Sunday, May 11, 2008

Diversity and the Library Industry

Diversity and the Library Industry

Diversifying the library industry will bring new ideas into the homogeneous industry of library science. In my brief tenure in Library Science graduate school it has become apparent to me that there is a definite lack of diversity in thinking. I say this because I constantly encounter a lack of critical thinking and logic when it comes to dealing with non-Western, or different cultures and languages. This is a direct reflection of the lack of cultural diversity in the library field. With the challenges presented to the relevancy of libraries by the advent of the internet and the Web, libraries have to learn new methods of conducting business.

Libraries must be creative, innovative and dynamic. They must serve a diverse community that has varied information needs. Many of these communities have traditionally been underserved. These information needs are based on a mixture of outlooks, cultures, educational, political, and an endless variance of individual information needs. It is a primary duty of a community library to serve the information needs of that community.

The only way to increase the effectiveness of library services to these marginalized communities is to recruit library staff and librarians from these communities and work directly with them to realize their information needs. We must be culturally competent and bilingual in many cases. While there is some great work being done (Multnomah County Library system is a fine example), there is still much convincing and lobbying to do. We can learn strategies and techniques from programs like Multnomah co.’s and Seattle Public library’s outreach programs and community analysis studies. Deciding to serve a multi-lingual community shouldn’t be looked at as an attack against monolingual employees—it should be viewed as an opportunity for employees to learn a new language.

The lack of many libraries’ failure to meet the needs of areas of their communities is another reason for the lack of diversity in the industry. As Tony Greiner points out in his Backtalk in Library Journal (May, 2008), there is a lack of diversity in the library profession. Incidentally, I am the Hispanic student Tony mentors. Mr. Greiner believes that the primary reason for the lack of diversity in our field is the cost of acquiring the Master of Library Science degree. While this may be a factor (even a major factor), it cannot be isolated from other causes. Unlike Tony, I believe that most libraries focus on the dominant culture, sometimes becoming almost irrelevant to the other communities existing in American culture. This has a direct impact on how people in underserved communities see the library profession. The lack of role models, information irrelevance, economics, racism, and the general ethnocentrism of the library industry all contribute to this lack of diversity in Library Science.

While it’s true that the costs are high relating to an acquisition of an upper graduate degree in Library Science and while it may also be true that many minorities cannot afford to acquire the MLS, I believe this is greatly due to the racism that contributes to the lower economic standings in African American and Hispanic communities. This racism includes the lack of information (presented in usable formats) about their cultural history and importance, general low expectations from the educational system, harassment in school by authorities and other discriminatory practices. All of these factors contribute to the lack of librarians of color.

There are more minorities involved in library assistant jobs than have Masters degrees as stated by Mr. Greiner. This is true because library assistant jobs are usually low paying, command a low level of respect, and have a limited terminal level of development. These are all generic job opportunities available to minorities and poor white people already; these numbers do not really prove anything. And with the increase in competition, I wonder how long these numbers will remain the same. It used to be that the only qualification to obtain a job as a library assistant was a high school diploma; now it seems, while not a formal prerequisite, undergraduate degree holders are preferred.

I am currently in library school and have found it frustrating that the focus is so ethnocentric. In one of my classes, I was told there were NO libraries in the Americas before the Europeans. Perhaps there were no libraries in the sense of the way we use the word; however, there were institutions that collected astronomical, literary, and historical information—perhaps we might call them archives. These were destroyed by the Europeans in order to deny the indigenous people their history. The continuation of this denial of these libraries in graduate school is a prolongation of the destruction of indigenous history and culture. Experiences like this, and others—one fellow student told me she was, “sick of hearing that indigenous crap!”—combine to add up to the real cost of attending graduate school on minority students. Some of these individuals have a different perspective on history than the dominant culture and the curriculum used in our educational systems needs to reflect that we are understanding of that perspective, whether or not we agree with it. Weakly constructed attacks against minority communities by our peers (American Libraries, Nov. 2007, p. 42-44) do not help to foster this understanding either. I wonder how many students find their studies irrelevant or offensive and drop out…

I grew up in San Jose, California. San Jo, as we called it, is a city heavily populated by Hispanics. An avid library user, my mother took me to the library at a young age. I quickly became an heavy San Jose Public Library user myself. We didn’t have much money—with no membership fees, the library fit into our budget. I don’t remember ever encountering a Hispanic librarian or ever being referred to Hispanic literature as a child growing up in this diverse area of California. In fact, I don’t remember meeting a Latino librarian until I was in my 20’s. I’m not claiming there weren’t any employed at the public library—I just don’t remember ever seeing one.

Having a diverse workforce including librarians of color will show children that they too can be a librarian if they wish. Models available for children are important examples we can provide—especially during their formative years. When they don’t see professionals that look like them they tend to not see themselves in those positions. This, combined with the lack of information resources relevant to minority communities may make libraries irrelevant to these communities. As minority communities increase in number, libraries—for their own sake—will have to meet the information needs. If not, severe political ramifications may take place and libraries may not get the funding they depend upon for their very existence.

What philanthropists do you know who desire to fund an institution that is irrelevant, unwelcoming, and expensive? I am not appealing to an ad baculum fallacy—I am stating the truth according to the statistics. Minority communities, whether one chooses to admit it or not, will be the majority in the future; they’re already a reckoning force and have shown their political import. And I am not saying all minorities don’t speak English as a first language—I mean look at me—English is my first Language, but I see the importance and am not afraid of other languages and cultures.

The information minority communities require must be usable to them. This means that it must be presented in a variety of languages and formats. Even if you can speak a second language, you probably still love to read in your native language. Not all Americans speak English as a first language. Not all people learn via reading, so video and audio formats must be pursued as well. As American taxpayers—we must meet their information needs, and one of these is information in native languages. We must work with these communities, their leadership, and individuals. We must have surveys in other languages, focus groups and spend money on community analyses in order to serve these communities in ways that are relevant to them. Some people in these communities have no idea about library services—this is NOT good for libraries or the community in general.

We can also provide good resources for people to learn English. This is vitally important because English is an important world language. It is the primary language of communication by our government and educational system. We can and should consult varying communities to see what their information needs are in this respect as well. Many native English speakers could also benefit from basic grammar materials. English is an important aspect of education not only in the US, but all over the world.

Information in other languages is also great for Americans who only speak English, but are learning a new language. These Americans deserve good, diverse works in other languages for their own self-improvement. I grew up monolingual and I am telling you—I need as many resources as I can get to learn other languages. Americans need to break out of their English only ideology. It is limiting. We need more languages NOT less!

The premise that just because others speak different languages means that Americans will not be able to communicate with them is fallacious in that it takes for granted said Americans cannot or will not learn other languages. Some people (see American Libraries, Nov, 2007 p42-44) claim that including other languages in libraries creates division in American culture. These weak claims do NOT recognize that White-supremacy, ethnocentrism, and discrimination like NOT including minority community information needs create tremendous division. We really need to beware ill-thought out actions, implicit premises and fallacious decision-making. We are librarians—we are better than that!

People will say that money is a major factor in implementing changes to our library services. This is another reason we need a diverse workforce! With a diverse workforce we can see problems in ways we may not see in a homogeneous library system. With more new ideas, we will be able to innovate new plans of funding and implementation. We need innovation, collaboration, and creativity in Library Science and diversity will encourage all these necessities.

If we meet more needs of minority communities, then these communities will feel more a part of the library community and will begin to join our industry. This will lead to more innovation, creative thinking, synthetic conceptual reasoning, and a more culturally relevant library system for EVERYONE. The library needs these kinds of innovations. Making libraries more inclusive will increase the likelihood that libraries will remain relevant in the future, and therefore continue to be funded. The technological, social, and vocational challenges today and even more so in the future, demand that Libraries become more diverse places and serve those communities that have traditionally been under-served. We will make libraries more relevant to the communities they exist within by community analysis, meeting the information needs revealed in these studies, and by diversifying the library workforce.


Leon said...

Hola, te felicito por tu escrito, es muy pertinente a lo que se vive en otras ciudades...yo despues que terminé mi MLS en la Universidad de Puerto Rico viví tres años en Allentown Pennsylvania, una ciudad con 25%-30% de latinos pero con una biblioteca pública con ningún hispanoparlante trabajando...yo conseguí empleo como Reference Assistant en Muhlenberg College, mi experiencia fue muy buena ahi pero la necesidad en bibliotecas públicas de personal latino era muy grande...muchas veces iba a la biblioteca pública, llegaba alguien con dificultades en el inglés y no habia quien lo atendiera.
Sentía que la administración de la ciudad ignoraba la necesidad de sus ciudadanos. Al menos la Biblioteca tenia una colección pequeña de libros en español.
summary in English:
I lived three years in Allentown PA (from 2002-2005) and I noticed the same thing, an absence of Spanish speaking/Latino librarians at the public Library. I moved there just after finishing my MLS at UNiversity of Puerto Rico (ALA accredited). I never knew of any vacancies, or any posting of a bilingual librarian or bilingual assistant...I was hired by Muhlenberg College as a Reference was a great school and experience...but it was sad that many times I went to the Allentown Public Library I noticed that Spanish speaking patrons needing help had no one there to help them...I helped as a translator two or three times.
I always felt that the Library or City administration ignored their Spanish speaking users need. They (Allentown Public Library) do have a small collection of books in Spanish.

Kevin Moore said... fellow student told me she was, “sick of hearing that indigenous crap!”

Man, it makes you wanna create an entire library course called LI 834 That Indigenous Crap - and make it a core requirement!

Great post, Max! There shall be linkage. Once I've had enough coffee to make a more thoughtful post at my own blog.

Raymundo said...

VERY well-written post, Max. I love how you're not just "ranting" but actually backing up what you say with precise reasoning and plenty of (even hyperlinked) evidence.

I began library school (with San Jose State) a little more than a year ago. Reason #1 for doing so: to help alleviate the picture that you describe. From the ages of 18 through 24 I worked as a Library Aide for the Los Angeles County Public Library and at many of its branch libraries, (including East Los Angeles). You have no idea how anxious I am to hit the ground running to be a bilingual (English/Spanish) reference librarian for a Hispanic-type of community. You are SO correct to say that many people -- (TOO many people, I would say) -- within these minority communities are not aware of (even basic) library services. It pains me to know that there's people attending Adult (evening) Schools in these kinds of communities who are shocked to learn that patrons may check out books, use services, and attend events and programs ... for free.

Si Dios quiere, after I'm a librarian, I'm going to be REALLY tempted to literally go door-to-door among these communities to survey the people and tell them right then and there of the opportunities that a library can offer.

Thank you VERY much for that post,
~Raymundo Andrade
(2007-2008 Spectrum Scholar)

MexicaMax said...

Thanks for your comments.

We are all in this together.

If we work together, we can get much done. I think work in REFORMA, ALA, and our institutions are all good places to start. Also, I think that people need to speak up, and not be so afraid of "hurting" their careers. There is a definite lack of passion in our country and we need to represent how passionate we are about helping people.

Thank you for reading!

Alan Bluehole said...

I took French and had no foresight at the time to know how much more often I would need Spanish. So now I want to try, but I'm really bad at this language thing. But if I try, I want to be counted as honorary amigo. OK?

Excellent post and I'm sorry that you must put up with such stupid comments from your cohort. And congrats on doing so well at work these days! (I think you were all along, but not properly given props).

You're a great friend.

Monique said...

Thank you, Max! Great post! I was especially struck by

"In one of my classes, I was told there were NO libraries in the Americas before the Europeans."

I hope it was not an instructor who said this. :-(

"...superstitious Spanish priests, keen on saving the Aztecs from themselves, burned the library at Tenochtitlan to the ground, an event as devastating as the destruction of the library at Alexandria" from The Truth about Stories by Thomas King

Is this library, I wonder, mentioned in the classes on history of the library? My guess is that it isn't.

" fellow student told me she was, 'sick of hearing that indigenous crap!'"

ARGG!! I'm so sorry that was said to you. I'm sick of hearing ignorant remarks. The worst I've gotten is eye-rolling, but all it does is make me even more determined to bring up important topics, even if it makes other students uncomfortable.

Thanks again, Max! :-)

MexicaMax said...

Al, you aren't just an honorary amigo--you are a real friend! You have made my time at the Library enjoyable and have given me a good model for not being a "square" librarian--Thanks!

You should take a class @pcc, and then go on the Oaxaca immersion program.

Thanks Monique!

Yes, this was a phd who told me there were no libs in the americas before the euros--I will tell you who in person.

I too doubt that this is mentioned in the history of libs classes.

In College (In the 90's), I took ancient history and when I asked if the aztecs had philosophy and what kinds--I was totally humiliated by my professor who said, "those people didn't have philosophy--they had religion and thats it!" He told this to me in a tone that was so vicious I just shut up--everyone in the class was looking at me like I was an idiot.

Then, a few years later I was in the library shelving and I came across Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind by Miguel León-Portilla.

I hated my professor at that moment--what a liar! It makes me wonder how many times people have been shut down when asking important questions like this.

This is another reason for diversity!

I don't trust the dominant culture to give me unbiased information. At ALL!

Even in information literacy classes--the subject of colonialism is not discussed. This is a by-product of the fact that there are small numbers of librarians of color.

People can tell me whatever they want, but I'm going to keep giving them that indigenous crap and keep bringing up the 'American'holocaust!

Jessica said...

That is a fantastic post - informative, well-written and very inspirational. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts in such a beautiful way, and for continuing to provide thought-provoking insight. Our cohort is richer because of it.

MexicaMax said...

Thank you so much Jessica--your words mean much to me. I've been struggling with the feeling that some people think I'm the whiner of the class or that i'm trying to take classes into areas that they are not meant to cover. However, I think these subjects are very much related to EVERYTHING we are studying. I appreciate the richness and intelligence of our cohort--thank you for being part of my education Jessica!

Susan said...

Great post, Max. I feel sad and frustrated about your experiences, particularly with your cohort.

You know, this is really well written. Have you thought about getting it published in one of the library journals or newsletters? I think more people need to read this, and learn how not-very-diverse the library industry is.


Alan Cordle said...

One great blog post per month doesn't mean you're a blogger now. Try to keep up!

MexicaMax said...

Alright Al!

The next post coming soon:

Information literacy and colonialism!

Thanks for keeping me motivated.

Adeleine said...

Greetings, Max. Today I ate some Kix while I read some of your blog. When I was finished with my Kix, I read the cereal box, and was pretty disgusted to find an advertisement for Handy Manny, a cartoon on the Disney Channel. Apparently, Handy Manny is Disney Channel's agenda toward making children believe that it is Hispanic people's duty to perform manual labor task, such as painting and other carpentry like things. At least, that is what I gathered from what was written on the box. Disgusting.

Anyway, good blog. I'm so glad someone is talking about this online, especially a library person. And I can't believe someone said that in class, I must not have been there. Oh well, I'm considerably depressed nearly every class about the hearth of worst of conservatism extending out the mouths of people I was hoping would be a bit smarter than that. I still remember the glares I got when I said that it was our duty not to dishearten people who don't like copyright law (by saying things like "there's nothing you can do about it"), but instead to encourage them to use the democratic process ("no matter how disgusting" indeed! Yes!). "If you want to change copyright law, go to law school! Lawyers make the laws!" ... *raised eyebrows* ...


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