Gwen M. Gregory, associate dean for collections management at Northern Illinois University’s Founders Memorial Library, writes a 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 September 2021 to March 2022, which have been lightly edited and condensed for the web.
Here are the other parts of the series: Part 1 | 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.
Accessible to All?
Libraries have had users with disabilities for as long as they’ve existed. However, as awareness of disability has grown and new legal requirements have been enacted, libraries face increased demands for a wide variety of services and accommodations from users and staff members. The familiar Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is just one major law affecting libraries. To learn more about how libraries work with the disabled—both staff members and users—I talked with JJ Pionke, applied health sciences librarian at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. He was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2020 and has received grants and awards for his work, including an ALA Carnegie-Whitney Grant. His research has included interviews with disabled students at his university about their library experiences, pinpointing frustration with building access and accessibility of databases.
We began our conversation by discussing the current state of accessibility and disability services in libraries. Pionke pointed out that as much as 20% of the U.S. population has a disability of some kind. Many libraries focus on ADA compliance, which does not equal accessibility; it should be seen as the minimum, not the goal. The objective should be for everyone to access facilities and services with the same amount of effort. We need to look at the library from multiple perspectives: How would you navigate the facility if you were using a walker? Or if you could only see out of the corner of your eye? Do we have a variety of chairs that are suitable for different bodies? Chairs with arms may not work for some. Do we need to rearrange furniture to provide better pathways?
When we do have money or are starting a project, accessibility should be considered from the beginning. A family bathroom may be more accessible to a variety of users than the traditional multi-stall version. The needs of staffers are also important; one of Pionke’s most popular works is a Library Trends article describing his personal quest for accommodations in his workplace, called “The Impact of Disbelief: On Being a Library Employee With a Disability.” Disabled staffers can provide great insights into the needs of users.
Gathering for Synergy
ALA, librarians’ largest national body, is home to many smaller groups. One cluster of these has been known as the ethnic caucuses: the Black Caucus of the ALA (BCALA), REFORMA: The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking, the Chinese American Librarians Association (CALA), the American Indian Library Association (AILA), and the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA). This coalition is now known as the National Associations of Librarians of Color (NALCO). Some of these groups also have state or regional chapters and have had their own national conferences in the past. In the early 2000s, interest grew in working together on a larger conference, where all of the groups would come together. This grassroots effort led to the first Joint Conference of Librarians of Color in 2006, followed by a second in 2012. The Joint Council of Librarians of Color (JCLC, Inc.) was formed in 2015 to support the conference, which will now be held every 4 years (next in October 2022).
To learn more about the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color and its supporting council, I spoke with Kenneth Yamashita, president of JCLC, and Alexandra Rivera, vice president. Yamashita has been involved with the conference since the beginning. He was the APALA representative to the first conference steering committee. Rivera worked on the 2006 conference and served as the REFORMA representative for the 2012 conference.
A key part of the conference (and JCLC) is the synergy created when the ethnic caucuses work together. Many colleagues took part in the process of coming together and eventually forming NALCO. Individuals make connections, building working relationships and comparing experiences. An overall goal of the conference and JCLC is improving cultures within libraries so that people of color feel welcome and want to stay. Rivera “dreams of a time when none of this will be necessary, when there is a desire to share and learn and see each other as valued partners in providing equitable information to the communities we serve.” Until then, the council and the conference will grow their efforts.
Indigenous cultural heritage is a worldwide movement that aims for Indigenous people to sustain and grow their own cultures. I talked with Dr. Loriene Roy to learn more. Roy is a professor at the University of Texas–Austin’s School of Information. She is Anishinabe, enrolled on the White Earth Reservation, and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. A longtime leader in native librarianship and information services, she is a past president of AILA (American Indian Library Association) and ALA and has received numerous awards, including the Leadership Award of the National Conference of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. Roy has published and presented widely and was recently profiled in the book Native Women Changing Their World in the Native Trailblazers series from Native Voices Books.
Much of Roy’s current work focuses on Indigenous cultural heritage development. This is a broad field, but it relates to libraries in that a tribal community library often serves many purposes: archive, museum, community language-learning center, and more. Roy sees the library as an integral part of the preservation, perpetuation, and growth of cultural heritage. The movement is worldwide: IFLA has an Indigenous Matters Section, and there is an independent International Indigenous Librarians Forum. Roy uses storytelling as a teaching method and suggests that information producers and vendors be aware of native people as a market and remember that two-thirds of native people in the U.S. live in urban settings.
Roy is optimistic about the future of Indigenous librarianship. She cites the work of many newer colleagues in tribal and tribal college libraries in the U.S. who are doing service for their communities and being recognized nationally. She also appreciates that they are working together and supporting each other as a community of native librarians, encouraging others to enter the field and promoting scholarships and professional development. Roy appreciates her impact on new people in the field as an educator. She encourages all of us to learn about native issues and to be an ally. “We are at a good point, but we need to be vigilant and keep up the work,” says Roy.
The diversity audit is a method for libraries to evaluate their EDI programs. I spoke with Kawanna Bright about diversity audits as well as other aspects of her work. Bright is an assistant professor of library science at East Carolina University. Her research focuses on assessment and EDI in libraries, as well as the application of research methodology to library and information science. She worked as an academic librarian for 12 years before earning her Ph.D. While working on her doctorate, Bright was contacted by a library that was interested in assessing its EDI work, and she developed an audit instrument specifically for that library. She later revised the instrument for use by other libraries and has incorporated new facets such as organizational development. Bright got feedback from colleagues and made several improvements. She has also created a version designed for academic libraries.
The diversity audit is a survey designed to be completed by multiple people within the organization. Those completing the survey are asked to rank the library’s level of involvement with an activity, from nonexistent to expert. Bright believes that the instrument promotes honest conversations about diversity within the organization, as well as provides a means of assessment. She hopes to collect and analyze data from many libraries through the instrument and to make further improvements based on user feedback.
Bright is currently part of an IMLS-funded research project studying the retention of BIPOC librarians. The researchers hope to identify dropout points using a survey and an analysis of previous retention data. This could provide valuable insights about why BIPOC librarians leave the profession, leading to improvements and better retention.
Bright’s work with students gives her hope for the future of librarianship. She sees their “abundant curiosity [about] what the field could be, not what it has been.” Current students are engaged in the EDI conversation throughout their LIS education and are excited about the possibilities.
Bright wants others to know that all are welcome to join in EDI assessment. She would like to see the number of people working in this area multiply and encourages those who are not comfortable with research methods to collaborate with those who are.
Many people would like to meet and connect with others more deeply. They are looking for new ways to gather, have meaningful discussions, and move forward with actions to improve our world. Commercial products are trying to fill this space and facilitate these relationships. One of these is Inclusivv, which bills itself as a way to “[d]iscover the community building power of engaging diverse voices in structured conversations.” To learn more about Inclusivv and the growing industry around tech in this area, I spoke with founder and CEO Jenn Graham.
Inclusivv began as Civic Dinners in 2016. At that time, it was a tech platform designed to promote engagement between people and then lead to action and accountability. Civic Dinners facilitated groups of six to 10 people, led by a host, to connect over a meal using three big questions. It was a safe way for individuals to talk about challenging issues, with rules guiding participants away from debate and into action. Since 2016, more than 2,500 events have been held using the model. During the pandemic, with in-person events no longer possible, the company pivoted to online.
Commercial software platforms are a growing EDI trend. They provide organizations with the online means of EDI engagement without creating it from scratch. Storytelling is powerful, and Inclusivv has incorporated it into the platform, along with promoting the arts of conversation: listening, understanding, and empathy. Inclusivv has gathered feedback showing that most of its users want to meet people with different backgrounds and ideas, not only those who are like them or agree with them.
Graham suggests that libraries can work with EDI platforms to capture and create collections of stories, especially focusing on the community a particular library serves. Librarians could serve as hosts and develop programming on topics of interest to their users. A library could host a talk with a local or national author about one of their writings and then develop a conversation around it. As a vital community resource with technology, funding, and expertise, a library could provide access to an EDI platform for everyone, facilitating its use by local governments, community organizations, and more.