Research Agenda — Gender, Race, and Sexuality in the LIS Profession

Jennifer Gilley, Librarian, Pennsylvania State University
Monica Porter, Public Services and Outreach Librarian, University of Michigan
Martinique Hallerduff, Associate Prof. of Library Services, Oakton Community College

This section of the agenda consists of 6 subthemes:

  1. Racism in the LIS Profession
  2. Affective/Emotional/Reproductive Labor in LIS
  3. Feminist Leadership in the LIS Profession
  4. Feminist Library Technology Politics
  5. Librarian Stereotypes (not written)
  6. LGBTQ+ LIS Workers (not written)

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For the full citations of scholarship cited below, see the Bibliography on Gender, Race, and Sexuality in the LIS Profession

Racism in the LIS Profession

Decentering Whiteness

A powerful and growing body of scholarship in the last decade has called for the recognition and dismantling of the whiteness that is the unspoken foundation of the LIS profession (Espinal 2018; Honma 2005; Bourg 2014; Galvan 2015; Hathcock 2015; Vinopal 2016; Schlesselman-Tarango 2017; Brown et al. 2018). Hathcock summarizes this conception of whiteness as referring “not only to the socio-cultural differential of power and privilege that results from categories of race and ethnicity; it also stands as a marker for the privilege and power that acts to reinforce itself through hegemonic cultural practice that excludes all who are different”(2015). Thus expanding beyond socially constructed racial categories, whiteness also means “heterosexual, capitalist, and middle class”(Galvan 2015). The authors in the anthology Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science thoroughly describe how whiteness and the performance of it have been at the center of librarianship from the beginning, unmask how to see the operation of whiteness in the profession today, and offer strategies for dismantling it in order to transform the profession. The first step is to transform the language used around “diversity” efforts. Collins and others have unpacked phrases like “diversity problem” and “diversity and inclusion” to show that they allow us to avoid referring directly to white supremacy, oppression, power, and privilege (Collins 2018). We need to switch to phrasing that makes the power imbalances obvious before we can take active solutions.

Espinal, Sutherland, and Roh offer the following concrete ways to decenter whiteness: library schools should offer courses on whiteness in librarianship, associations should offer professional development seminars on whiteness in librarianship, academic residencies could be created that allow people without the MLIS to work in libraries and get paid to obtain one, public libraries could encourage nonlibrarian staff of color to get certified, funding should be provided for librarians of color to attend conferences of librarians of color for support and networking, hiring practices should be more flexible and agile, and finally, individual white librarians should move from microaggressions to microaffections, where they go out of their way to make a librarian of color feel dignified, respectable, and beloved (2018).

Recruitment & Retention Initiatives for Marginalized Populations

 While many recruitment and retention initiatives such as scholarships, internships, and residency programs have been enacted, Galvan and Hathcock deconstruct how these initiatives have failed on a large scale because they are based on whiteness and seek to perpetuate it. They seek candidates who are able to conform to a physical standard of professionalism that is informed by white culture, they look for professional experience that is usually gained through unpaid practicums or internships, and they require geographical mobility (Galvan 2015). The application processes for scholarships and other recruitment programs often require transcripts, letters of recommendation from people in positions of power, personal essays, and other markers of a particular social position (Hathcock 2015). For academic librarians of color with faculty status, the particular exercise of earning tenure is deeply embedded in whiteness culture and one must perform whiteness to be successful (Griffin 2013; Hankins and Juarez 2016). Mentorship programs are mentioned frequently in the literature as important spaces for marginalized librarians to combat isolation and also learn how to perform whiteness well enough to success in their environment (Haliso 2010; Hathcock 2015; Brown et al. 2018). Additionally, residency programs are a potentially promising site for recruitment and retention and Boyd, Blue, and Im have laid out best practices for these programs to make them effective (2017).


For librarians of color, microaggressions are a significant factor influencing their longevity in the field. Alabi (2015, 2018), and Chou and Pho (2017) have performed comprehensive studies of the lived experiences of women of color librarians that documented isolation, discrimination, and harassment (Chou and Pho in Accardi 2017).  Librarians of color feel ignored or patronized, are mistaken for staff, feel like they have to be twice as good as their white colleagues, are offered fewer opportunities, have their credibility and authority questioned, are dismissed as being too sensitive, are asked to serve on the diversity committee without proper respect for this work, and as a result, often experience exhaustion and regret (Alabi 2018). Cooke documents these same experiences as a first year minority faculty member in a predominantly white LIS school and asks the question: do minorities really want a seat at the predominantly white table (2014)? One outlet for sharing and bringing awareness to this phenomenon is the Tumblr page and zine publication LIS Microaggressions, where marginalized library workers can bring these experiences out into the light (Arroyo-Ramirez 2018).

Questions for Future Research:

  • How can librarianship, a field that his historically thought of itself as democratic, egalitarian, and neutral, be brought to recognize the whiteness, or hegemonic cultural privilege, that undergirds its structures in order to transform into a liberatory institution?
  • How can the language of “diversity” be changed from performative rhetoric to an acknowledgment of the way power and privilege work in our profession and society?
  • What are some best practices for educating white librarians on the history of racism and its pervasiveness in our society?
  • Are there LIS schools that are including the study of racism or whiteness in their curriculum? Is it in a separate seminar or woven throughout the coursework? Is it mandatory? How could we call for this inclusion at all LIS schools?
  • Are there academic libraries who are offering professional development seminars on racism or whiteness? If so, who is taking those seminars?
  • What is the landscape of mentoring opportunities targeted to librarians of color? How can we complicate the idea of “mentoring” so that it can be seen as both a way of mentoring librarians of color in how to perform whiteness but simultaneously a way of transforming those structures of whiteness?(Hathcock 2015)
  • How can awareness of microaggressions be brought to the LIS profession at large in a way that is actionable and constructive (Arroyo-Ramirez et al.)?
  • How does technology and a technocratic future vision of libraries support and/ or subvert the whiteness of the field?

Affective/Emotional/Reproductive Labor

Building on a long history of scholarship documenting librarianship as a “feminized field,” recent authors have further theorized about the affective and emotional labor that librarians do and its effect on our status, value, and power. Carruthers (2016) points out that the function of public libraries in their early conception was the social reproduction of the workforce, and Shirazi argues that academic librarians “perform the labor that reproduces the academy” (2014). This reproductive labor is enacted largely through affective or emotional labor, in which librarians develop relationships, center the emotional needs of patrons, and perform collaborative service work for the benefit of patrons and the institution. Various essays in the collection The Feminist Reference Desk: Concepts, Critiques, and Conversations discuss this emotional and affective labor and argue both that this labor can be seen as a feminist ethic of care that is empowering for the user, and that it is also gendered and underappreciated work that undermines our professional status and skills (Emmelhainz et al. 2017; Howard 2017; Ladenson 2017, all in Accardi 2017).

Women of color librarians have an added burden of emotional/affective labor as they serve as de facto role models and mentors to patrons of color, and are often asked to do “diversity work” in addition to their regular jobs (Bright in Chou and Pho 2018, Gomez in Schlesselman-Tarango 2017, Porter et al. in Chou and Pho 2018). Further, Porter et al. note that “many WOC librarians suppress their needs and identities while we engage in emotional labor, presenting the appropriate emotional façade that allows us to be compatible with organizational norms” (in Chou and Pho 2018). The added stresses of all this emotional labor can lead to burnout while also not providing any tangible rewards in the form of pay or status (Fan 2011; Galbraith et al. 2016).

Feminist theory has identified and placed value on the central role of emotional labor and service in the social reproduction of the academy/the workforce/society, but this work has not yet changed the status it is awarded in the academy or society. Sloniowski argues for a two-pronged approach in which librarians publish scholarship outside our discipline establishing our intellectual role as producers of knowledge, while simultaneously working to “develop some sort of internal professional metrics that reward, or at least acknowledge, affective labor”(663). Shirazi goes further and seeks to transform the hierarchy that falsely distinguishes and unequally values intellectual and emotional labor. Because our labor is extremely important, rather than refuse to do it or focus on lauding librarians for our intellectual labor, she argues that it is time to transform the reward system that favors “individual research over (collaborative) service work” and to compensate this work with “money, authority, status, honor, and well-being”(2014).

Questions for Future Research:

  • How can academic librarians organize effectively to push for greater documentation of emotional labor and its impact in our dossiers? How can we lobby for a stronger weighting of service in the overall evaluation of one’s work? What are some ways to begin to alter the academic hierarchy of respect to acknowledge the important intellectual aspects of emotional labor? How can WOC librarians in particular get recognition and recompense for their added burden of emotional labor?

Feminist Leadership in the LIS Profession

Research on women in leadership positions in LIS continues to track the gender stratification of the upper level ranks (Alqudsi-Ghabra and Al-Muomen 2012; Deyrup 2014), and apply a gendered analysis to management styles (Kofi 2013; Olin and Millet 2015; Neigel 2015; Martin 2015; Lombard 2018). As studies have begun to show declining differences in leadership style based on gender (Martin 2015; Lombard 2018), other scholars have turned to the task of theorizing about what feminist leadership could or should look like. The 2017 anthology Feminists Among Us: Resistance and Advocacy in Library Leadership captures the heart of this complex conversation (Lew and Yousefi 2017). In the introduction, Noble writes that a discussion of feminist leadership in LIS is “crucial to … reimagining the role of librarians and information professionals as workers central to social transformation” (vii). Lew advocates for feminist leaders to apply this framework of social transformation to the current burning issues in academic libraries today: “inaction regarding the lack of meaningful diversity in libraries; the need to engage with online privacy and surveillance issues; passive acceptance of licensing terms and exorbitant fees charged by academic publishers and content aggregators; allocation of our limited budgets to for-profit library software vendors despite reduction of choice and increasing costs; inability to reach a critical mass of support for open access and open source software which would allow us to collectively take control of our information and automation” (36). Feminist leadership is not just about adopting a particular leadership style but about embracing the project of social transformation throughout the library’s work.

While a feminist leadership style does involve listening, collaboration, and the empowerment of workers, Richmond argues that “servant leadership” is a problematic stance for women to take, because it leaves women in their traditional servant role, without an acknowledgment of the power they have (in Lew and Yousefi 2017). For Hathcock and Vinopal, feminist leaders must practice listening, empathy, and a commitment to transparency while simultaneously “acknowledging sources of power and leveraging that power for the benefit of those working for them and with them in the organization” (in Lew and Yousefi 2017, p. 162). This power would also be leveraged to enact change that moves the library toward the goal of social transformation. This stance from a place of power may have especially negative consequences for women of color library leaders. As Watson points out, “While white women in leadership are perceived negatively for assuming the white male qualities [of assertiveness, confidence, and decisiveness], women of color adopting these characteristics are at risk of being presumed angry, troublesome, or even dangerous” (in Schlesselman-Tarango 2017, p. 156-157).

Chris Bourg closes Feminists Among Us by lamenting that many feminists display reluctance to move into positions of leadership within the bureaucracy of the neoliberal university. She argues that there is space, and we must make more space, for feminist leadership in the university if we are to help transform it.

Questions for Future Research:

  • How can feminist leaders integrate an acknowledgment of power (including a deconstruction of their own power and privilege) and leverage it to not only create an empowering and diverse workplace but to move their institution in the direction of progressive social transformation?
  • What are some ways in which current feminist leaders have done this?
  • How can we support one another to do this work and encourage more feminists to go into leadership positions?

Feminist Library Technology Politics

The gender divide in librarianship between “traditional” library services and library IT departments continues to be a topic of great concern and study (Golub 2010; Carson 2014; Rabey 2014; Dean 2015). Studies have shown that there is no difference in use of electronic resources between genders (Oyenyi 2013), yet the fields of IT and computer science are unquestionably male-dominated, with the number of women actually shrinking over time (Brandon et al. 2018). Dean outlines a history of gender and technology in libraries which shows that it was not always this way, but that as technology grew in power and influence, men and a masculinist culture began to dominate. She illustrates that while there are women in library IT, their labor tends to fall in gender-stratified areas with women focused on visible, public-facing library services and men focused on the invisible services of networking, programming, creating, and repairing technology (2015).

The 2018 anthology We Can Do IT: Women in Library Information Technology provides a revealing glimpse into the lives of the women who do work in library IT. Via personal essays, these women share career stories, provide advice, and outline challenges. On top of experiencing frequent microaggressions like “not being taken seriously” and “having my technology skills doubted” (Conrad, in Brandon et al. 2018), many of the authors mention imposter syndrome, where they constantly feel like they do not really deserve to be in the field and don’t belong. In addition to feeling precarious in their jobs, women are relied upon to provide the emotional labor of being the communications bridge between users and programmers, explaining technological issues to users and explaining user needs to programmers. Tara Coleman notes that “people generally associate patience, good interpersonal skills, and effective communications with women, and many people associate IT skills with men. As long as organizations allow men to get away with having fewer interpersonal skills, women will continue to carry the emotional labor in library IT” (in Brandon et al. 2018, p. 143).

Askey and Askey advocate for a transformative “feminist library technology politics” that would dissolve the usual divide between “the library” and “library technology” by  recognizing that the two are one and the same and that all tools should be created “to build up a knowledge and technology economy within the library that represents multiple epistemes and encourages knowledge production for the 21st century” (in Lew and Yousefi 2017, p. 138). A feminist vision of what this knowledge economy should look like could only be accomplished via “meaningful dialogue and interaction between those who know the collections and have extensive relationships with students and faculty, on the one hand, and those with the ability to create tools using coding and other technology skills” (p. 139). Heller and Hong Ma, in their essay in We Can Do IT, give some practical examples of ways in which a feminist standpoint can break down barriers in IT. Moving tools to the cloud and  giving users higher level permissions allows people to get their work done remotely when necessary due to changing life circumstances, and moves the role of IT from gatekeeper to support. User-centered design and usability testing is paramount in identifying obstacles to accessibility. Automating and streamlining workflows empowers library workers to do their jobs effectively and without unwarranted oversight (in Brandon et al. 2018, p. 190-191).

Feminist library technology politics will also be crucial to deconstructing the “technocratic library of the future” identified by Rafia Mirza and Maura Seale in Topographies of Whiteness (Schlesselman-Tarango 2017). Mirza and Seale analyze ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries “Trend Library” as embracing “an apolitical, ahistorical, technocratic perspective that sees technology as the solution to complex social, political, and economic problems” (p. 181). Rather than taking a deterministic, white masculinist view of the ways in which technology will dominate information access, libraries need to enact a feminist framework to create and design that technology under principles of social justice.

Questions for Future Research:

  • How can we break down the gender stereotypes, both internal and external, that lead to overrepresentation of women in the public service side of LIS and men in the information technology side?
  • How can affective/emotional labor be recognized as an integral part of IT and valued as such, with all IT practitioners expected to perform this labor in a competent way? Shouldn’t those who are highly skilled at both IT and emotional labor receive higher compensation?
  • How can we reconceive of librarianship itself as being equal parts emotional labor and IT skill and value and reward both parts equally?
  • What are some examples of ways that feminist library technology politics can inform a vision for the future of libraries that reflects social justice principles and uses technology in ways that support that vision?