Thursday, July 27, 2006

Ideas for Advancing Diversity in Libraries: A Research Paper and Bibliography

by Michael Lorenzen

Libraries serve communities. Not surprisingly then, libraries reflect the diversity inherent in communities in both the clientele served and the composition of the library staff. This paper will review some recent literature on the topic of diversity and libraries. Three themes in particular will be examined in detail including hiring for diversity, reflecting diversity in collection development, and programming library services to reflect diversity. An action plan is presented which has some ideas for how libraries can better incorporate and reflect the diversities of their communities.

Ideas for Advancing Diversity in Libraries: A Research Paper and Bibliography

Libraries come in many varieties. They may be located on a college campus, in the middle of a city, in a law firm, or in a prison. However, every library serves people. Further, every library is staffed by librarians and support staff. As such, it is not surprising that librarians have been thinking seriously about the topics of diversity and multiculturalism.

This paper will examine a select collection of recent articles dealing with diversity and multiculturalism from library journals. In particular, it will look at three themes which include hiring for diversity in libraries, reflecting diversity in library collection development, and programming library services to reflect diversity. While these three topics are not all inclusive of all topics which relate to diversity in libraries, they are representative of the major areas.

Selected Literature Review

The library literature is rich on topics relating to diversity and multiculturalism. A search of the database Library Literature in July 2006 resulted in 438 hits on the keyword of diversity. A search on the keyword of multiculturalism resulted in 745 hits. While some of these hits were referring to book reviews, the vast majority of the results pointed to actual scholarly articles or news reports on the topics.

Of all the recent articles which deal with these topics, only a few dealt with diversity as a whole and how it impacted all aspects of librarianship. Although relatively short, Balderrama (2003) has one of the best summaries. She breaks down the topic into collections and programming, library staffing, coalition building, and the trading of values and respect. This is a good introduction (although a bit strangely written) to several of the themes which this paper is covering.

Most American librarians are white. In the past, this was due to discrimination. In the present, it is due to a lack of graduates of library schools from minority backgrounds. For whatever reason, college graduates from minority backgrounds do not tend to select librarianship as a career. This has resulted in many articles which discuss methods which the library profession can attract more diversity.

Gandhi (2000) presented an overview in which she describes the issue of diversity in recruiting for librarians and why it is important. She reviewed demographic information showing that librarians did not reflect the ethnic distribution of the United States of America. She also examined why culturally diversity is important, what libraries were doing to attract more diverse librarians, what impact these efforts were having, and what minority librarians thought about these efforts.

Gandhi (2000) wrote, “It is imperative for libraries in the United States to enhance cultural diversity both in the development of collections and human resources. Without a major effort in this direction libraries may not be able to fulfill their mandate of providing service to all. As we move towards the new millennium and population patterns shift to create a multiethnic society, libraries will also have to change to meet the demands of this new society” (p. 64).

In line with Gandhi’s (2000) thinking, many universities have initiated initiatives which speak of the importance and need for more diverse representation within university departments. Hankins et al (2003) noted that many libraries have moved beyond these initiatives which while worthy may only result in tokenism. On alternative is to establish residency programs which provide entry level jobs to librarians. These residencies are restricted to librarians from underrepresented groups with the idea that this will give these librarians the skills and experience necessary to acquire more significant jobs within the profession.

Smith (2006), while not specifically addressed at diversity retention of staff, lists three ideas for retaining library staff. These ideas seem sensible and may be helpful in retaining all staff, including staff from diverse backgrounds. Ideas include 1. Offer flexibility in schedules. 2. Make sure that all staff members feel valued for their contributions. 3. And, encourage creative thinking.

One important task of librarians is building collections. Every book, video, periodical, map, etc. is purchased by a librarian who decides that the item is worthwhile and one that will help expand the collection in ways useful to the patrons of that library. Different libraries have different needs and that will help to dictate what is purchased. Collection development decisions have lasting impact. Even with the weeding and replacement of items over time, a purchase made may last for centuries or more. As American libraries have been usually operated by members of the dominant ethnocentric group, a large number of collection decisions have reflected western centric views. Not surprisingly, many librarians have been writing about making library collections more diverse and reflective of the world at large.

Steiner & Steiner (2003) wrote about the need for libraries to collect the oral and written stories of various diverse communities. They include a large bibliography of suggested works with their article. They wrote, “Multicultural stories are an especially important tool for our diverse world. Books and well told stories form a strong bridge between cultures. A book, written and illustrated with authentic detail, is a window to view the myriad ways people live in our diverse world. A personal story shared between real people brings down barriers. We cannot hate someone when we know their story. Even a folktale, though it exists in the realm of imagination and metaphor, though it is often a venerable piece of literature from a long ago time, still carries basic cultural values and helps us to make long strides toward understanding one another” (p. 17).

Another way that educators (and librarians) can help with diversity is education. Ernst and McCourt (2004) wrote about lesson plans which included multicultural library collections for connecting first graders with world literature. Children’s books from around the world were used to educate students about culture and geography. The authors included an annotated bibliography of books which were used in the lesson plans.

Kanatsouli and Tzoka (2005) wrote about how Greek children’s books were being used to give Greek children in Greece a sense of Greek national identity. However, unlike in the past, some of the new Greek children’s books are being written to give both a sense of Greekness and ideas for embracing a more multicultural ethic. This article is written in English and intended for an audience outside of Greece. As such, it was intended to help English speaking librarians ideas for introducing multiculturalism to children in books.

Kanatsouli and Tzoka (2005) wrote, “Greek children's literature today has undergone a variety of ideological shifts, many of which are a result of multicultural trends that have influenced children's literature all over the world today. In so far as issues of national identity are concerned, Greek children's books today are free of the ethnocentric ideology and heavy didacticism that characterised Greek children's literature for the greater part of the 20th century. Although elements of Greekness clearly permeate the books under discussion, they are not in the least bit coloured by an ethnocentric ideology. They are rather a simple depiction of the various aspects of Greek life and Greek thought both in the present and the past. The reader may be transported in time to the wonders of ancient Greek civilisation, or may learn about rural Greek life. The more obviously multicultural books emphasise the need not only for accepting cultural differences but also for learning how to live harmoniously with people who are different from us” (p. 36).

The final aspect of being explored is programming library services to reflect diversity. Almost all libraries have a level of formal programming which is meant to highlight library collections and services. This can range from book readings, exhibits, film series, and lectures all the way to formal fund raising functions. To many in the community, this is the most visible function of the library.

Not surprisingly, this has led many to write about how libraries can help with diversity by their programming efforts. Redd (2003) wrote about a concentrated attempt by Auraria Library in Denver, Colorado to introduce diversity in programming efforts. The library sponsored events honoring an ancient Celtic holiday, the founding of the Mormon Church, Easter, Persian New Year, and Thai New Year. Several field trips were also programmed. Most of the events were accompanied by appropriate food and music.

Walter (2005) wrote about how libraries could move beyond diverse collections too actually marketing to diverse groups. In this article, Walter dealt with how working with a campus multicultural center allowed a library to highlight collections and services. The author cited a study he conducted to bolster his claims.

Library exhibits can also help to support diversity and multiculturalism. They can also be controversial and demonstrate how librarian can perhaps take inappropriate roles in the culture wars. Reece (2005) reported about an exhibit which supported a one-sided Palestinian view of the Israeli-Arab conflict sponsored by American University. Many patrons objected to such a politicized exhibit. The author justified this exhibit in the name of multiculturalism. No mention was made if supporters of Israel were allowed to also put up an exhibit that would provide balance to the Palestinian exhibit.

Reece (2005) attempted to justify this one-sided representation. She wrote, “Multiculturalism guarantees that there will always be a multiplicity of representations and occasions for those representations, their meanings, and the values inherent within them to be contested. The role of educators, including librarians, is to help students learn how to interrogate those representations with an emphasis on fighting oppression” (p. 371). Unfortunately, she failed to acknowledge that many see the besieged state of the Israeli nation as a representation of Arab oppression of Jews. This exhibit appeared to reinforce in the minds of many that librarians are sometimes only interested in pushing their own personal views rather than providing a balanced view of an issue to the public. Could this be viewed as an ethnocentric example of a librarian representing her cultural views without attempting to acknowledge the internationally recognized views of the other side?

Library instruction (also know as bibliographic instruction or information literacy instruction) is also an important programming feature of libraries. It is most important in academic libraries but other types of libraries also engage in it. This can be tied directly to diversity instruction. Tao (2005) noted, “We conclude, as do many researchers, that they are effective teaching strategies for all students. Those strategies such as affectivity, speech, and collaborative learning suggested for specific diverse students should be considered part of the framework for diverse students as well as for students in general. What is important is that we have become aware of special characteristics and needs of our diverse populations, and have now identified specific strategies that will meet those needs, while serving our traditional students as well” (p. 36).

Action Plan

Although this is a limited literature review, I believe there are a few ideas which come from these three areas which can provide an action plan for libraries. While not inclusive of all possible good ideas, it could be used as a starting point for many libraries. This paper will break it down by the three areas noted in this paper which are hiring for diversity, reflecting diversity in collection development, and programming library services to reflect diversity.

Hiring for Diversity:

1. Recognize that current library staffs do not reflect the diversity evidenced by the demographics of current community populations.

2. Merely hiring a few token members of minority or underrepresented groups is not sufficient for diversity.

3. Residency programs for new minority librarians are effective for bringing more diversity into the library profession. More libraries should establish these programs.

4. Library school programs are not producing enough librarians which reflect the diversity of the population. What can libraries do to get more diverse candidates into these programs? More thought and reflection is required here.

Collection Development:

1. Many library collections currently over-represent a Western bias. Efforts should be made to recognize and remedy this bias by acquiring more materials representing non-Western authors or Non-Western viewpoints.

2. Further, many collections fail to adequately represent Western minority sources. Efforts should be made to remedy this.

3. Children’s books are among the most important areas for a library to focus on due to the high impact these books have on our juvenile patrons. There is nothing wrong with these books taking one cultural view as long as they also acknowledge the validity of alternative views.

Library Programming:

There are many opportunities for libraries to program for diversity. This includes programming around diverse holidays and religions.

1. There are many opportunities for libraries to program for diversity. This includes programming around diverse holidays and religions.

2. The inherent diversity in library collections can be used to directly market to and entice diverse groups. Libraries should let diverse stakeholders know of their collections and services and use this as a marketing tool.

3. Both liberal and conservative biases within the US library profession represent an ethnocentric American view of the world. Any library programming which would appear to be biased towards one side or the other needs to be balanced


Balderrama, S. R. (2003). Deep change – diversity at its simplest. Oregon Library Association quarterly, 9(2), 20-24.

Ernst, S. & McCourt, S. (2004). If children can’t go out into the world, bring the world to them through children’s books. Bookbird, 42(3), 19-27.

Gandhi, S. (2000.) Cultural diversity and libraries: Reaching the goal. Current studies in librarianship, 24(1/2), 55-65.

Hankins, R. et al. (2003). Diversity initiatives vs. residency programs: Agents of change? College & research library news, 64(5), 308-315.

Kanatsouli, M. & Tzoka, T. (2005). Embracing multiculturalism through understanding “Greekness”: Contemporary Greek books for children. Bookbird, 43(2), 30-37.

Reed, A. (2003). Diversity programming in an academic library: The Auraria experience. Colorado libraries, 29(4) 26-29.

Reece, G. J. (2005). Multiculturalism and library exhibits: Sites of contested representation. Journal of academic librarianship, 31(4), 366-372.

Smith, S. D. (2006). Recruitment and retention: A tale of one library. Public libraries, 45(1), 9, 10.

Steiner, S. & Steiner, J. (2003). Multiculturalism stories: Preserving oral and written treasures. PNLA Quarterly, 68(1), 17-27.

Tao, D. (2005). Bibliographic instruction for a diverse population: Understanding, planning, and teaching in the twenty-first century. Art documentation, 24(1), 29-37.

Walter, S. (2005). Moving beyond collections: Academic library outreach to multicultural student centers. Reference services review, 33(4), 438-458.

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