If you attended this year’s Association of College and Research Libraries conference in May, you might remember when author and keynote speaker Roxane Gay looked out over the audience and remark, “Wow, there are a lot of white people here.”
It was a sharp reminder of the lack of racial diversity in academic librarianship – an issue that library organizations have grappled with for decades. In a new report on diversity in university libraries, Ithaka S + R said that while many librarians regard âdiversity as a core value,â university libraries have always struggled to address issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. The low representation of people of color in library staff has been a particular shortcoming, despite numerous initiatives to attract minority staff to the field.
The American Library Association, for example, launched a Spectrum Exchange program to recruit people from ethnic minority groups into librarianship in 1997. The Association of Research Libraries has more recently implemented several diversity initiatives focusing on recruitment and career development under-represented ethnic groups. The Association of Collegial and Research Libraries has also formed an Alliance for Diversity in recent years. But are any of these initiatives making a real difference?
Ithaka S + R’s new survey of four-year college and university library staff in the United States suggests there is still some way to go. The report, Inclusion, diversity and equity: members of the Association of Research Libraries, published today by Ithaka S + R, found that more than three-quarters of library workers at ARL institutions were white. In addition, the report states that “as the positions get higher and higher, they also become more and more white”. The report found that 89% of librarians in managerial or administrative positions were white and non-Hispanic.
“It appears that employees of color are more inclined to be promoted than their white colleagues,” said study co-author Roger Schonfeld. He noted that many non-white staff members work in unsupervised roles such as technical services, cataloging, document processing, acquisitions, etc., which are being phased out in many libraries as they transition from print collections to electronic collections. âIt is questionable whether there is in fact a risk that libraries will not become more diverse in the future, but potentially less diverse in the future if no action is taken. “
Schonfeld said racial diversity in librarianship is important because it is libraries that are responsible for maintaining the accuracy of historical and cultural records of society as a whole – not just a group. âIt is essential that the core organizations responsible for creating, selecting, preserving and disseminating knowledge match the diversity of the society they seek to serve,â said Schonfeld.
In addition to racial representation, the report also considers gender inequality. He found that most library roles are predominantly female through to leadership, but Schonfeld noted that there were significant imbalances – tech employees, for example, are much more likely to be male.
The report is the latest in a series of reports commissioned by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation examining the diversity of different cultural and scholarly organizations. The report was originally intended to provide an overview of the diversity of staff across academic libraries, but due to the industry’s low response rates, the authors decided to focus on responses from members of the Association of Research Libraries. .
Out of 98 ARL establishments contacted in 2016, 42 library directors responded to requests for employee files, and 56 responded to a diversity questionnaire. As ARL members are generally very large institutions, survey respondents represent just over 10,000 staff. The report states that ARL members with more diverse student bodies were more likely to respond to the survey and were also more likely to have more diverse library staff.
The report found few differences between institutions in urban and rural areas, although library managers identified geography as a main barrier to increasing diversity in the pool of applicants. The report focuses on race / ethnicity and gender, not because these were priorities in the project, but because institutions do not so consistently record disability status, LGBTQ status, religion, age and veteran status.
Schonfeld says he hopes the report serves as a benchmark for future diversity initiatives to build on, but said he was not yet sure whether the survey would become a regular exercise. âIt is very difficult for organizations to develop policies and act on the basis of anecdotes,â he said. âWe hope that libraries and to some extent universities can use this information to focus their diversity work where it is needed most. “
Liam Sweeney, the study’s second co-author, said he hoped the report would also provide staff from minorities who encountered barriers to advancing with hard data to substantiate their concerns.
Toni Anaya and Charlene Maxey-Harris are associate professors at Lincoln Libraries at the University of Nebraska who have both worked on a SPEC Kit guide to current practices on diversity and inclusion for the association of research libraries. They both said they were not surprised by the findings of the Ithaka S + R report. âIt’s the same thing we’ve been hearing for seven years,â Anaya said.
Anaya said one of the challenges of increasing diversity is that it is “a really moving target” as the definition of diversity keeps changing. Maxey-Harris said part of the difficulty in measuring diversity was the inconsistency in the data collected. “We agree that there should be more benchmarks so that we can see the progress we are making,” she said.
Despite inconsistent data collection, Anaya and Maxey-Harris agreed that they had seen some progress over the past 10 years. âRecruiting diverse people into the profession has been successful, but I think retention is where the challenge lies,â said Anaya.
Catherine Phan, digital and media archivist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said she felt “disappointed, but not surprised” by the results of the investigation. âI felt a bit of dismay reading that this sample might actually be more diverse than others in the industry,â she said.
Reacting to the finding that library directors pointed out that geography was the biggest barrier to hiring a more diverse staff, Phan said he felt “like we’re picking things that we think about. have no control, rather than looking closely at our own actions â. She added that she hoped the results would help library managers take a different look at their practices and not look for excuses. âLet’s face it what’s really going on here,â she said.
Phan, Anaya and Maxey-Harris agreed that increasing diversity in libraries is a mission of vital importance. âA very fundamental reason for increasing diversity is to represent the people we serve,â said Phan.
âTo better serve our communities, we need to be representative in our staffing and approach. We want to reach as wide an audience as possible, âsaid Maxey-Harris.
âAs a person of color,â Anaya said, âI never assumed the library was a place for me. I have never used it. I want students to see themselves reflected in the staff who work here.