe space.  I want to revisit this session in particular, because it enabled participants to make use of the of the conference environment in especially productive ways.

Fuller-Gregory and Wilson began by sharing an overview of their Emerging Leaders team project, Advancing Diversity in Public Libraries (the team also includes Antonio Apadoca, Brian Hulsey, and Petra Pendroff).  I was interested to learn more about their approach to surveying public libraries about building and improving equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) among library staff.  Their project website provides that depth, including a summary report, and reading list that will prove valuable to leaders and teams in all types of libraries. The project surveyed a set of ten rural and urban libraries. The team divided responding libraries into three categories: those without formal EDI initiatives, those with formal EDI initiatives, and those with informal EDI initiatives.

Libraries with formal initiatives, most notably Seattle Public Library, described a clear method for improving inclusion through hiring practices, and staff training. The team notes that a commitment to EDI from library leaders is essential to success. “In order for an initiative to become a vital part of the organizational culture, it must be embraced from the top down with all stakeholders considering its importance when making decisions. Policies, mandates, or any new initiatives run the risk of burnout without supportive and consistent visioning and leadership”  Despite differences in library size and location, the team identified core recommendations for those seeking to make organizational improvements: Let Change Be Organic, Look Inward, Look Outward, Break Down Barriers, and Start a Conversation.

In recognition of the fact that staff EDI can be an uncomfortable and risky topic to broach on the job, the presenters provided several productive exercises, which could be reproduced at our home libraries.  I appreciated speaking and listening to library staff from around the country.  We spoke frankly about microaggressions we endure among colleagues, exclusion from decision making, and our own successful strategies for moving our organizations forward.  Participants shared and ranked takeaway ideas and actions to begin making improvements from any position.  These included:

  • Advocate for partner benefits for LGBT employees.
  • Recognize that the organization needs to formally incorporate EDI practices in hiring-by building a task force.
  • More outreach with community organizations to build EDI relationships and program ideas. Also, expand the collection to reflect EDI in topics.
  • Seek solidarity with black and brown communities. Step aside to make space for black and brown self-determination.
  • Talk to hiring managers about procedures to make hiring more transparent and less prone to implicit bias. Suggest diverse panels rather than keeping it limited to branch/department.

Having a purposeful discussion about EDI demonstrated that conversations like this are not difficult, so much as empowering.  Achieving EDI in staffing is a complex and necessary goal for public libraries.  We cannot truly meet the needs of our communities if we do not put forth an ongoing effort to incorporate diverse voices and viewpoints into all aspects of our organizations.  This session served as a realistic starting point for the work that we must undertake together as a profession.


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