Library Leaders Lack Confidence in Diversity Strategies

Fostering diversity, equity and inclusion in academic libraries is more important to library leaders now than it was in 2019, but many are uncertain about the effectiveness of their strategies.

April 14, 2021
 
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The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 had a measurable impact on library leaders’ appreciation of the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, a recent survey of academic library leaders from the nonprofit research and strategy group Ithaka S+R found.

More academic library leaders are affirming their desire to implement antiracist policies in the wake of national racial justice movements, the survey found. But most are still concerned their personnel and collections strategies may not adequately support these objectives. Many library leaders also failed to recognize how COVID-19 budget cuts likely disproportionately impacted employees of color.

The survey was conducted in the fall of 2020 and includes responses from 638 library directors at four-year institutions. It was the subject of an Ithaka S+R webinar yesterday discussing the effects of national racial justice movements on library strategy, staffing and collections.

Survey respondents were three times more likely to say the ability to foster equity, diversity and inclusion is one of the top three most important skills for a library director to have in 2020, compared to 2019. Though this skill is more highly valued than before, it remains a low priority for library directors. Only 25 percent selected this ability for their top three, said Jennifer Frederick, senior surveys analyst at Ithaka S+R, during the webinar. Frederick co-authored the survey report with Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, manager of surveys and research for the nonprofit.

The ability to manage change was the most highly prized skill among library directors, with 63 percent of respondents picking it as one of their top three, up from 54 percent in 2019. This finding was highlighted by webinar panelist Patricia Hswe, program officer for public knowledge at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who questioned what change library leaders think they are managing.

There is a recurring critique from Black, Indigenous and people of color staff that change happens very slowly in libraries, said Hswe. The ability to manage change may be the most highly valued skiill by library directors, but "where is the evidence of that change happening?" asked Hswe. 

Discussions about diversity in a profession that is predominantly white have been taking place for decades, but the number of Black library leaders remains where it was 30 years ago, said Trevor A. Dawes, vice provost for libraries and museums and May Morris University Librarian at the University of Delaware.

None of the participants in the webinar, including Dawes, expressed surprise that the survey indicated little significant movement toward hiring, retaining and promoting more diverse staff and faculty members.

Survey respondents reported feeling less confident in their personnel strategies related to equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility in 2020 than they did in 2019. Over all, the confidence in both institutional and library-level strategies remained low, at 26 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

Directors may feel less confident than they did previously because they are now starting to realize that "white supremacy is still prevalent in libraries and society after all the marches and statements," said Karim Boughida, dean of university libraries at the University of Rhode Island, in an email. 

Though many institutions issued statements denouncing racism last summer, few have actually taken meaningful actions to support their Black and brown students, faculty members and staff members, said Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, dean of Ida Jane Dacus Library and Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections at Winthrop University, during the webinar.

“One of my direct reports recently asked me if I was going to write an antiracism statement for the library, and I said no. I would rather us do some things and then we have something to write,” Davis Kendrick said. 

The survey found that 84 percent of library directors did not expect that employees of color would be disproportionately affected by cuts due to the pandemic. But Ithaka S+R’s analysis suggested that library positions with a higher percentage of nonwhite employees were more likely to be impacted than other positions.

“I remain concerned, considering my work on morale and how people are treated at work, that leaders aren’t aware of who is being impacted,” Davis Kendrick said. Library staff members of color feel they are in a much more precarious position than their white colleagues in terms of retaining their positions, she said.

In discussing concrete steps that libraries can take to improve their diversity, equity, inclusion and accesibility strategies, the panelists agreed it is not helpful for library leaders to say they are prioritizing diversity if it isn’t an issue they care about. 

In order to design meaningful stategies, you need to educate yourself and hire real experts as consultants and trainers, said Boughida.  

"Realize white supremacy is systemic and not situational, start working intentionally on fixing inequalities," said Boughida. "Realize that this work is a very long term." 

Efforts to diversify collections should be undertaken in collaboration with faculty members and students so that the materials are actually incorporated into curricula, said Dawes. Additionally, staff members of color should not be expected to shoulder the burden of doing diversity work without regular breaks.

“Not time away to reflect, but time away to be away from the work,” said Davis Kendrick.

It can take time for libraries to get to a place where they are able to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion work, Dawes said. The University of Delaware and Binghamton University are both working with Ithaka S+R to undertake an audit of their talent management -- from hiring to the point where staff members leave the institution.

It took four years for the library to get to the point where Dawes felt they were ready to do such an audit. The findings may be difficult to confront, but they will give the institution a baseline from which it can measure success, he said.

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