I recently had the pleasure of going to, and presenting at, the National Diversity in Libraries Conference (NDLC) at UCLA. NDLC is an irregular conference that last occurred in 2010. This year’s organizers had hoped to have around 250 registrants and they greatly exceeded those numbers. As a result, there were multiple session, with as many as seven concurrent sessions in a single time slot. I recommend perusing the program for a sense of the conference and full descriptions of sessions and posters. Moreover, there was a lively Twitter stream capturing sessions and continuing conversations at #NDLC16. As I could not attend all of the sessions, I will highlight some key concepts in this post that I think are ideal to carry forward in the work that we do in libraries, supporting people and systems.
Equity (and access, inclusion, and diversity)
Yes, the conference is about “diversity in libraries” but what became apparent throughout many sessions, is that we know we have “diversity.” Not a lot; shockingly little by some measures, but there is diversity. Diversity of life experience, sexual orientation, gender expression, ability status, and racial/ethnic identity (this last one is often very visible and very, very poorly represented). If our goals are to increase diversity, that is great. But if we try to do that work without acknowledging that it takes equity and inclusion to actually make an impact, it is a waste of time.
Equity and inclusion are difficult to achieve when the greater system that we work within has been constructed upon bias and privilege. This is true whether the system is our national government, our institution, or the individual library where we work. You cannot talk about human interactions in a vacuum, and many of the sessions reflected this with themes like “Academic libraries and social justice on campus” and “Cultural aspects and perspectives in health sciences library services.”
An important point is in recognizing the oppressive structures that we operate within and then determining the best course of action to dismantle those and in so doing, remove or reduce the barriers to participation. The difficulty in this lies in the many, many ways that those structures disenfranchise communities. It can be through omission: not collecting in areas that represent the totality of American society, for example. Do collections and archives reflect the communities present? The Native American, Latinx, Asian-American, African-American experience? What of the LGBTQA community?
Or it can be through our actual information seeking systems: subjective subject headings, that belie the dominant narrative. Words are there to describe items, but they are “othering,” (set in contrast to or aside to a presumed norm, e.g. Wikipedia editors’ one-time attempt to separate American novelists based on gender) or strip away intersectionality; or perhaps use euphemisms for uncomfortable truths, such as framing the detention and imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during WWII as relocation camp/assembly center/ temporary detention center, rather than: internment camp/incarceration camp/American concentration camp. (Incidentally, the LCSH for this event is: Japanese American — Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945, which seems pretty euphemistic to me. What were they being evacuated from? Their safe homes, schools, and jobs?)
Or perhaps it is in our technology: How common practice is it to evaluate databases for screen reader accessibility as part of the selection process? We work with profile systems like PeopleSoft, which limit ability to gender identify. How do animations and lots of visual content on the website affect individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
And what about our programming? Are makerspaces implicitly gendering activities in the promotional materials, e.g. using pinks and purples for sewing workshops and blues and black for Arduino workshops? What is really being said when a supervisor asks if there should be an “All Lives Matter” book display to “balance” the “Black Lives Matter” display?
These are complex issues because humans are complex animals. We form identities, often based on how others perceive us. How are the intersections of various facets of identity treated by society? By our organization? By our collections? By our metadata? To strive for a society wherein these oppressive structures are acknowledged, the history that put them in place is a known history, and that all members feel equal and respected is a herculean task. But it is one that we are fortunate enough to be engaged with by virtue of our profession, because we ascribe to ALA’s Core Values of Librarianship, or create things like the ACRL Diversity Standards, or align with the Digital Library Federation’s mission statement.
One way to be an active participant in working towards a better future is to assess your local environment. Much of the programming at NDLC concerned recruitment and retention of diverse individuals in our profession. Panel discussions about LIS diversity initiatives and diversity fellow programs and presentations on strategic planning for diversity and inclusion and cultural competencies highlight the serious representation issues in our profession. According to the ALA demographic study of 2014, 87.1% of membership identified as white. The 2015 census data from the United States reports the population as 61.6% white (non-Hispanic, not multi-racial). For a profession built so firmly on the notion of service and community engagement, this is problematic. Happily, many of the presentations at NDLC made their materials available, so we may learn from each other’s experiences.
Representative hiring and active retention are only a portion of what can be done locally to bring about positive change. Collection practices, metadata creation, digital project investment, special collections development, and community outreach and programming are the bread and butter of library activities; whether a public, school, or academic library. It is important that we examine our current processes, not with a “how is this diverse?” perspective, but with a “how is this anti-racist/anti-oppression?” This is an important, yet perhaps subtle, difference. Working towards an anti-oppression mentality means that there is recognition of systemic inequalities woven through the fabric of our society, which may require changing some of the core practices of librarians in order to move the needle.
An example of this could be in the way that an academic library engages with, say, a community of students who inhabit both an ethnic minority identity and are first-generation students. This library may have done a great job at collecting a diverse range of materials, that represent this population well, but if the library does not devote effort in the outreach and programming to this group, it is unlikely that the students will go into the library to discover these works themselves. Why? It’s not that they are lazy, or entitled, or willfully ignorant (as I have witnessed librarians opine).
Libraries are still intimidating places for many students, regardless of identity. Compound that generalized anxiety with first-generation student status and an ethnic minority and it should be clear that the onus is on the librarians to dismantle those barriers – be they perceived or real – and communicate that the library is the students’ library – is our library – is everyone’s library. If this sounds obvious to you (“of course the library is everyone’s library!”), then I fear that you may not have a realistic understanding of the varied and complex lived experiences of people living in America. If this sounds like a challenge worthy of time, effort, and resources, then YAY! And I really hope that you are in a position to take up that challenge.
I’m Tired Now
Another strong takeaway from NDLC is that this work is WORK. Really hard, exhausting work. Work that often falls on the shoulders of those most disenfranchised, and that requires pushing back against a bureaucratic and social machine that has been running for centuries. Writing this blog post took forever, as I have tried to find words that don’t require previous knowledge of “social justice jargon” and that – hopefully – anyone reading can find something to relate to. See, working towards an equitable and inclusive society doesn’t fall to those who lack access to societal privilege. Sure, those individuals will feel the imperative to change in their day to day experiences, but major heavy lifting must also come from those who implicitly – and often unconsciously – benefit from the constructs of the biased system.
Lasting change that doesn’t come from a burn-it-down-and-start-again revolution requires the positive participation of the most privileged. That is a lot of strength and honesty to ask of someone – to recognize that they have – in some ways – benefited from a system, and that benefit has been predicated on someone else’s oppression…that’s a heavy realization. It means recognizing that bringing equity to a system like this will most likely require some loss of benefits to the privileged group.
For example, it is possible that a collection focusing on female religious figures may purchase fewer books on Joan of Arc in order to represent Rabia Basri and Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. That doesn’t diminish Joan of Arc’s impact on the collection, it just provides a wider lens to view the topic. Yet, some may feel a decline of Joan’s status, and that can be frightening if they’ve built an identity around that status.
This collection example is actually a decent representation of what it means to try to put some of these equity ideals into practice. Recognizing a representation imbalance and then taking action to address it may result in feelings of discomfort or fear for some, but for others it can give voice and visibility. We are lucky to be in a profession where we, as individuals/organizations/systems, can effect change and have such a positive impact on our communities, but we must be willing to recognize uncomfortable truths and believe that a just and equitable society is a future worth working for.
Rumor has it that there will be another NDLC in 2020. It was an exhilarating conference and one that I sincerely hope leaders in our profession come to and participate with, en masse. If you are looking to get more of a feel for the entire conference, several Storify’s were created: See http://ndlc.info/ for some, as well as Amelia Gibson’s on the BLM Town Hall, ARL’s, and mine.