Today I had the great honor and pleasure of welcoming the Massachusetts Black Librarians Network to MIT for a luncheon event hosted by MIT Libraries.
It was a wonderful event, full of great conversation, inspiring people, and really terrific ideas about how to advance equity, inclusion, diversity and social justice in and through libraries.
Below are the remarks I made to open the conversation.
Barbara Williams asked me to share a few thoughts to kick off a conversation about how we can create a culturally relevant profession, and I do have a few things to say on that topic.
What I want to be able to say is that libraries, and by extension those of us who work in and for them, are arguably the most culturally relevant social institutions of our times. Full stop.
But I think we all know that libraries and librarians suffer from a strange kind of image and PR problem.
On the one hand, the vast majority of people in any public opinion poll rank librarians high on all kinds of positive dimensions – especially helpfulness and trustworthiness.
And people generally love libraries, but often nostalgically and not so much when we start talking about funding needs.
But even with all the positive sentiment about libraries and librarians, there is a profound lack of understanding about the range of what libraries and librarians really do.
In fact, the night before I flew here for the interview for this job, my wife and I were out to dinner with friends and I was expressing some nervousness about the presentation I would be giving as part of the interview process. One of our friends actually asked me: “What do you have to do in your talk, recite the full Dewey Decimal System?”
We can chuckle at that, but uneasily I hope, because we all know that libraries and those of us who work in them bring tremendous value to our communities through a range of activities, resources, services and expertise.
In a time when information and misinformation is shared and used and misused at dizzying speeds; and at a time when our country is increasingly polarized in its views about everything from climate change to whose lives matter; libraries and those of us who work there are more relevant than ever.
We can and do provide the spaces (physical and virtual), the resources, and the expertise to host productive, informed and inclusive conversations about the topics and issues that our communities care about. And I believe we have a special responsibility and the special expertise to provide access to the information and the tools people need to understand current events and to contribute to solutions to the big problems of our day.
So one of the challenges for us in asserting our cultural relevance is in updating the image of libraries and librarianship to include the full range of what we do and how we can empower our communities. We also all know that another challenge is that our profession is a painfully homogenous one demographically.
The challenge of recruiting and retaining librarians of color is one I think about all the time, and frankly I don’t have a magic solution. I hope that our conversations today touch on both the supply and demand sides of the problem.
On the demand side, there is no doubt in my mind that racial bias – conscious and unconscious – seeps into the recruiting and hiring practices of libraries. And I suspect sadly that many of you know better than I do that once in the profession, people of color do not experience workplaces as welcoming as our values say we are.
On the supply side, we need to make the profession attractive and rewarding to young people of color — which maybe goes back to the issue of making our cultural relevance more obvious.
So when i think about promoting the cultural relevancy of libraries and of those of us who work in them, I think about updating our image; I think about reminding library leaders like me of our responsibility to uphold the values of librarianship with respect to diversity, inclusion and equity; and I think about finding ways to excite people about what they can do as a member of our profession.