Grafting Diversity to a Fracturing Framework

**Disclaimer-While I have my MLS, I am not currently a librarian. I’m a PhD student in Rhetoric and I’m a graduate research assistant in the TWU library, where I’ve worked for 5 years. I also happen to be taking a library school class as an elective. These posts are part of a weekly reading response. I am not speaking as a library expert. I’m speaking as a student and observer.**

Does it really help to change anything when institutions issue diversity statements? Do they actually intend to stand by their words and work to create radical change within the organization? Or are diversity statements just flimsy patches that are being grafted onto institutional frameworks that are already crumbling under the weight of their ingrained white supremacy?

This week’s class readings focused on the idea of cultural competence in the LIS field. In Information Services to Diverse Populations Nicole Cooke describes cultural competence as being:

Different than cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity, cultural competence compels us to act and not just be cognizant of people’s differences. (16)

Cooke, N. A. (2017). Managing Diversity. In Information services to diverse populations. Libraries Unlimited, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.

The basic idea is that librarians need to be aware of who their patrons are and the cultures that their patrons are coming from. It is only in this way that they can best help their patrons with their needs. An organization issuing diversity statements without being absolutely sure that their librarians are capable of actually interacting with diverse populations (both patrons and coworkers) does no good. The statement simply sits there, self-important and completely un-self-aware, affecting nothing in the real world of the library while making white librarians feel as if they’ve done their part and now they can move on.

The inherent problem is that these statements are being grafted onto a framework that is steeped in white supremacy and has been for decades. Diversity statements cannot just be attached, like a rider that no one actually reads. In “Diversity by design,” Dali and Caidi state that:

Diversity ideas, ideals, and considerations…should be seamlessly built into our curriculum, work environments, decision making, professional choices, and interpersonal relationships in both the workplace and academia. They should be there from the start, not thrown in for reasons of trendiness and popularity at a moment of need; they should be part of the foundation, part of the core. (89).

Dali, K., & Caidi, N. (2017). “Diversity by design.” Library Quarterly, 87(2), 99–102.

Let me repeat that: “THEY SHOULD BE THERE FROM THE START.” What does this mean, then? Should we tear down all of the existing LIS institutions (*cough* ALA *cough*) and start from scratch? Well, maybe we should. Creating change from within is a fantastic idea, when and if, it actually works. But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, the only way to move forward is to smash through it.

Having said that, another way that we might choose to go about making change and creating cultural competence is in the way that LIS programs are run. When speaking of LIS programs, Dali and Caidi bring up the very valid point that:

Every LIS program realizes the vitality and ubiquity of technology and offers core technology courses despite the fact that not every LIS graduate will end up in a highly technology-saturated environment. At the same time, practically every LIS graduate will work in a diverse setting with diverse community members, regardless of the type of library or information/ information technology (IT) setting. (90)

Dali, K., & Caidi, N. (2017). “Diversity by design.” Library Quarterly, 87(2), 99–102

I took multiple classes in my MLS program (TWU, 2017-2018) that focused on technology and information searching. Just so many classes on information and technology. Most of those classes didn’t even fall in line with what I want to do as a librarian but I took them, because they were required. It’s become a common joke that librarians learn more on the job than they ever do in library school, and while that may hold true for a number of other jobs as well, it really is sadly true with LIS. 

Perhaps what we need, then, is to revamp LIS programs to include classes that actually prepare their students for the patrons that they will work with on a daily basis. Learning how to do the perfect Boolean search is great and all but you can’t do that all day (well, maybe some can). Most librarians have to learn how to work with their patrons and finely-crafted Boolean searches aren’t going to help with that. Even library management classes don’t cut it. And while LIS students are required to do practicums, that isn’t until the end of their program.

What we need are practical and honest classes that deal with the boots-on-the-ground reality of what it means to work in a library, dealing with a diverse patron populations. We need more than just a statement that says “Yay Diversity!” We need real classes about what that means. If we can’t tear the structures down, and we REALLY want to change them from the inside, that has to start in library school. It has to be solid, effective, well-researched, and it needs to make students uncomfortable enough to face their own ingrained biases. We all have them. What we need is to learn how to get past them.

This week’s readings:
Blackburn, F. (2020). “Cultural Competence: Toward a More Robust Conceptualisation.” Public Library Quarterly, 39(3), 229–245.

Cooke, N. A. (2017). Managing Diversity. In Information services to diverse populations. Libraries Unlimited, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Dali, K., & Caidi, N. (2017). “Diversity by design.” Library Quarterly, 87(2), 99–102.

Heffernan, K. (2020). “Loaded questions: The Framework for Information Literacy through a DEI lens.” College & Research Libraries News, 81(8), 382.

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