Magazine article American Libraries

A Community Mirror: Reflections on the Color of Librarianship

Magazine article American Libraries

A Community Mirror: Reflections on the Color of Librarianship

Article excerpt


A story on National Public Radio one morning in September announced that the population of the Chicago metropolitan area - not just the city, but the six-county metropolitan area - is roughly 60% white. That means 40% of the nearly 8 million residents of the area do not typically see themselves behind the reference desk when they visit their neighborhood public, school, or college library. Although people of color are seeing themselves to a greater degree in many frontline and backroom library positions held by paraprofessional and library support staff, the professional library staff remains much "whiter" than the population as a whole.

While this is true of many other professions and institutions that require advanced degrees and generally draw on more highly educated and socioeconomically advantaged groups, libraries claim a mission of equal and broader access for their patrons.

It's also true that not only librarians of color can serve patrons of color, but institutions that reflect their communities are generally more effective, responsive, and accountable to those communities.

Efforts to increase diversity at least since the 1960s have produced gains, but fairly modest ones, and the discussion of how to market the profession to a target group of young, talented people of color continues. While there is significant individual achievement in the profession by people of color, the numbers are still low. One of the central questions is whether the diversity libraries want to attract means simply racial and ethnic variety in people who are in most other ways identical to current library professionals.

If the answer is yes, the numbers will likely remain small, for this population is different in more than just skin color. But if the answer is that libraries want and value diversity in ideas, work styles, cultural values, language, and other variations, then they have to both market that message and be prepared for a workplace that will change. New recruits and current staff will have to find ways to hang on to the things that attracted them to the profession in the first place and discard the things that get in the way of diversifying it.

Marketing 101

When it comes to marketing, there's confusion about and overlap among at least four products: the profession (librarianship); the concept of libraries (free and open information); libraries as institutions (by definition, part of an orderly state, inherently somewhat conservative, static, preserving the status quo); and a library in particular, usually as experienced by a patron or staff member.

The products are inextricably linked but not identical. The markets for them also overlap, but are far from identical - potential recruits are often, though not always, patrons; not all patrons are potential recruits (although as any marketer would tell you, they might know or be related to one, so you need to make a good impression).

When ALA launched its Spectrum scholarship campaign, the Association went to a college graphic-design class for help in identifying images and messages. The results (AL, Mar., p. 58-61) - three posters picturing a T-shirted young Asian guy with a basketball; a blonde African-American woman in a suit and sunglasses; and a group of mostly unsmiling, largely Latino young men and women who look like they're hanging out on campus. The tagline reads: "Library Careers Are as Diverse as You!" and the posters also carry the word "typical" with a red diagonal line through it as an icon for "not typical."

As with most media images, these poster children are composite symbols. While some have wished for different races, genders, or facial expressions to be pictured, the general reaction has been to welcome this as an initial attempt to break down the stereotypical images of the profession. …

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