I was manning our library Twitter account whilst the 2018 LILAC conference was happening and saw this thread https://bit.ly/2Le2yr3. It took me by surprise how strongly it resonated with me. The discussion about the importance, yet lack of, diversity at library conferences definitely rang true. I remember attending the UKSG Forum whilst a LIS student a couple of years ago where I needed to meet up with another student. I was worried we wouldn’t find each other but luckily we were the only two non-white faces in the room, so that made things simpler, if a bit depressing.
Moreover, as a mixed-race woman, the feelings people shared on the thread about sitting uncomfortably within the BME label also resonated with me. That sense of being the white-side of diverse yet still experiencing the otherness symbolised, for me, by the endless question: ‘Yeah, but where are you really from?’ – I want to check my privilege but actually I don’t feel that privileged. I’ve worked in a couple of university libraries in Leeds, which is obviously a diverse city. Despite them being large employers with good, well paying jobs there are painfully few non-white people. I even left a job in one of them because of bad treatment and only realised afterwards that the only other people being treated like this were also the three other non-white people. I honestly don’t know if that was pure coincidence but it’s certainly not going to help encourage diversity is it?
I think many LIS managers do genuinely want to encourage diversity but don’t really know how. Putting in a bland statement at the very end of a job advert like: “We welcome applications from all individuals and particularly from black and minority ethnic candidates…” is not good enough. It’s an afterthought, a box ticking exercise. I’m supremely optimistic that we as a sector can change things, although not naïve of the challenge ahead!
Raise the visibility of librarianship (and call it something else)
Librarians are the ultimate problem-solvers so I reckon (together) we can tackle the lack of diversity in libraries and find solutions. Already, one month in, DILON has made really positive progress with conference organisers and this should embolden us to speak up and speak out. Here’s one idea I’ve had –
In my anecdotal experience, most library workers just fall into library work. They’re students, artists or musicians and libraries are simply a pleasant way to earn a stable income amongst like-minded people. I spent a significant amount of my childhood in the local library. I studied English and creative writing at university and yet it never crossed my mind to become a Librarian. I just fell into it whilst studying again later on, but now it feels like the most obvious thing for me to be. Perhaps this is because librarians still suffer from the stereotypes of being stern old women stacking dusty shelves. (In fact, after writing this paragraph, I came across DILON creator Jen’s career history echoing the same points). But we know those stereotypes aren’t true! If we (I’m using the royal We here) went into schools and spoke to kids about all the great things about librarianship (and maybe call ourselves something more modern like Information Professionals), I reckon in time we would end up with a more diverse workforce.
This might also start to address the elephant in the (book) room – Class. DILON isn’t about class per se but it certainly intersects. It’s all very well for middle-class kids to fall into library work whilst at university or shortly after but let’s make it an interesting and visible option for other kids too. A stumbling block could be the insistence on CILIP accredited qualifications in order to get a professional job (yes, I know, all sorts of debates here). However, it might help if people found librarianship as a career option before doing something else, particularly if they’re not from a privileged background. AND if kids know they’ll need to do a degree at some point to be a librarian, it might affect what they do at school and college. Basically, lets raise the profile of the profession so that children of all colours and backgrounds see it as a career option, like being a lawyer or a nurse. Then they’ll have the opportunity to take the necessary steps towards achieving this interesting and rewarding career. And everyone will benefit from a more diverse workforce.
Information Services Librarian, Leeds Beckett University