Text from an invited talk at Simmons School of Library and Information Science, 4/14/16
(Updated 4/17/16 to add footnotes to give credit where due)
(Updated 4/18/16 to add another footnote for clarity)
When Dr. Em Claire Knowles asked me to speak here tonight, I knew I had to talk about diversity, inclusion and social justice. It is because we share a commitment to engaging those topics that I even know Dr. Knowles – and if you will indulge me, I’d like to ease into this talk by telling a short version of how I came to know Dr. Knowles because I think it illustrates one small way we can try to resist the structures and pressures in our profession that work against diversity, inclusion & social justice.
About 3 years ago, while I was an Associate Director at Stanford Libraries, a colleague at another elite big research library asked me to contribute an article on diversity to a special journal issue on the future of libraries.
I had just met Myrna Morales, who was then here at Simmons, and is now working on a PhD in Library & Information Sciences at UIUC, at a Leadership, Technology, and Gender conference, so I asked her if she wanted to co-author the article with me. I knew that Myrna had experiences, insights, knowledge, perspectives, and a voice that was different than mine; and that together we could write something better than I could write on my own.
To my delight, Myrna immediately said “sure, but can we ask Dr. Em Claire Knowles to write with us too?” The result is a really terrific piece – much fuller and richer and more inclusive than I could have imagined.
(It really is a great article, OA version available.)
A lesson for me in this story is that I got asked to contribute that article because I am part of this really exclusive social network of leaders in big research libraries. I get to go the meetings where I meet the kinds of people who are editing journals and books and are offering opportunities like this to each other. And that’s how lots of professional opportunities happen – not just publishing opportunities but job and service opportunities too. Networks are really important ways people become aware of and are able to take advantage of such opportunities. And our networks are usually not very diverse or inclusive. Widening those circles and those opportunities doesn’t happen without some intentionality.
So I want to talk about issues of diversity, inclusion and social justice – and I use that rather wieldy 3 part phrase on purpose, because I’m trying to be clear that I’m not talking about the kind of watered down diversity talk that includes every possible kind of difference – from personality traits to what sports team you root for.
I’m also not talking about the kind of “respect for diversity” where well-intentioned people claim they treat everyone the same – they say things like “I don’t care if you are white, black, brown or purple. I treat everyone the same.” I guess people mean well when they say things like that, but it trivializes the experiences of actual people of color by lumping them in with imaginary purple people.
So when I’m talking about diversity and inclusion, I’m talking about groups of people with histories of oppression and current experiences of discrimination – non-white people, poor people, LGBTQI people, immigrants. I’m talking about diversity along axes of power and privilege – race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social class, ability.1 I’m talking about differences that carry with them patterns of real social, economic, health, and life expectancy consequences.
In terms of what I mean by social justice, I’ll use the same definition that Myrna, Em Claire, and I use in our article – “social justice refers to the ability of all people to fully benefit from social and economic progress and to participate equally in democratic societies.”
And a final piece of context — I am one of those people who truly believes that libraries and those of us who work in them are forces for social good. I believe libraries and archives are key cultural institutions, crucial to democracy and critical to the health of our local communities, our nation, and frankly to a sustainable global community.
There are many reasons I think this is an exciting and important time for libraries and archives; and why I think having a focus on diversity, inclusion & social justice in our work is critical. The media remind us constantly that we are in a time of increasing political polarization. We are also seeing increased attention to issues of racial injustice and inequity, including the very recent task force report out of Chicago that validates allegations of racist policing there. But attention and progress inevitably brings backlash – not just on racial issues, but on LGBTQ rights as well.
And all of this is happening at a time where we have seen an exponential increase in the amount of information available to any individual and the ease of getting to that information. To my mind that means those of us who work in libraries and archives have this opportunity, really a responsibility, to provide access to information; as well as the tools and skills to critically evaluate that information in ways that promote diversity, equity, and social justice. I think we also have a responsibility to be active about insuring that we are collecting, preserving and providing access to information and materials about, by, and for members of marginalized communities.
So socially, it is a critical moment in time for those of us in libraries to talk about issues of diversity and social justice. In fact, I would urge us to center diversity, inclusion, and social justice in our work.
Also, selfishly, it is a really great time for me to be talking about this topic because we are actively trying to figure out what it means to say we value diversity, inclusion and social justice at the MIT Libraries.
I came in to this job at MIT, about a year ago, as someone who has been very public about having a social justice agenda for libraries, and as someone who cares about and wants to do the work to increase the diversity & inclusion of our libraries and archives.
I’ve blogged lots on these topics, but usually either in a theoretical kind of way or – in the case of the my most viewed blog post ever – in a very factual, statistical, this is how not diverse we are as a profession kind of way.
How not diverse are we, you ask? We are 88% white as a profession. In context that means we would need to double the number of Latino/Latina librarians to reflect the US population, and more than triple the number of African American librarians. Note that those estimates are based on current demographics. But since the US population is actually becoming more not less diverse, while LIS is holding steady …. well, let’s just say we have some work to do.
But as a library director and as newly appointed chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee of ARL, it is time for me to move from just talking or just naming the problem into action plans. It is time to start to articulate how a diversity, inclusion, & social justice agenda might actually be manifest in and through a library.
So I want to share with you all a proposed framework for enacting diversity, inclusion and social justice in libraries and library work. This is very much a work in progress, so put your thinking caps on – I want your best feedback!
(Yes – this is a photo of my whiteboard. I like to think that makes it artisanal.)
What I’m trying to do with this model is to suggest that it might be useful to think about a social justice agenda in libraries as being manifest within and through different communities; and I am thinking about these communities as concentric circles.2 The arrows are supposed to indicate lots of bi-directional influence between communities; and the dashed parts of the circles are meant to indicate that the boundaries between communities are blurry and porous. This is meant to be a model, and models always oversimplify the realities they represent.
My hope is that by offering a framework like this, individuals leaders, and organizations can find examples and ideas for action that will promote diversity, inclusion, and social justice within and through these concentric (and overlapping) communities. Here I just want to riff on this theme and jot down some examples for each circle. This model needs lots of refinement, and the examples need fleshing out – but I figure sharing it in this state means I can get feedback.
At the center of the communities is the workplace – which for us is the individual library/archive. Here I’m thinking about actions that promote diversity, inclusion and social justice within the library. Examples of actions and things to focus on at this level might include:
- Workshops on unconscious bias, micro-agressions, inclusive interpersonal communication styles, and bystander interventions
- Developing policies and practices to reduce bias in hiring
- Commitment to hiring and retaining staff from underrepresented minority groups in numbers that reflect local and national demographics
- Leader actions, policies, and structures that contribute to an inclusive organizational culture
- Inclusive and equitable treatment of peers, supervisors, subordinates, and student employees
In terms of the next circle – local communities – I think this circle could include the local geographic area (city, county, state), the parent institution, the local government context, and of course – patrons. Some of the ways we might manifest a commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice in our local context might include:
- services, programs, and resources that reflect the diversity of our communities; especially those groups in our communities that might be most marginalized
- policies and practices that show respect for and understanding of the needs of ALL our patrons and potential patrons
- outreach and advocacy specifically developed for and with marginalized populations within our local communities
- working with community members to collect local literatures and to archive distinctive local histories (see digital library matters by Cecily Walker for a great description about how to do this with respect and responsibility)
Looking at LIS communities, I think this is where we can try to influence the profession and can work to increase the diversity of our workforce. LIS education fits in to this circle too, but I’m hoping people smarter about that than I am will fill in some examples and ideas for that arena. Ideas here might include:
- sharing of best practices and lessons learned (this is a practice we are trying to start with ARL)
- mentoring and networking outside your own workplace
- working for inclusive conferences (speakers, organizers, topics, atttendees), publications, service opportunities and other LIS opportunities and activities
- advocating for codes of conduct at conferences
- advocating for social justice topics at conferences and in publications
- developing action plans for recruiting underrepresented minorities into library and archives work
- pushing for focus on diversity, inclusion, and social justice topics throughout LIS curriculum and for diversity in LIS faculty
The outer circle represents the ways in which libraries can be forces for the promotion of diversity, inclusion, and social justice at the level of the global community. I truly believe that because of the nature of our work, libraries and archives can be forces for social justice in the world. Below are just a few examples of ways we can do this:
- promoting and supporting open access publishing
- working collaboratively to collect and promote books, articles, music, videos, etc. by and about people from marginalized groups
- working collaboratively to preserve and document social justice movements and the histories of underrepresented minority populations
- supporting, promoting, and/or developing tools and resources that reflect the values of diversity, inclusion, and social justice
- speaking out on issues where the rights of marginalized people are restricted
- advocating for policies that increase access to information for all (an example here is the joint support of library associations for ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty)
There are loads more examples that might fit into each circle, and there may be additional circles (for example, I’m not sure where community of vendors who serve libraries and archives fit in this model). Like I said, this is a very rough first stab at a framework that I hope is helpful for others.
In addition, I’m really hoping that this way of organizing conversations and strategic planning within my library will provide a common framework and some clarity about how we might move from talking to action. I also hope that a framework like this might give individuals a way to think about how and where they can insert themselves into diversity and inclusion work in their daily work, in their communities, and in the profession. I think sometimes we think about all the many ways we might do social justice work and it can be overwhelming and paralyzing. Maybe this framework can help us be deliberate about where we want to or can focus our individual and/or organizational efforts at any given time; because I don’t think any of us can do it all.
Which brings me to how I want to wrap this up.
I know it is common at these kinds of talks to end with some advice – especially since there are so many MLIS students in the audience. But I’m not a big fan of advice-giving (and I really suck at advice-taking), so instead I’ll just share with you some things that are true for me. I also want to note that these are themes that others who are working to promote diversity, inclusion and social justice in and through libraries have also said are true for them.3
- I need allies and I need friends and I need safe places/groups where I can vent and refuel and take a break.
- I need to make time and space for self-care and for healthy work-life balance.
- I need to remain teachable, non-defensive, and open to feedback.
And on that note – I would love to hear from you all.
1. I don’t mean this to be an exhaustive list of the various identities and attributes along which real, consequential discrimination and oppression can and do occur. For example – religion, gender expression/identity, and age also constitute axes of historical and contemporary power and privilege. There are likely others — I apologize that my lack of clarity made it seem like these other categories of discrimination did not matter to me.
2. Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman for the concentric circles idea. Ethan has been pushing us to think about the MIT Libraries’ communities in this way through his service on the Future of Libraries Task Force.
3. Thanks to Rachel Fleming for the nudge to include important of self-care, etc. in my talk.