Thursday, November 26, 2009

Diversity in Academic Libraries

Diversity and multiculturalism have become important issues within the academic community and have a great influence on academic libraries in many ways. Academic libraries not only implement diversity initiatives in hiring and retaining a diverse workforce, they must also promote awareness of multiculturalism and diversity in their collections and programs for patrons. The ALA's Library Bill of Rights states that "books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves…a person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background or views" (ALA, 1996). Academic libraries must always strive to not simply talk about diversity but also exhibit a clear commitment to building an environment that is inclusive for all races, religions, sexual orientations, and abilities.

There are several avenues through which libraries can promote diversity and provide an example to the larger academic community. Libraries must strive to recruit and retain a diverse work force. Beyond hiring, libraries must collect materials that reflect the cultural background of the community they serve. Having a diverse collection and demonstrating a desire to preserve and collect the materials of minority cultures will aid in effort to reach out the community as a whole. Libraries must also strive to be equitable in outreach programming. Applying the principles of diversity to outreach efforts is an important way for libraries to reach the largest population possible (Orange and Osbourne, 2004).

Diversity in outreach is all about equity in services. In the introduction to From Outreach to Equality: Innovative Models of Library Policy and Practice, Satia Orange and Robin Osbourne(2004) discussed the pitfalls of only providing outreach programs to "underserved populations" with limited funding and little to no support (Orange and Osbourne, 2004). The funding for programs like this can dry up quickly (as I am sure we are all aware in the current economic conditions) so relying on special programs to reach minority audiences can be a slippery slope.

Orange and Osbourne emphasize the importance of tailoring all outreach programs to the broadest possible population in order to ensure that they are equally accessible for everyone. The practice of using special funding for outreach programs gives the impression that these programs are extra and not essential to the daily routines of librarians. Thus in times of economic uncertainty, the programs disappear, often when they are needed the most (Orange and Osbourne, 2004). Separating programs for regular library users from "underserved populations" creates an environment of inequity. The remedy to this problem is to view outreach as one of the primary responsibilities of the library and to then direct outreach efforts to the whole community, thus ensuring that all will be treated equitably no matter the circumstances.

The common message throughout all of my reading about diversity has been focused on equity; equity in hiring, equity in service, and equity in collecting. The objective to being aware of diversity is not to create an environment where minorities are given better or special treatment, but where everyone is treated the same (Peterson, 1999). Diversity in librarianship is not about quotas or statistics; it is about living up to the standards set forth by the American Library Association. When the Library Bill of Rights says equal access for all, the library should be made equally accessible for everyone.

Discussion questions:

Are there similarities/differences between how diversity programs should be implemented in the different types of libraries?

What are some examples of outreach programs that cater to a broader population?


American Library Association Council (1996). "Library Bill of Rights." Retrieved November 21, 2009 from

Orange, Satia and Osbourne, Robin. (2004) Introduction. In Robin Osbourne (Ed.), From Outreach to Equity: Innovative Models of Library Policy and Practice (xi-xvii) Chicago: American Library Association.

Peterson, Lorna. (1999) The Definition of Diversity: Two Views. A More Specific Definition. The Journal of Library Administration, 27(1), 17-26.


Amy Smola said...

Funding is always a factor for most types of libraries. Some of the most needed programs sadly often get cut due to budget issues. Public libraries try to cater to the needs of their community. Some communities have more diversity than others. A community library with only 1% Latino residents would probably be hard-pressed to acquire funding for programs to cater to this small group of people. Though a Spanish/English class might be very beneficial to this group of people, funding approval may not be granted since it would service such a small sector of the whole community. Academic libraries, in general, probably have a greater advantage of being able to offer more diverse programs. College campuses traditionally have quite a range of students from all walks of life. College libraries are also likely to have student involvement, so it would probably be easier to host events that cater to a small minority if representatives of that minority are right there on campus and/or working at the library. Colleges host many student jobs for kids to be able to work to pay for their tuition. Some of these jobs will be in the libraries, so these students will have a voice in the ideas for library enrichment programs. Also, most college campuses are, by default, more open to diversity and the celebration of multiculturalism than some public community libraries may be. Though libraries of all kinds need to strive to provide programs that benefit all community members (even those who are in the minority), there are probably more diverse offerings on most college campuses in comparison to general public libraries.

Trevor Zuidema said...

The Grand Rapids Main Library is a good example of a library with diverse outreach programs. Recently it hosted a day of lectures and activities and their guest speakers included many popular minority authors. In February they will have "a series of events exploring African-American history and culture" which will include music and food. I'm looking forward to it.