Gwen M. Gregory, associate dean for collections management at Northern Illinois University’s Founders Memorial Library, is writing a new column for Information Today that explores issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI, sometimes referred to as DEI) in the information industry. Here’s a look at her columns from March 2021 to July/August 2021, which have been lightly edited and condensed for the web.
Here are the next parts of the series: Part 2 | Part 3
You can read the full columns in Information Today, starting with the January/February 2021 issue.
If you’re working toward EDI at your institution and would like to share your approaches with us, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @ITINewsBreaks.
Angles on Diaspora
Info pros think hard about the meaning of information, what we do with it, and how it is interpreted. We like to believe that we are impartial. Today, we are examining ourselves and our profession even more closely for signs of bias. Teresa Helena Moreno, a librarian at the University of Illinois–Chicago, is considering the intersection of diaspora and information to better understand how we interpret and provide access.
Moreno, who identifies as Chicana, originally became interested in this intersection when she found the Linda Ronstadt album Canciones de mi Padre in the library’s International music section rather than with the artist’s other works. She defines diaspora as a voluntary or forced migration of people, either between countries or within a country. Classic examples include the worldwide dispersion of African and Jewish peoples. It can take some time to determine whether migration rises to the level of diaspora, thus the term may not be applied until years after people begin moving.
Moreno’s research focuses on problems in coding, classifying, and organizing information related to diasporic groups. She comments, “We as a field of information professionals are inadvertently perpetuating missed connections and obscured histories of diasporas through misunderstandings of diasporic content and the movement of people.” This inaccuracy may also devalue the experiences of diasporic people. For example, standard Library of Congress (LC) subject headings may not accurately reflect diasporic movements of people, which could affect whether researchers are able to find materials. Metadata used by online resources can present similar concerns. She introduces the term “information imperialism” to describe this issue, especially considering that the LC, which has an outsize role in creating descriptors, is a U.S. government agency. The role of the U.S. as an international leader in information creation, policy, and provision makes this even more important.
Librarians may not like to think of themselves as the oppressors; however, Moreno encourages us to consider that many others may view us this way. Indeed, many libraries and information agencies are part of government, whether at the federal, state, or local level. One of Moreno’s important goals is explaining diasporic concepts to the profession. She hopes this awareness will enable us to work toward making diasporic communities—and information by and about them—accessible to all library users. She recommends that we all consider how we can make diasporic history clearer, both by concrete efforts such as better metadata and in more general ways.
An Educator’s View
Getting an LIS education, now often known as going to an iSchool, can be a time of exploration and possibility, when students develop professional values and discover their professional passions. Students can use the time to soak up both the concepts and practice of various information professions. Our field has a tradition of balancing learning real-world skills with imparting theory. EDI issues are assuming an ever-more-important place in the iSchool curriculum and in information science education generally. To learn more, I spoke with Dr. Nicole Cooke of the University of South Carolina’s School of Information Science.
In our interview, Cooke was guardedly positive about the progress of EDI and social justice in LIS education. While we are not yet where we need to be, we are making progress. She pointed out that the emphasis on EDI issues comes in waves in librarianship. Sometimes it is trendy and we make progress, then we fall back. Hopefully, we are advancing in the long run, even if it seems like we take two steps forward and one step back.
She expressed concern about the need to “decolonize the profession and the curriculum”: What are the best ways to integrate EDI across the LIS curriculum, not just with specific classes? These core values should be explicit and should be instilled in every course. We need more people who are qualified to teach EDI concepts, and students must be ready to do the work. Cooke has managed to get faculty members on board with EDI, encountering a variety of challenges on the way. Some teachers are not confident or knowledgeable about EDI, while others push back against changing what they teach.
We may practice diversity on paper, but not in action. This has implications for retention as well as recruitment. It has been noted that many librarians from diverse backgrounds leave the profession, and we need to know why this is happening. We don’t yet have a critical mass of diverse librarians, and the numbers are not growing very fast. The profession and individual workplaces need to become more welcoming to all. Cooke advocates for changing organizational culture; each institution will need to work on this, as well as the profession as a whole. Professional development and education about topics such as microaggressions are a suggested starting point.
The Consultant’s View
One common way for libraries to work on EDI issues is to hire a consultant. Like many consulting relationships, this can produce a variety of results. While having a consultant doesn’t mean less work for the organization, it can direct and focus the work, making the time spent more effective. To learn more about what consultants do and how they can be useful partners, I spoke with Tyler Dzuba. He is VP for learning and development at DeEtta Jones and Associates (DJA), a consulting firm specializing in EDI and leadership.
One role of the consultant is to give outside perspective. People are often willing to tell consultants things they don’t talk about within the organization. In EDI, many issues are personal and highly charged, making this communication even more challenging. Consultants can tell hard truths to those within the organization that others inside may be fearful of expressing. They also have experience with many different industries and organizations. For example, they can bring their knowledge of the healthcare industry to libraries, possibly with new ideas for us to consider. Consultants provide the “50,000-foot perspective” and help people see the big picture at their organization rather than the daily details. Along with this, they can identify common threads that are not apparent from inside the organization.
The mere fact that an organization hires an EDI consultant shows commitment to this work. Administrators have recognized that it is important. Dzuba emphasizes that while we may think of EDI as a separate and distinct area, that isn’t the case. It’s part of every conversation in the organization, and the consultant can call attention to unbalanced systems. He also suggests that while an organization may expect the consultant to do all of the work on an EDI project, the best approach is a hybrid one, in which the consultants bring their expertise and the library brings its expertise—with each doing its part on the project. This approach also promotes sustainability when the consultant’s work is finished. To engage marginalized voices, it is often best to use a community-based strategy, in which a wider group of colleagues is engaged. Then, the organizational decision-making process may be examined and changed. This means giving attention and access to those who may not have had it previously.
What Can Consortia Do?
While many of us are just learning about EDI, there are some in our field who have grappled with EDI issues for years. Mark Puente is an expert who has worked on EDI in both a consortium and an individual library. For 11 years, he was with the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), a membership organization of libraries and archives in large universities and other institutions in the U.S. and Canada. In August 2020, he joined the Purdue University Libraries and School of Information Studies as its associate dean for organizational development, diversity, and inclusion.
Puente shares that ARL has had a number of successes in its EDI work. It brought many people from underrepresented groups into the profession, with up to 60% of those participating in its programs going on to work at ARL institutions. He specifically collaborated with directors and senior leaders, encouraging a new consciousness of EDI and social justice issues. Part of this need was generational; young librarians see social justice as an integral part of our work, while older people may not have this mindset. Institutions are challenged to find a balance between these views, as well as to deal with the slow pace of change in libraries and higher education.
Puente suggests that libraries should be careful and strategic in their EDI work. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; we can investigate what is already out there and what has worked for others. It is important to assess and measure our progress using tools such as climate surveys or equity audits. These are not one-time assessments—we should commit to measuring again to track our progress. Stories also have great power, and we can collect the experiences of individuals to learn from and share. In addition, we should align our work with the mission and values of the larger institution. This all requires strong commitment from leadership, as well as understanding the power structures in your institution. Senior leaders may need help to grow in their understanding of EDI. Puente points out that the traditional library paradigm of neutrality and objectivity is now under fire. More and more of us want to engage with social justice issues and use our “information power” toward this end.
Puente hopes that through his work, he helps “more people understand better the notion of systemic challenges we are facing,” particularly in the U.S. Librarians, with our knowledge and spaces, can support growth and learning to provide enduring impacts on society.
EDI in the School Library
To learn more about how school librarians are working toward EDI and social justice today, I talked with Michelle Easley. She has worked as a teacher and school librarian at all levels and in a leadership position in a school system.
Schools and school librarians are a big part of children’s lives. The school librarian can expose students and parents to all kinds of information—a variety of news sources, works of fiction, etc. Race can be uncomfortable to talk about, and books can lead to productive conversations. Providing students with a variety of resources can lead to adults who value diversity. In Easley’s words, “School librarians touch the future.” They have the power to influence the future through their work with young people. She encourages all information professionals to remember that we are powerful.
What can school librarians do to promote EDI? Easley has several recommendations. First, start small, but just start! Pick an ALA award category, such as the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, and add some award-winning titles to your collection. Review your school’s EDI goals and plans, and think creatively about how the library can support them. Consider EDI when reviewing, purchasing, or weeding your collection. One way to start is to pick one part of the collection to examine, looking for diverse topics and characters. This can lead to a more formal diversity audit of parts or all of the library collection. Seek out diverse authors, learn about them, and buy their works. Does the collection contain materials with clearly outdated stereotypes? These are candidates for weeding. Are there materials that represent the students and the local community as well as a variety of other groups and opinions? The librarian should also review library policies and rules. Do they disadvantage poorer students? Rules regarding appropriate demeanor and dress should be equitable, inclusive, and understandable. Look at the art in the library. Are a variety of people represented there? For example, do science posters include women and people of color as role models?
Overall, set EDI goals that are measurable and relevant. School librarians have historically been great defenders of intellectual freedom, which carries over to EDI issues and challenges. When handling a challenge from a parent, Easley tries to put them at ease before encouraging them to have a more open mind about ideas reflected in a challenged item. Parents can be a great resource once they become library supporters.