The White Face of Library Leadership

An Ithaka S+R survey of research libraries reveals a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the profession, particularly at the upper levels.

August 30, 2017
 
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If you attended this year’s Association of College and Research Libraries conference in May, you may remember the moment when the author and keynote speaker Roxane Gay looked out over the audience and remarked, “Wow, there’s a lot of white folks out here.”

It was a pointed reminder of the lack of racial diversity in academic librarianship -- an issue that library organizations have been grappling with for decades. In a new report on diversity in academic libraries, Ithaka S+R said that while many librarians consider "diversity to be a core value," academic libraries have traditionally struggled to address problems of equity, diversity and inclusion. The low representation of people of color in library staff has been a particular shortcoming, despite many initiatives to attract minority staff to the field.

The American Library Association, for example, began a Spectrum Scholarship program to recruit people from ethnic minority groups into librarianship back in 1997. The Association of Research Libraries has more recently established several diversity initiatives focusing on recruitment and career development of underrepresented ethnic groups. The Association of College and Research Libraries, too, has formed a Diversity Alliance in the last few years. But are any of these initiatives making a real difference?

Ithaka S+R’s new survey of library staff at four-year colleges and universities 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 by Ithaka S+R today, found that over three-quarters of library employees at ARL institutions were white. Additionally, the report said that “as positions become increasingly senior, they also become increasingly white.” The report found that 89 percent of librarians in leadership or administration roles were white and non-Hispanic.

“It seems employees of color face a steeper incline toward advancement than their white colleagues do,” said the study's co-author, Roger Schonfeld. He noted that many nonwhite staff members work in nonsupervisory roles such as technical services, cataloging, materials processing, acquisitions, etc., which are being phased out in many libraries as they transition from print to electronic collections. “One could wonder if there is in fact a risk that libraries will become not more diverse in the future, but potentially less diverse in the future if action isn’t taken.”

Schonfeld said that racial diversity in librarianship is important because it is libraries that are responsible for maintaining the accuracy of the historical and cultural records of society as a whole -- not just one group. “It’s essential that the fundamental organizations responsible for the creation, selection, preservation and dissemination of knowledge match the diversity of the society that they seek to serve,” said Schonfeld.

In addition to racial representation, the report also considers at gender inequity. It found that most library roles are majority female all the way up to leadership, but Schonfeld noted there were some important imbalances -- technology 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 looking at the diversity of different cultural and scholarly organizations. The report was initially intended to present an overview of diversity of staff in all academic libraries, but due to poor response rates from the sector, the authors decided to focus on responses from members of the Association of Research Libraries.

Of 98 ARL institutions contacted in 2016, 42 library directors responded to requests for employee records, and 56 responded to a diversity questionnaire. As ARL members are typically very large institutions, the survey respondents represent just over 10,000 staff members. The report said that ARL members with more diverse student bodies were more likely to respond to the survey, and were also more likely to have a more diverse library staff.

The report found few differences between institutions in urban and rural areas, despite library directors identifying geography as a primary barrier to increasing diversity in the application pool. The report focuses on race/ethnicity and gender, not because these were priorities in the project, but because institutions do not as consistently record disability status, LGBTQ status, religion, age and veteran status.

Schonfeld says he hopes the report will act as a baseline for future diversity initiatives to build on, but said he did not yet know whether the survey would become a regular exercise. “It’s very difficult for organizations to build policies and take action based on anecdote,” he said. “We hope that libraries and some extent universities can use this information to focus their diversity work where it’s needed most.”

Liam Sweeney, the second co-author of the study, said he hoped the report would also give minority staff who have faced barriers to advancement some hard data to back up their concerns.

Toni Anaya and Charlene Maxey-Harris are associate professors at the University of Nebraska Lincoln Libraries who have both been working on a SPEC Kit guide to current practices on diversity and inclusion for the research library association. They both said they were not surprised by the findings in the Ithaka S+R report. “It’s the same thing that we’ve been hearing for seven years,” said Anaya.

Anaya said that one of the challenges of increasing diversity is that it is “really a moving target,” as the definition of diversity keeps changing. Maxey-Harris said that part of the difficulty in measuring diversity was inconsistency in the data collected. “We agree there should be more benchmarks to be able to see the progress we’re making,” she said.

Despite inconsistent data collection, both Anaya and Maxey-Harris agreed they had seen progress in the last 10 years. “Recruitment of diverse people to the profession has been successful, but I think retention is where the challenge is,” said Anaya.

Catherine Phan, a digital and media archivist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said she felt “disappointed, but not surprised” by the results of the survey. “I felt a little dismay as I read this sample might actually be more diverse than others in the sector,” she said.

Reacting to the finding that library directors highlighted geography as a primary barrier to hiring more diverse staff, Phan said it felt “like we’re picking things we feel we have no control over, rather than looking closely at our own actions.” She added she hoped the results would help library directors take a different look at their practices, and not make excuses. “Let’s not deceive ourselves about what’s really going on here,” she said.

Phan, Anaya and Maxey-Harris agreed that increasing diversity in libraries was a vitally important mission. “A very basic reason to increase diversity is so that we represent the people we serve,” said Phan.

“To best serve our communities, we need to be representative in our staffing and in our approach. We want to reach as wide an audience as possible,” said Maxey-Harris.

“Being a person of color,” said Anaya, “I never assumed the library was a place for me. I never used it. I want students to see themselves reflected in the staff that work here.”

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