The unbearable whiteness of librarianship

Yep, I’m still harping on that theme of the stark lack of diversity in librarianship. For a profession that claims Diversity as  a core value and declares that “We value our nation’s diversity and strive to reflect that diversity by providing a full spectrum of resources and services to the communities we serve” to be so lacking in diversity is embarrassing.

How far from reflecting our nation’s diversity are we in terms of credentialed librarians? Using the ALA Diversity Counts data and comparing it to US Census data for 2013, and US Census projections for 2060, it is clear to me that we are nowhere close.

There are a few different ways to illustrate the disparities between the racial make-up of credentialed librarians and the current and future US population.

For the visual crowd, a simple bar chart comparing percentage of librarians by race (2010, based on ALA Diversity Counts data), with percentage of US population by race in 2013, and projected percentage of US population by race in 2060:

Bar chart of Racial composition of Librarians vs US Population (2013, 2060)

Racial composition of Librarians vs US Population (2013, 2060)

For those who like pie (and who doesn’t like pie?) try these:

Racial composition of librarians, 2010, pie chart

Racial composition of librarians, 2010

Racial composition of US population, 2013, pie chart

Racial composition of US population, 2013

Projected racial composition of US Population, 2060, pie chart

Projected racial composition of US Population, 2060

Another way to grok just how far we are from reflecting our nation’s diversity is to engage in a simple statistical thought experiment about what it would take for us to achieve a racial composition that reflected the US population. Let’s look at the total number of credentialed librarians as reported by ALA, and see what those numbers would look like if our racial composition reflected our nation:

Total credentialed librarians (2010, ALA Diversity Counts): 118,666

Total White librarians: 104,392
US Census data tells us that whites make up 63% of the US population, so if librarianship reflected the nation’s diversity, there would be only 74,760 white librarians, or nearly 30,000 fewer white librarians than our current numbers.

Total African-American librarians: 6,160
The US Population is 15% African-American, which would translate to a total of 17,800 African-American librarians if we were representative. That’s 11,640 more African-American librarians than we have currently.

Total Latino/a librarians: 3,661
A representative librarianship would be 17% Latino/a, which would equal 20,173 Latino/a librarians, or 16,512 more than our current numbers.

Total Asian/Pacific Islander librarians: 3,260
Asian/Pacific Islanders make up 5.3% of US Population, so we need 6,289 Asian Pacific/Islander librarians, or 3,029 more than we currently have, to be representative.

Total librarians of 2 or more races: 1,008
People of 2 or more races make up 2.4% of the US Population, which would equal 2,848 librarians or 1,840 additional librarians of 2 or more races.

Total Native American (including Alaskan Native) librarians: 185
The US Population is 1.2% Native American (including Alaskan Native), meaning a representative librarianship would include 1,424 Native American (including Alaskan Native) librarians – an increase of 1,239 over current numbers.

Here’s a table comparing the actual racial composition of librarianship with a hypothetical world in which we “reflected our nation’s diversity”, with an extra column to show the sheer change needed to get there:

Racial composition of librarians vs Representative librarianship

Racial composition of librarians vs Representative librarianship

Another way to look at it is to consider a 10 year plan to diversify librarianship. Even pretending that the US population would wait for us to catch up (i.e. if the racial composition of the US stayed steady) we would need to replace nearly 3,000 white librarians every year with over 1,000 African-American librarians, 1,650 Latino/a librarians, 300 Asian/Pacific Islander librarians, 180 multi-racial and 120 Native American/Alaskan Native librarians. A 5 year plan would require double those numbers.

This is not all I have to say on this topic, but it is all I got for today.

P.S. This post is not about the gender disparity in librarianship. That is a whole other topic, and not the one I’m talking about here. Please don’t ask me about gender here. Pretty please.

30 Responses to “The unbearable whiteness of librarianship”


  1. 1 Heather July 28, 2014 at 10:34 am

    All thoughts about the history and state of this issue aside, are there other fields or even large organizations (such as higher ed institutions or hospitals) that have successfully implemented a 10-year or x-year plan to bring more ethnic diversity in a profession? Particularly those that require advanced degrees?

    This great five-year plan from VCU will be coming to an end next year: http://www.inclusive.vcu.edu/docs/FiveYearDiversityPlanFinal.pdf I’d be interested to know how successful this plan, or a similar one, has been.

  2. 2 Ethan Fenichel (@EthanDF) July 27, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    I agree that this is an issue that should continue to be reviewed as the statistics you site are very compelling. As a newbie (male, white-looking, though not self identifying as white) to the field, is your suggestion that libraries and library schools are doing something to exclude non-Whites or is it a pipeline problem as JP suggests? I think it is an important distinction as one suggests we aren’t doing enough in the field to draw all people in but if we’re excluding then that seems far more unbearable.

    • 3 Chris Bourg July 27, 2014 at 6:32 pm

      I think it is both. And I think a profession that says it strives for diversity and is 88% white needs to be significantly more active than simply not doing things that are blatantly exclusionary or discriminatory.

      • 4 cseavey July 27, 2014 at 6:53 pm

        Folks, trust me on this, I spent 20 years in library education, and *nobody* is doing anything to exclude minorities, quite the opposite. Consider Arizona’s Knowledge River program, among others. The problem is, and will remain, salaries. As long as libraryland cannot compete, salary-wise, with other professions, we are not going to attract the best and the brightest minorities who can make a whole lot of money elsewhere.

        charley

  3. 6 Shalom July 27, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    This was an issue addressed during my master’s coursework, but most of us got the impression it was preaching to the wrong choir; most of the LIS grad students I met (read: the overwhelming majority) were white females. So the issue is apparently somewhere before grad school? Perhaps look at reasons why not-a-white-female refrains from even applying to grad school for an LIS degree? – I suppose the question I’m asking is, ‘at what point in the Process of Becoming A Librarian does everyone else get somehow weeded out’?

  4. 7 Charley Seavey July 8, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Hmm. Perhaps it has to do with our less than stellar salaries. Any minority getting an MA degree can find fields that pay considerably better than does libraryland. What’s the return on investment? Just asking.

  5. 8 danielachesney March 14, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    I think we do ourselves a disservice to try and worry so exclusively about the percentages of racial groups holding jobs within the profession. Librarianship is not a comparably high paying position with other master level jobs. If you were from a low socioeconomic group and were going to put in the effort to rise above your situation and attain a master’s degree, don’t you think you would be more likely to pursue a higher paying career path. As long as we are not creating racial barriers to enter into the library field, and are making sure that we offer our services in as equitable a manner as possible across all racial groups, I think we are doing pretty good as an organization. I don’t think convincing a lot of black and hispanic kids to be librarians instead of engineer’s is really the right way to do that. Instead let’s empower them to meet their goals/ dreams whatever they may be.

    • 9 Rino Landa (@rinolanda) July 27, 2014 at 9:05 pm

      Your post reminded me of an article regarding the difficulty of recruiting and retaining teachers of minority descent: http://stemwire.org/2013/05/22/the-paradox-of-minority-teacher-recruitment/.

      As you mention in your post, the article notes that poor salaries and perceived lack of prestige for teachers adversely affects minority recruitment; the same can be said for librarians. Furthermore, I would consider the point you pose about recruitment being deterred by the fact that other masters degrees offer better return on investment valid. The teacher article notes that a lack of salary and prestige is further “exacerbated in minority communities, especially when the student in question is the first in their family to attend college.” What we can expect in terms of recruitment from those least likely to join librarianship when they take a look at the requirements for academic librarian positions that “prefer” a subject master’s degree (let’s not even mention the ones that one PhDs or professional degrees)? Yes, academic libraries pay better, but then we also have to deal with the fact that studies have shown that minority students are less inclined to feel comfortable using their college’s library; again, adding another barrier to recruitment via viability/role models.

      Amanda Machado’s article in the Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/why-teachers-of-color-quit/282007/ is another fine example of the thought processes behind why recruitment and retention can be so difficult. I’ll leave with her quote: “When I saw myself, with an Ivy League degree that she and my father had worked hard to make possible, in the same profession as her, I felt I had done pretty poor job of repaying them.”

    • 10 Melissa Arnett July 28, 2014 at 8:33 pm

      I really agree with what danielachesney says here: perhaps convincing alot of black/asian/hispanic/other people to join libraryland (with its low salary and slowly growing job rate) is not the answer here; instead let’s educate and empower people to do what they want to do, no matter what their race. If that involves librarianship for any race (whites included), then great! If not, why force a 10 year plan to diversify and get rid of white librarians in order to replace them with nonwhites?

      • 11 Chris Bourg July 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

        Not how you made leap from “thought experiment” to “forcing a plan”.

      • 12 Anonymous July 30, 2014 at 8:38 am

        I am using your words: “a 5 year plan would require double those numbers”

      • 13 Chris Bourg July 30, 2014 at 9:43 am

        Ok, fair enough. I intended that as part of the thought experiment described above: “Another way to grok just how far we are from reflecting our nation’s diversity is to engage in a simple statistical thought experiment about what it would take for us to achieve a racial composition that reflected the US population.”
        But perhaps that wasn’t clear.
        Let me clarify here: the description of what a 5 or 10 year plan would take was meant simply to illustrate just how far we as a profession are from achieving the “reflection of our nation’s diversity” that our core values say we strive for. The whole post is actually intended to illustrate that problem. No where do I intend to offer or force any particular plan for increasing the diversity of our profession. It is actually becoming increasingly clear to me that many in our profession are not convinced that is a worthwhile goal.

  6. 14 Crow March 12, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    I worked at a large urban college library where the visual (racial) diversity of librarians was better than the statistics. Library assistants and student workers (a traditional pool of potential future librarians) were mostly all minorities. Several were quite dedicated and were planning on going on with their education. All were going after careers that paid better and not interested in librarianship despite enjoying library work. I’d wonder to what extent better options for those willing to go onto a master’s degree come into play. All we can do is grow our own as best we can (people working in libraries already have a certain level of interest) and expect all librarians to be welcoming and encouraging–while I’ve seen people say that seeing someone who looks like you is important to some folks considering a future career, experiences matter too and that is something the people who have self-selected themselves to be in librarianship can control, unlike their own personal demographics. Diversity does mean diversity–besides the lack of minorities in librarianship, if they are all clustered in certain cities or areas, that is not serving the community well as they don’t get to know the people who don’t look like them (also important).

    • 15 James Mcauslan July 27, 2014 at 12:36 pm

      perhaps they pretended a lack of interest in library school because they knew they could never make the grades necessary to even apply!

      • 16 Chris Bourg July 27, 2014 at 12:53 pm

        Note to readers: Approving a comment for publication on my blog does NOT in any way imply I endorse the content of the comment. In this case, I leave the above comment here simply as a reminder to all of the immense amount of work that remains in combatting destructive stereotypes held by too many among us.

  7. 17 Jaclyn March 12, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    I have a game I play called, “Spot the non-white person.” More often than I’d like at library-related events, it’s just me or a handful of others. (Luckily my current library is quite diverse.)

  8. 18 JP March 12, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Part of the issue that you are missing is that this isn’t JUST a *librarian* problem, per se. This is an AMERICAN problem: I bet if you compared a pie chart of *the diversity of ALL American professions that require a Master’s* to this pie chart, we’d probably look at least slightly better.

    And while you can say “other profession’s problems aren’t our problems”, the *systemic* “whiteness” of higher education is a huge hurdle for librarianship to just magically hop over. We’re getting there.

    • 19 Chris Bourg March 12, 2014 at 11:40 am

      I’m not really sure I understand your point. I assure you I am well aware that structural racism is not limited to librarianship, and I’ve never advocated that we magically hop over anything. But thanks for reading.

      • 20 JP March 12, 2014 at 11:55 am

        2008, Table 27a: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010015.pdf
        Average over 25 with a Masters: 7.5%
        White over 25 with a Masters: 8.4%
        Black over 25 with a Masters: 4.9%
        Hispanic over 25 with a Masters: 2.9%
        Asian/Pacific Islander over 25 with a Masters: 14%
        American Indian/Alaska Native over 25 with a Masters: 3.6%

        The American higher education system seems to be failing ALL not-white demographics (other than Asian/Pacific Islander). Before we can solve the problem in your blog post, the systematic American problem of “not enough not-white people are getting degrees” needs to be solved.

      • 21 JP March 12, 2014 at 12:02 pm

        or, to put it another way: It is hard to be a diverse profession that requires a master’s degree when we have a higher education system that so blatantly excludes POC.
        or, to put it another way, the title could be “the unbearable whiteness of higher education”

  9. 22 Andromeda March 10, 2014 at 9:50 am

    I did some counts of (visible) speaker diversity over the last few LITA Forums which might interest you: http://andromedayelton.com/blog/2013/08/20/when-you-walk-into-a-room-count-diversity-and-lita-forum/

    • 23 Shawn P. Calhoun July 28, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      “maybe replicating ourselves is what we know how to do, maybe that’s how homophily works, maybe caring isn’t good enough.” Well said Andromeda.

  10. 24 Chris Bourg March 4, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Your memories notwithstanding, the latest Pew surveys indicate that Blacks & Hispanics are more likely than Whites to say public library services are very important to them http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2013/12/11/section-2-public-libraries-importance-and-impact/

    • 25 Sandy March 4, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      Hopefully that feeling will translate to an increase in Black and Hispanic librarians as the children grow up loving the library.

  11. 26 Sandy March 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

    The “pipeline problem” post from a couple of days ago, and yesterday’s “whiteness” post, evoked memories which speak to the root cause of the problem of lack of diversity in the library profession. As a (white) child growing up in an integrated community in Michigan, my playmates were primarily black, and I remember them thinking it was very strange that I liked to read all the time. As a young adult living in base housing when my husband was in the Navy, my best friends were the Hispanic couple in the next housing unit. Both of them were puzzled by the fact that we didn’t own a TV and that we spent so much time reading books. My point is that there might be a direct link between a childhood spent around libraries and books and the ultimate decision to go into the library profession. Making non-whites feel welcome and comfortable in libraries at an early age might help address the situations described in these blog posts.


  1. 1 The Diversity Façade « A / K / L Trackback on July 27, 2014 at 6:56 pm
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