Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Diversity in Library & Information Science Education

On Thursday, November 8th, and Friday the 9th the iSchool at the University of Maryland, College Park held its first Symposium on Diversity in Library and Information Science Education. It's an excellent idea that's well overdue, given that the profession appears to be somewhat demographically stagnant. To wit, in 2006 American Library Association members self-reported a composition that is approximately 89% white and 80% female (data in pdf form). In 2012, those numbers hadn't budged (pdf), which begs the question of what library and information science educators, librarians and paraprofessional staff, the ALA, academic advisers and faculty are doing or can do to correct this imbalance. I'm not naive enough to think that librarianship should reflect society, writ large, but for many librarians patron demographics are changing while ours are not.

Library and information science educators operate somewhat at the mercy of the other persons mentioned here. Graduate students are a self-selecting sample, and if not many students from diverse backgrounds attend MLIS programs, there is not much for this group to do beyond creating a welcoming environment for all students. Since that is easier said than done, more on that in a minute. [UPDATE: More on this in the comments.]

Librarians themselves, ourselves, have a role to play here as well. While academic librarianship may be a fallback career for failed academics, and I am guilty as charged, for a great many prospective librarians interactions with library and information science professionals can guide people towards the field. How we communicate with prospective students, both librarians and paraprofessional staff can go a long way towards recruitment.

For its part, the American Library Association has an Office for Diversity that I assume, like the rest of the ALA, is underutilized. Outside of the very effective Spectrum Scholarship Program I don't hear much about this resource. Divisions of the ALA, such as the Association of College & Research Libraries, have their own standards that are also worth examining.

Graduate programs in library and information science are dependent on undergraduate institutions for the "raw materials" of librarianship, the students, which is why there was an emphasis on academic advisers and faculty at the symposium. These professions can guide students towards librarianship, but without knowing the resources that exist to support graduate students their persuasive abilities may be circumscribed. Or worse, they may throw unprepared students to the wolf that is graduate school. That's where this conference comes in.

I was unable to attend the Thursday session, view the program here, but was present for Friday. Prior to lunch the main takeaway seemed to be the need to embed diversity and cultural competencies into all aspects of curriculum, to make it the new normal. This is important because hegemony really does exist. Lip service to diversity is not enough; rather, it needs to be as banal, unconscious, and as taken-for-granted as white privilege is. In practice, this means a focus on mentoring, hands on experience in a variety of roles, and celebrating and promoting diversity at every possible opportunity rather than devoting a mere week to it. Repetition makes routine. At one public library in Baltimore, diversity means thirteen different languages during story time.

Following lunch there was a focus on funding for diversity initiatives. The Storify below, put together by Rebecca Oxley, a conference organizer, has a wealth of links to funding sources, among others.

I am unsure if the symposium will be repeated next year, but it strikes me that if this is something we're doing every year, then we're not doing a good job of making LIS programs diverse and welcoming.


  1. I am super happy to see you blog on this topic, but I want to push back on this statement: "Graduate students are a self-selecting sample, and if not many students from diverse backgrounds attend MLIS programs, there is not much for this group to do beyond creating a welcoming environment for all students."

    My background is in STEM -- I majored in math at an engineering school -- so pipeline issues have been stalking my life for a solid twenty years, maybe more. And on the one hand, it's true that it's hard to make rapid progress if there are dependencies that aren't. But on the other hand, that doesn't mean people at advanced parts of the pipeline are victims.

    Take this:

    We all know that the pool of tech conference speakers is not 50% female (sadly), and that there are tons of pipeline issues leading to that (starting with, say, my daughter being literally the only girl in her *kindergarten* robotics class). But the blogger found that when she actually went out and recruited women directly to pitch talks -- and then judged all the submissions anonymously -- the women on average submitted so much higher-quality talks than the men on average that they ended up as half her speakers.

    HOWEVER, before she started pitching them, she basically didn't get any submissions from women. Why? Because they didn't see themselves as the kind of people who spoke at tech conferences. Not good enough. Not enough interesting projects. Et cetera. They in fact *totally had the skills*; they just didn't know it and weren't willing to put themselves forward without a push.

    I submit that the same is likely true with the LIS pipeline. I am confident that there are TONS of men and people of color who would make great librarians (...and tons of women and people of color and non-academic librarians who would make great library technologists...), but who don't realize it, because people like them don't do things like that. Because no one's ever suggested it to them.

    We do not have to sit there passively and start with the applicants who self-identify and bring themselves to our doors. We do not. We can do environmental scans and outreach. Sometimes that's the biggest thing people need to believe they can do something -- someone else telling them they can.

    (Not entirely coincidentally, I pitched my first talk to a non-library tech conference earlier this fall. Because someone asked me to. It would never have struck me otherwise that I have things to say that that audience would want to hear.)

    1. Andromeda, those are excellent points, but LIS educators are "up the stream" from other groups I mentioned above, and as such I think their abilities are somewhat circumscribed. That doesn't mean they should sit and wait for applicants; no graduate program does that. Outreach can and should be expanded, but it's tough. My institution educates more graduates of DC public schools than any other private institution in the country. We had a local MLIS program set up a table in the library for four hours a in the fall of 2011. They spoke to five undergraduates in those four hours, and not one ended up applying to the program. That program hasn't been back. I'm not sure I can blame them. This is hard, and for the most part I see MLIS programs taking the low hanging fruit of white undergraduates with English/Literature degrees in part because it's less work. I don't like that and it's not a reality I want to live in. But for now, here we are. MLIS programs, do better! We know they can because the Spectrum Scholarship Program, mentioned above, is a smashing success.
      As for the "someone else telling them they can" become librarians, I'd be rightfully suspicious of MLIS programs telling me, or anyone else, "you can do it." Too often that's an attempt to separate money from people. Cynical, but I think that's the truth. The "you can do it" needs to happen before grad school, before an MLIS program.
      Thank you for forcing me to flesh out this point a bit more.

  2. Hey, speaking of which -- I'm on the planning committee for LITA Forum 2013, and we would LOVE to have a diverse roster of speakers! Personally, I absolutely want to see speakers who aren't the usual suspects (though I love them too :) and who represent a wide range of technology use cases. So, dear readers, if that's you (and even if you don't think it is, it might be :), have a look at our CFP --

    Jacob, since you were the one who was just at the diversity conference, did you meet any technologists there that I should make sure see our CFP? Comment/email me/DM me, whatever :)

  3. Great post, Jake. The only issues I see with the ALA demographic numbers are (1) they are self reporting and (2) they are a measure of organizational membership, not the profession as a whole. Self reporting is not objective as a means of measuring a whole. And since the numbers are limited to ALA members and not the profession as a whole, it only tells me the demographics of the members who had enough time/interest to fill out a survey.

    Now, I will admit that the sample size is large enough that an actual objective survey of the full profession might not move the numbers much. But it doesn't seem like a completely reasonable measurement of the profession as a whole.

    1. Thanks, Andy. I mentioned the self-reporting aspect of these surveys for exactly the reason you mention in your comment above. I'll only add that something like 40,000 people self-reported as of March 2012, or approximately 68 percent of ALA members. I feel comfortable extrapolating these numbers to the profession as a whole, but others' mileage may vary.

    2. No problem, Jake. It's been awhile since I took a statistics class so potentially it still is a valid sample size. It reminds me though that one of the top complaints about ALA is membership fees which acts as a financial barrier to inclusion. So this is a self reporting survey of the people who had the time/energy to do the survey *AND* who can afford it (themselves or through their institution).

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