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Taking Diversity to the Next Level

** This post was also published in ACRL TechConnect on Dec. 18, 2017.***

“Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums,” panel discussion program held at the University of Rhode Island Libraries on Thursday November 30, 2017.

Getting Minorities on Board

I recently moderated a panel discussion program titled “Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.”1 Participating in organizing this program was interesting experience. During the whole time, I experienced my perspective constantly shifting back and forth as (i) someone who is a woman of color in the US who experiences and deals with small and large daily acts of discrimination, (ii) an organizer/moderator trying to get as many people as possible to attend and participate, and (iii) a mid-career librarian who is trying to contribute to the group efforts to find a way to move the diversity agenda forward in a positive and inclusive way in my own institution.

In the past, I have participated in multiple diversity-themed programs either as a member of the organizing committee or as an attendee and have been excited to see colleagues organize and run such programs. But when asked to write or speak about diversity myself, I always hesitated and declined. This puzzled me for a long time because I couldn’t quite pinpoint where my own resistance was coming from. I am writing about this now because I think it may shed some light on why it is often difficult to get minorities on board with diversity-related efforts.

A common issue that many organizers experience is that often these diversity programs draw many allies who are already interested in working on the issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion but not necessarily a lot of those who the organizers consider to be the target audience, namely, minorities. What may be the reason? Perhaps I can find a clue for the answer to this question from my own resistance regarding speaking or writing about diversity, preferring rather to be in the audience with a certain distance or as an organizer helping with logistics behind the scene.

To be honest, I always harbored a level of suspicion about how much of the sudden interests in diversity is real and how much of it is simply about being on the next hot trend. Trends come and go, but issues lived through many lives of those who belong to various systematically disadvantaged and marginalized groups are not trends. Although I have been always enthusiastic about participating in diversity-focused programs as attendees and was happy to see diversity, equity, and inclusion discussed in articles and talks, I wasn’t ready to sell out my lived experience as part of a hot trend, a potential fad.

To be clear, I am not saying that any of the diversity-related programs or events were asking speakers or authors to be a sell-out. I am only describing how things felt to me and where my own resistance was originating. I have been and am happy to see diversity discussed even as a one-time fad. Better a fad than no discussion at all.

One may argue that that diversity has been actively discussed for quite some time now. A few years, maybe several, or even more. Some of the prominent efforts to increase diversity in librarianship I know, for example, go as far back as 2007 when Oregon State University Libraries sponsored two scholarships to the Code4Lib conference, one for women and the other for minorities, which have continued from then on as the Code4Lib Diversity Scholarship.2 But if one has lived the entire life as a member of a systematically disadvantaged group either as a woman, a person of color, a person of certain sexual orientation, a person of a certain faith, a person with a certain disability, etc., one knows better than expecting some sudden interests in diversity to change the world we live in and most of the people overnight.

I admit I have been watching the diversity discussion gaining more and more traction in librarianship with growing excitement and concern at the same time. For I felt that all of what is being achieved through so many people’s efforts may get wiped out at any moment. The more momentum it accrues, I worried, the more serious backlash it may come to face. For example, it was openly stated that seeking racial/ethnic diversity is superficial and for appearance’s sake and that those who appear to belong to “Team Diversity” do not work as hard as those in “Team Mainstream.” People make this type of statements in order to create and strengthen a negative association between multiple dimensions of diversity that are all non-normative (such as race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability) and unfavorable value judgements (such as inferior intellectual capacity or poor work ethic).3 According to this kind of flawed reasoning, a tech company whose entire staff consists of twenty-something white male programmers with a college degree, may well have achieved a high level of diversity because the staff might have potentially (no matter how unlikely) substantial intellectual and personal differences in their thinking, background, and experience, and therefore their clear homogeneity is no real problem. That’s just a matter of trivial “appearance.” The motivation behind this kind of intentional misdirection is to derail current efforts towards expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion by taking people’s attention away from the real issue of systematic marginalization in our society. Of course, the ultimate goal of all diversity efforts should be not the mere inclusion of minorities but enabling them to have agency as equal as the agency those privileged already possess. But note that objections are being raised against mere inclusion. Anti-diversity sentiment is real, and people will try to rationalize it in any way they can.

Then of course, the other source of my inner resistance to speaking or writing about diversity has been the simple fact that thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion does not take me to a happy place. It reminds me of many bad experiences accumulated over time that I would rather not revisit. This is why I admire those who have spoken and written about their lived experience as a member of a systematically discriminated and marginalized group. Their contribution is a remarkably selfless one.

I don’t have a clear answer to how this reflection on my own resistance against actively speaking or writing about diversity will help future organizers. But clearly, being asked to join many times had an effect since I finally did accept the invitation to moderate a panel and wrote this article. So, if you are serious about getting more minorities – whether in different religions, genders, disabilities, races, etc. – to speak or write on the issue, then invite them and be ready to do it over and over again even if they decline. Don’t expect that they will trust you at the first invitation. Understand that by accepting such an invitation, minorities do risk far more than non-minorities will ever do. The survey I ran for the registrants of the “Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums” panel discussion program showed several respondents expressing their concern about the backlash at their workplaces that did or may result from participating in diversity efforts as a serious deterrent.4 If we would like to see more minorities participate in diversity efforts, we must create a safe space for everyone and take steps to deal with potential backlash that may ensue afterwards.5

A Gentle Intro or a Deep Dive?

Another issue that many organizers of diversity-focused events, programs, and initiatives struggle with is two conflicting expectations from their audience. On one hand, there are those who are familiar with diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and want to see how institutions and individuals are going to take their initial efforts to the next level. These people often come from organizations that already implemented certain pro-diversity measures such as search advocates for the hiring process.6 and educational programs that familiarize the staff with the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion.7 On the other hand, there are still many who are not quite sure what diversity, equity, and inclusion exactly mean in a workplace or in their lives. Those people would continue to benefit from a gentle introduction to things such as privilege, microaggression, and unconscious biases.

The feedback surveys collected after the “Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums” panel discussion program showed these two different expectations. Some people responded that they deeply appreciated the personal stories shared by the panelists, noting that they did not realize how often minorities are marginalized even in one day’s time. Others, however, said they would be like to hear more about actionable items and strategies that can be implemented to further advance the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion that go beyond personal stories. Balancing these two different demands is a hard act for organizers. However, this is a testament to our collective achievement that more and more people are aware of the importance of continuing efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in libraries, archives, and museums.

I do think that we need to continue to provide a general introduction to diversity-related issues, exposing people to everyday experience of marginalized groups such as micro-invalidation, impostor syndrome, and basic concepts like white privilege, systematic oppression, colonialism, and intersectionality. One of the comments we received via the feedback survey after our diversity panel discussion program was that the program was most relevant in that it made “having colleagues attend with me to hear what I myself have never told them” possible. General programs and events can be an excellent gateway to more open and less guarded discussion.

At the same time, it seems to be high time for us in libraries, museums, and archives to take a deep dive into different realms of diversity, equity, and inclusion as well. Diversity comes in many dimensions such as age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Many of us feel more strongly about one issue than others. We should create opportunities for ourselves to advocate for specific diversity issues that we care most.

The only thing I would emphasize is that one specific dimension of diversity should not be used as an excuse to neglect others. Exploring socioeconomic inequality issues without addressing how they work combined with the systematic oppression of marginalized groups such as Native Americans, women, or immigrants at the same time can be an example of such a case. All dimensions of diversity are closely knitted with one another, and they do not exist independently. For this reason, a deep dive into different realms of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be accompanied by the strong awareness of their intersectionality.8

Recommendations and Resources for Future Organizers

Organizing a diversity-focused program takes a lot of effort. While planning the “Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums” panel discussion program at the University of Rhode Island Libraries, I worked closely with my library dean, Karim Boughida, who originally came up with the idea of having a panel discussion program at the University of Rhode Island Libraries, and Renee Neely in the libraries’ diversity initiatives for approximately two months. For panelists, we decided to recruit as many minorities from diverse institutions and backgrounds. We were fortunate to find panelists from a museum, an archive, both a public and an academic library with varying degrees of experience in the field from only a few years to over twenty-five years, ranging from a relatively new archivist to an experienced museum and a library director. Our panel consisted of one-hundred percent people of color. The thoughts and perspectives that those panelists shared were, as a result, remarkably diverse and insightful. For this reason, I recommend spending some time to get the right speakers for your program if your program will have speakers.

Discussion at the “Building Bridges in a Divisive Climate: Diversity in Libraries, Archives, and Museums,” at the University of Rhode Island Libraries

Another thing I would like to share is the questions that I created for the panel discussion. Even though we had a whole hour, I was able to cover only several of them. But since I discussed all these questions in advance with the panelists and they helped me put a final touch on some of those, I think these questions can be useful to future organizers who may want to run a similar program. They can be utilized for a panel discussion, an unconference, or other types of programs. I hope this is helpful and save time for other organizers.

Sample Questions for the Diversity Panel Discussion

  1. Why should libraries, archives, museums pay attention to the issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
  2. In what ways do you think the lack of diversity in our profession affects the perception of libraries, museums, and archives in the communities we serve?
  3. Do you have any personal or work-related stories that you would like to share that relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion issues?
  4. How did you get interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion issues?
  5. Suppose you discovered that your library’s, archive’s or museum’s collection includes prejudiced information, controversial objects/ documents, or hate-inducing material. What would you do?
  6. Suppose a group of your library / archive / museum patrons want to use your space to hold a local gathering that involves hate speech. What would you do? What would you be mostly concerned about, and what would the things that you would consider to make a decision on how you will respond?
  7. Do you think libraries, archives, and museums are a neutral place? What do you think neutrality means to a library, an archive, a museum in practice in a divisive climate such as now?
  8. What are some of the areas in libraries, museums, and archives where you see privileges and marginalization function as a barrier to achieving our professional values – equal access and critical thinking?  What can we do to remove those barriers?
  9. Could you tell us how colonialist thinking and practice are affecting libraries, museums, and archives either consciously or unconsciously?  Since not everyone is familiar with what colonialism is, please begin with first your brief interpretation of what colonialist thinking or practice look like in libraries, museums, and archives first?
  10. What do you think libraries, archives, and museums can do more to improve critical thinking in the community that we serve?
  11. Although libraries, archives, museums have been making efforts to recruit, hire, and retain diverse personnel in recent years, the success rate has been relatively low. For example, in librarianship, it has been reported that often those hired through these efforts experienced backlash at their own institutions, were subject to unrealistic expectations, and met with unsupportive environment, which led to burnout and a low retention rate of talented people. From your perspective – either as a manager hiring people or a relatively new librarian who looked for jobs – what do you think can be done to improve this type of unfortunate situation?
  12. Many in our profession express their hesitation to actively participate in diversity, equity, and inclusion-related discussion and initiatives at their institutions because of the backlash from their own coworkers. What do you think we can do to minimize such backlash?
  13. Some people in our profession express strong negative feelings regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion-related initiatives. How much of this type of anti-diversity sentiment do you think exist in your field? Some worry that this is even growing faster in the current divisive and intolerant climate. What do you think we can do to counter such anti-diversity sentiment?
  14. There are many who are resistant to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Have you taken any action to promote and advance these values facing such resistance? If so, what was your experience like, and what would be some of the strategies you may recommend to others working with those people?
  15. Many people in our profession want to take our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to the next level, beyond offering mere lip service or simply playing a numbers game for statistics purpose. What do you think that next level may be?

Lastly, I felt strongly about ensuring that the terms and concepts often thrown out in diversity/equity/inclusion-related programs and events – such as intersectionality, white privilege, microaggression, patriarchy, colonialism, and so on – are not used to unintentionally alienate those who are unfamiliar with them. These concepts are useful and convenient shortcuts that allow us to communicate a large set of ideas previously discussed and digested, so that we can move our discussion forward more efficiently. They should not make people feel uncomfortable nor generate any hint of superiority or inferiority.

To this end, I create a pre-program survey which all program registrants were encouraged to take. My survey simply asked people how familiar and how comfortable they are with a variety of terms. At the panel discussion program, we also distributed the glossary of these terms, so that people can all become familiar with them.9 Also, videos can quickly bring all attendees up-to-speed with some basic concepts and phenomena in diversity discussion. For example, in the beginning of our panel discussion program, I played two short videos, “Life of Privilege Explained in a $100 Race” and “What If We Treated White Coworkers The Way We Treat Minority Coworkers?”, which were well received by the attendees.

I am sharing the survey questions, the video links, and the glossary in the hope that they may be helpful as a useful tool for future organizers. For example, one may decide to provide a glossary like this before the program or run an unconference that aims at unpacking the meanings of these terms and discussing how they relate to people’s daily lives.10

In Closing: Diversity, Libraries, Technology, and Our Own Biases

Disagreements on social issues are natural. But the divisiveness that we are currently experiencing seems to be particularly intense. This deeply concerns us, educators and professionals working in libraries, archives, and museums. Libraries, archives, and museums are public institutions dedicated to promoting and advancing civic values. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are part of those core civic values that move our society forward. This task, however, has become increasingly challenging as our society moves in a more and more divisive direction.

To make matters even more complicated, libraries, archives, museums in general lack diversity in their staff composition. This homogeneity can impede achieving our own mission. According to the recent report from Ithaka S+R released this August, we do not appear to have gotten very far. Their report “Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity: Members of the Association of Research (ARL) Libraries – Employee Demographics and Director Perspectives,” shows that libraries and library leadership/administration are both markedly white-dominant (71% and 89% white non-Hispanic respectively).11 Also, while librarianship in general are female dominant (61%), the technology field in libraries is starkly male (70%) along with Makerspace (65%), facilities (64%), and security (73%) positions.12 The survey results in the report show that while the majority of library directors say there are barriers to achieving more diversity in their library, they attribute those barriers to external rather than internal factors such as the library’s geographic location and the insufficiently diverse application pool resulting from the library’s location. What is fascinating, however, is that this directly conflicts with the fact that libraries do show little variation in the ratio of white staff based on degree of urbanization. Equally interesting is that the staff in more homogeneous and less diverse (over 71% White Non-Hispanic) libraries think that their libraries are much more equitable than the library community (57% vs 14%) and that library directors (and staff) consider their own library to be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive than the library community with respect to almost every category such as race/ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ, disabilities, veterans, and religion.

While these findings in the Ithaka S+R report are based upon the survey results from ARL libraries, similar staff composition and attitudes can be assumed to apply to libraries in general. There is a great need for both the library administration and the staff to understand their own unconscious and implicit biases, workplace norms, and organizational culture that may well be thwarting their own diversity efforts.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have certainly been a topic of active discussion in the recent years. Many libraries have established a committee or a task force dedicated to improving diversity. But how are those efforts paying out? Are they going beyond simply paying a lip service? Is it making a real difference to everyday experience of minority library workers?13 Can we improve, and if so where and how? Where do we go from here? Those would be the questions that we will need to examine in order to take our diversity efforts in libraries, archives, and museums to the next level.

Notes

  1. The program description is available at https://web.uri.edu/library/2017/12/05/building-bridges-in-a-divisive-climate-diversity-in-libraries-archives-and-museums/
  2. Carol Bean, Ranti Junus, and Deborah Mouw, “Conference Report: Code4LibCon 2008,” The Code4Lib Journal, no. 2 (March 24, 2008), http://journal.code4lib.org/articles/72.
  3. Note that this kind of biased assertions often masquerades itself as an objective intellectual pursuit in academia when in reality, it is a direct manifestation of an existing prejudice reflecting the limited and shallow experience of the person posting the question him/herself. A good example of this is found in the remark in 2005 made by Larry Summers, the former Harvard President. He suggested that one reason for relatively few women in top positions in science may be “issues of intrinsic aptitude” rather than widespread indisputable everyday discrimination against women. He resigned after the Harvard faculty of arts and sciences cast a vote of no confidence. See Scott Jaschik, “What Larry Summers Said,” Inside Higher Ed, February 18, 2005, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/02/18/summers2_18.
  4. Our pre-program survey questions can be viewed at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScP-nQnkHAqli_43pVdidw-dQzrAfLyCdiKutu5dZjqm3F8rA/viewform.
  5. For this purpose, asking all participants to respect one another’s privacy in advance can be a good policy. In addition to this, we specifically decided not to stream or record our panel discussion program, so that both panelists and attendees can freely share their experience and thoughts.
  6. A good example is the Search Advocate program from Oregon State University. See http://searchadvocate.oregonstate.edu/.
  7. For an example, see the workshops offered by the Office of Community, Equity, and Inclusion of the University of Rhode Island at https://web.uri.edu/diversity/ced-inclusion-courses-overview/.
  8. For the limitations of the mainstream diversity discussion in LIS (library and information science) with the focus on inclusion and cultural competency, see David James Hudson, “On ‘Diversity’ as Anti-Racism in Library and Information Studies: A Critique,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1, no. 1 (January 31, 2017), https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.24242/jclis.v1i1.6.
  9. You can see our glossary at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1UCI142HUuYTrElgnY-dbNSOXF_IlpM6n/view?usp=sharing; This glossary was put together by Renee Neely.
  10. For the nitty-gritty logistical details for organizing a large event with a group of local and remote volunteers, check the Organizer’s Toolkit created by the 2017 #critlib Unconference organizers at https://critlib2017.wordpress.com/organizers-toolkit/.
  11. Roger Schonfeld and Liam Sweeney, “Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity: Members of the Association of Research Libraries,” Ithaka S+R, August 30, 2017, http://www.sr.ithaka.org/publications/inclusion-diversity-and-equity-arl/.
  12. For the early discussion of diversity-focused recruitment in library technology, see Jim Hahn, “Diversity Recruitment in Library Information Technology,” ACRL TechConnect Blog, August 1, 2012, https://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/post/diversity-recruitment-in-library-information-technology.
  13. See April Hathcock, “White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS,” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, October 7, 2015, http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/lis-diversity/ and Angela Galvan, “Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship,” In the Library with the Lead Pipe (blog), June 3, 2015, http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/soliciting-performance-hiding-bias-whiteness-and-librarianship.

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