When I hear people use the term “diversity,” I first hear an attempt to discuss race without knowing what words everyone in the room is comfortable hearing. Depending on the point an individual is trying to make, I then hear implications of language difference, physical or mental dis/abilities, sexual orientation and gender, family structure, or whatever deviation from the norm is hinted at in the context.
The reactions I have to thinking about diversity in a library context are pretty strong, and it’s important for me to understand exactly why I react strongly to these conversations (whether I stay silent on the topic or speak up).
My most immediate answer is that identifying as a feminist has made me pursue certain challenges. Whether it’s right or wrong, I have an aversion to being a part of a “pink collar” work force, which makes me sound like a feminist misogynist, I know, but it stems from wanting to be taken seriously. Women have an uphill battle when it comes to defending their labor as quality both on a position-level and a cultural level. I struggled with the idea of going to library school because I knew most of my classmates would look like me–white, middle class, female, primarily heterosexual.
Discussing the homogeneity of the field is essential to orienting ourselves and our work and understanding what directions will lead to progress. In order to gain any ground on the issue, however, we must pinpoint what drives our desire for diversity in this field. We want diversity, but for what purpose? Some of the answers I’ve come up with to that question are 1) empathy between librarian and patron/the service argument, 2) social justice, 3) welcoming outsiders into the ranks, and 4) retaining them if/when they get here.
Here’s the logic behind this list:
- The service argument implies that we help patrons best when they can identify with us and see us as an ally. It’s easier to be assisted by and connect with those who “speak your language,” whether that language be Spanish, American Sign Language, or Guy.
- The social justice impetus indicates that we know something is wrong with our system but we have no idea how to improve it. We also want to believe in ourselves as good people. We are still moral even if we are atheist heathens, we are still activists even though we’ve outgrown the enthusiasm that fueled us as undergrads. But we need inclusivity to prove it.
- When we welcome outsiders, we welcome new ideas and innovations. Librarianship has a solid and venerable tradition–one that sometimes limits its capacity for growth. Those with different cultural experiences bring with them a new tool set to approach problems with.
- The retention rationale simply asks, who wants to stay in a job where he or she has no allies? Tokenism is not diversity.
Men in Women-Dominated Spaces
Given that I started this post thinking about “women’s work,” let’s address the lack of gender diversity first. Just as it was hard for women to break into male spheres, it is also difficult for men to break into female spheres. There are personal identity issues in addition to cultural pressures to cater to. In class last semester, a fellow library student shared a nugget of his research on the perceptions of male librarianship. He found that some believe men become librarians because they have failed at every other career path they’ve attempted.
Librarianship may have started as a male-dominated position, but in its current state, we’re not going to achieve gender balance overnight. One challenge we’re up against is affirming and encouraging some maleness–to make the environment more welcoming to them–while simultaneously supporting those who are ever more comfortable in breaking male stereotypes. I’ve witnessed enough men donning baby slings and staying home during the day to believe that a certain kind of feminist fatherhood is in fashion. There is wider acceptance of men assuming care-taking roles. Why can’t the library field take advantage of that?
A touchier subject is what a female-dominated environment might be doing to create an uncomfortable space for men. Before library school, I worked for a small woman-owned company for three-and-a-half years. For the majority of that time, we had only one man on staff. During one staff meeting, where five of us were in the room and two employees had to call in, we were having troubles getting connected through a 3-way call. When we were finally connected, three of us let out a high-pitched “yaaaaay!!!” that nearly knocked my male colleague out of his seat. “I forgot that I was surrounded by women,” he said when adjusting himself.
This celebratory Yay–which ended in a slightly lower note than when it started in a slow tumble of female affectation–was in unison, and I was one of the Yay-ers. The lesson I walked away with that day was how my attempt to fit in with the group was alienating the outsider. When we had potlucks, we mostly brought dainty, low-calorie health food. At one point he confessed he didn’t like how we women were so polite, how swearing was avoided. I can’t imagine we created a comfortable environment for him to work in.
People of Color in White Spaces
Having been located in the Central Midwest my whole life, first living in a metro area and now in a college town both in pretty white states, I personally have not witnessed much racial diversity in librarian positions. The “Movers & Shakers” installment in the March 2010 Library Journal proved that librarians of color were out there. Are they just harder to come across in the Midwest? In my classes, I cannot speak to the racial identities of everyone, but it’s been said on more than one occasion, “just look around this room, we’re all white here.” So it’s at least been assumed that no one has a multi-faceted racial identity in my cohort.
It’s a problem when we look at people and assume we know who they are. When we normalize others we take away their experiences. We force them to be someone other than who they are, someone who’s like us. I personally struggle with asking someone how they identify racially. It’s not a discomfort I’ve gotten over. But unless a person has wanted to fit in with the norm his or her whole life, I can’t imagine asking is worse than assuming.
Race has been very hard to discuss in any of my classes. The students kinda sorta want to talk about it. The instructors have shown no signs in wanting to go there. There’s a part-time faculty member who studies Critical Race Theory, so it’s on his faculty page that he’ll talk about race. Plus, he’s black, so he’s probably more comfortable talking about race than we white students are. He’s more authoritative on the matter than we are, or so we might think.
We talked about the diversity issue most recently in my academic libraries class, where it was one argument that has influenced the strategic growth of universities in the past few decades. One classmate questioned whether people of color don’t enter library school programs because the profession isn’t very prestigious. Another had written in a discussion post how hard it would be to be the “diverse” one. I had asked how we can expect to diversify graduate-level courses when high school graduation and dropout rates are racially disparate, when this is a systemic problem. But we don’t seem to deal with systemic problems in library school. We suck in whatever knowledge we can each week, spit back what is meaningful to us, and get our participation points.
Diversifying Problem-Solution Sets
This whole tl;dr post started with ideas I had on the treadmill last week with my library school workout buddy, an author of one of the posts mentioned at the beginning. We were on two machines at the new recreation center, our forward gazes directed at the university’s Main Library across a park lawn. We were chatting about her blog post on diversity and blogging while in library school. It struck me: We need to look to how other “pink collar” fields are approaching the diversity question.
Specifically with teaching and education policy, the Obama administration is trying to create more paths to becoming a teacher, supporting programs like Teach For America as a model for alternative paths to the profession. What kind of alternative paths to librarianship would facilitate diversifying this field? ALA-accreditation has been a stalwart in both protecting certain professional standards as well as prohibiting non-traditional candidates from entering the field as professionals.
Creating a program for library paraprofessionals to earn certification would be a start. But what about envisioning paths from related fields into librarianship? Teachers, knowledge managers, information architects, humanists, artists, database managers–all might consider librarianship if there weren’t another two-year Master’s program to go through.
Diversity isn’t something you can just throw scholarship money at and hope someone fits your criteria. If we aspire to excellent service for each and every patron, social justice in hiring staff, innovative approaches, and retaining quality employees, we need to be attentive to cultivating non-gendered spaces and creating new paths to the profession.
We’re not going to diversify by being just like each other, no matter how comfortable that might be.
Note: Some of the thoughts that led to this post sprung from LIS bloggers Julia Skinner and Micah Vandegrift, on Julia’s Library Research Blog and HackLibSchool. I hadn’t read all the comments from these two posts yet, and there are a lot of good points made within them, particularly about the cost of the education and incentives to joining the field. Also, by recruiting and mentoring teenagers into the field. Someone needs to be collecting all these ideas!!