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Virginia Libraries

Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis, Editor
John Connolly, Assistant Editor

Spring, 2002
Volume 48, Number 1

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Diversity in Libraries

E.J. Josey

An address delivered at the Chesterfield County Public Library Staff Day, Chesterfield, Virginia, December 8, 2000.

Diversity in all types of libraries grows out of the multicultural environment we find ourselves in these days. The multicultural environment is global: within nations, within regional sections of countries, and around the world. In a multicultural community, the library and/or the information provider can certainly act as a catalyst bringing ethnic groups together and fostering acculturation through the provision of information and research resources about the various ethnic communities.

One of the problems that we have had as a legacy in our country is racism. Racism permeates all of society's paradigms for those who are the disadvantaged people in our society-in our communities, in housing, in education, in libraries, and in employment. Stephen Bertman, the author of Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed, was asked why he had written a book with such a title. Dr. Bertman responded:

I had a sense that people are forgetting the past, that our memories are becoming blank about what's come before. After researching it a bit, I began to conclude that society is moving so fast that the past is shrinking, and like the images in a car's rearview mirror, the faster you go the smaller the past becomes…

People have forgotten about the terrible days of slavery followed by the devastation of segregation.

In May of last year, we celebrated the 46th anniversary of the May 17, 1954 United States Supreme Court decision overturning segregated education in America. Those who have forgotten American history should remember that African Americans were not only denied educational opportunity, but they were also discriminated against in all phases of American life. The 1954 Supreme Court decision was about schools alone. Roger Wilkens, a professor at George Mason University, in an issue of The Nation indicated that:

When the Warren Court handed down the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, it set in motion a train of events that has changed the country and affected every citizen. It destroyed American Apartheid and enriched our society. It also brought the nation a sobering dose of racial reality that foreshadows a long, painful and expensive struggle if we are ever to free ourselves of the enduring destruction and anguish flowing from what James Madison called our 'original sin.' Brown was ultimately about much more than education. To understand its full impact, we have to remember what this country was like before the decision… In fact, segregation was so stifling and humiliating that it was very hard to see other evils… Blacks were still brutally held in place by an economic, legal, police-cast system that was undergirded by violence. A year after Brown, a black Chicago teenager, Emmet Till, was lynched in Mississippi for violating racial mores in greeting a white woman. In the North, blacks were submerged under a thick culture of smug, superior condescension that led to such ironies as blacks in the North being limited to janitorial and elevator operator jobs of newspapers that thundered editorially against Southern racism. And in 1954, the black poverty rate, while heading down, was still close to 70 percent. In that world Brown proved to be a second emancipation day. Blacks read the decision to say: 'the constitution really does apply to me!' 1

While Brown indeed freed African Americans from the shackles of segregation, it was the Brown decision that proved to be the legal underpinning for the subsequent advances of women, senior citizens, the handicapped, and other racial and ethnic minorities. Each of these segments of our diverse nation has benefitted significantly from the substance of the Supreme Court decision, which it took the NAACP 40 years to win. These and other segments of American society that have experienced inequality and racism learned from the example of the African Americans how to fight against the status quo in order to achieve greater freedom and more equality. While we celebrate the anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, however, we are mindful that desegregation alone has failed to improve the quality of life, especially for inner-city African Americans and other minorities in our country.

We as a country are still divided by race. This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. More than one half of black and white Americans rank the nation's race relations as poor, and blacks and whites remain deeply divided on economic issues (i.e., affirmative action and the promotion of minorities).

It is against this backdrop that we must look at diversity in libraries. It is very important for librarians and all trustees to identify manifestations of racism. If we expect to have the kind of educational reform that is so necessary as we move forward during the new millennium, we must root out racism in all our institutions, including libraries. What must we do? Insist on cultural diversity in our libraries.

Developing Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity, particularly the significance of ethnicity, race, and race relations in the work place are topics that have been largely neglected in organizational terms. Here in the state of Virginia efforts have been made to develop and work for diversity in libraries. What is diversity? In this context, diversity refers to the equal participation of men and women in organizations, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or handicap. A tremendous void exists in organizations, including the libraries on our nation's campuses and in its communities when it comes to the issues of cultural diversity.

Why does this void exist? One hypothesis is the assumption that issues concerning race or ethnicity have low impact on organizational life, including that of libraries. Another possible hypothesis for explaining the cultural-diversity void in many of our organizations, even in our libraries, is that some people (members of the dominant white community) believe that racism and discrimination have been eradicated in the work place. The president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has said that those who believe that racism and discrimination have been eradicated are simply living in denial of an obvious fact in American society. Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, blacks and other minority groups have slowly progressed beyond many discriminatory barriers. It is true that overt discrimination is rare in this country. However, covertly sophisticated forms of racism and discrimination have arisen and are as mean-spirited and destructive as the overt forms. The latter types institutionalize discriminatory practices within an organization's policy and structures, while the former emphasize equal treatment both within the organization's formal and informal social systems. Consequently, the majority of minorities who work in organizations are still considered marginal and are not welcome in the inner, professional circles of these organizations-particularly within large organizations, such as corporations and large university and public library systems. Yet, problems related to prejudice and discriminatory practices are usually denied by members of the dominant white group. Such denials tend to be reinforced by the belief among whites that equal employment opportunity and affirmative action legislative policies have opened doors for minorities and erased discriminatory practices in these organizations.

Instituting Cultural Diversity, Serving a Diverse Population with Staff from Underrepresented Groups

How do we begin to institute or develop cultural diversity in our libraries? First of all, the top administrator of the library must be committed. If the director has not moved towards the development of cultural diversity but if a staff association or some other organization exists that works on behalf of the library staff or the librarians, it is very easy to form a committee to approach him or her. In short, there must be a team approach to developing the kind of leadership that will help make our libraries culturally diverse.

Secondly, we must understand what is meant by becoming a culturally diverse organization. In other words, our libraries can no longer be closed, elite organizations in which certain categories of people are on the staff and others are left out. If there has been discrimination in our libraries in the past in terms of not providing access to employment for minorities and if there has not been access to certain managerial positions for minorities and women, something must be done about it. A diversity planning committee, if such a committee is in place, must set the stage for changes. If we are going to eliminate this kind of closed organization, we must be certain that our libraries have an affirmative approach to hiring and that there is a program to eliminate the discrimination that has gone on for so long. Coming to understand cultural diversity is the job of our planning or leadership committees. They must begin to look at and redefine the organization. We must be certain that the library as an organization is committed to examining all of its activities in terms of developing a diverse or multicultural climate and bringing new people onto the staff-people who have been underrepresented before. We must begin to understand how to appeal to potential members of the profession from diverse backgrounds who are not members of our library staffs. We must do more than send out advertisements saying that our libraries are equal opportunity organizations. One reason we must develop new strategies is because some minorities may be aware of the fact that our libraries don't have a good history of employing minorities, and they will stay away from our organizations and not apply for positions. We must actively seek out minorities for posts in our libraries.

Increasing Minorities in Libraries and Information Science Programs

There are not enough minorities working in all of our libraries-academic, public, school, and special. -We do not have enough minorities completing our ALA-accredited library education programs in the country, but we must do something about this regrettable state of affairs. During the 1997-98 academic year, a total of 5,024 persons completed the ALA accredited masters degree. Of this number, there were only 444 minority students or 9%. Blacks constituted 203 or 4%, American Indians 21 or 0.4%, Asian-Pacific 140 or 2.7%, and Hispanic Americans 110 or 2.1%. (These statistics do not include the 123 or 2.4% who are international students or the 451 or 8.9% who did not disclose their race or ethnic origin.) The overwhelming number of graduates was white and numbered 3,976 or 79.1%.2 We must do something about the small numbers of persons of color who are graduating from the ALA-accredited Library and Information Science schools. We must get our priorities straight. How are we going to educate a new cadre of people to ensure that our libraries will be gateways to the national information infrastructure? How are we going to ensure that people who have no other access except through libraries are able to use the Internet?

In spite of the small number of minorities that is graduating from our library and information science programs, there are minorities currently working in libraries across the country. So when we begin to look for people who have had experience and need professionals for upper-level positions, let's not forget minorities. In short, we should not recruit minorities only at the beginning level of the career ladder. We should recruit minorities to middle- and upper-management positions in our libraries. When we are developing such a program of cultural diversity, we should undertake a parallel effort at all staff levels and bring diverse personnel into our libraries.

Multicultural Collections in the Academic Library

Turning to library collections, in order to provide educational and intellectual support for culturally diverse communities and on our campuses, it is imperative that there be the collection and resources to support diversity in the library. To try to take care of the needs of cultural diversity, it will be necessary to rethink our libraries' philosophies of collection development. American minorities are fast becoming the American majority, and English is a second language for them. They are demanding resources in their mother tongue, so we librarians should be concerned about the languages that are represented in the collection, and consider how large these collections should grow. If the library is small, space is not available, but those of us in academic and large public libraries, where space is available, are still not building larger collections. Since technology is now paramount, we can also concentrate on access to resources and to other libraries.

Nevertheless, each library has its responsibility to develop a basic collection, including a variety of languages and resources to take care of the basic information needs of its individual campus or the public library patrons. We must also be concerned about bibliographic access and the handling of non-Roman alphabets.

Along with this responsibility is the recruitment of staff. If we are going to handle all the languages and cultures that may be represented in various libraries and in various locations, we must have a multicultural and multilingual staff. In short, if we are going to provide a modicum of information to support a multicultural curriculum and a culturally diverse community, it is important for the library to engage in planning and evaluation. If a library does not have systematic planning and is not engaged in the evaluation process to determine its goals in the establishment of a cultural diversity program, including excellent resources, it will certainly fail in its efforts. Related to this situation is the fact that because of financial problems, all types of libraries are facing the problem of meager funding. It is now more important than ever that strategic planning take place as well as participation in the development of cooperative endeavors to ensure that cultural diversity programs will not fail because of the lack of resources.

It is impossible to develop a multicultural collection if the collection development policies of the library have not changed. We must introduce collection development policies to support multicultural collections in culturally diverse communities. Moreover, unless we look at our collection development policies to ascertain what changes must be made and where we are going, we may fail to provide the kind of information resources that the users of our libraries expect. We librarians must remind ourselves that if the library's collection is designed to support a multicultural curriculum and a culturally diverse student body and faculty, it is essential that the collection development polices reflect these viewpoints. While I have used the academic library as an example, the same can be said of our public and school libraries.

Having or not having a diverse staff will certainly affect customer services in our libraries. Our libraries should mirror the communities that the libraries serve. Minorities often say, "I want to see staff who look like me." As the late comic Flip Wilson would say, "What you see is what you get!" How can we have good customer service if our collection and resources do not reflect the languages of the people who use our libraries? If there is no representation of authors from the underrepresented groups that our libraries serve, this will not aid librarians and library trustees who are serious about attempting to provide quality and good customer services.

Attack on Cultural Diversity and Multiculturalism

Developing a multicultural program will not be easy. There has been an attack on multicultural education. The most severe attack has come from one of America's most eminent historians, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who wrote The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (Norton). Schlesinger argues that multiculturalism threatens the ideals that bind America. In an essay in Time magazine entitled, "The Cult of Ethnicity, Good and Bad," he tells us that:

On every side today ethnicity is breaking up nations. The Soviet Union, India, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, are all in crisis. The U.S. escaped the divisiveness of a multiethnic society by a brilliant solution: the creation of a brand new national identity. The point of America was not to preserve old cultures but to forge a new, American culture.

Interestingly enough, in this same essay Schlesinger then provides the raison d'etre of multiculturalism when he writes the following:

The new American nationality was inescapably English in language, ideas and institutions. The pot did not melt everybody, not even all white immigrants; deeply bred racism put black Americans, yellow Americans, red Americans, and brown Americans well outside the pale. Still, the infusion of other stocks, even of nonwhite stocks, and the experience of the New World reconfigured the British legacy and made the U.S., as we are now a vlery different country from Britain… But, pressed too far, the coat of ethnicity has unhealthy consequences. It gives rise for example to the conception of the U.S. as a nation composed not of individuals making their own choices but of inviolable ethnic and racial groups. It rejects the historic American goals of assimilation. And, in an excess of zeal, well-intentioned people seek to transform our system of education from a means of creating "one people" into a means of promoting, celebrating, and perpetuating separate ethnic origins and identities. The balance is shifting from unum to pluribus.3

On the other side of the coin, we have African American scholars, such as Ishmael Reed, a novelist who teaches English at the University of California at Berkeley and describes Prof. Schlesinger as a follower of David Duke. In a blistering rebuttal, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Professor of English and Afro-American Studies at Harvard, called Schlesinger's contention a "demand for a cultural white face in America." Why did these two African American scholars attack Schlesinger with such vengeance? The reason was Mr. Schlesinger's arrogance when he suggested that the American identity is in jeopardy when multiculturalism and Afrocentricism elevate the racial and ethnic over the "American."

Race and ethnicity have always been parallel in the United States. Professor Takaki of the University of California at Berkeley reminded us that Jefferson's hope was that "this continent would be covered by the same people, sharing the same values." That means his vision was for a homogenous Anglo-American society. Nevertheless, Jefferson himself was a slave owner.

It would be appropriate to remind the Schlesingers of this world that the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups has identified 106 ethnic groups in our country alone. The fact that there are 106 ethnic groups in the United States is evidence that Americans have an increasing interest in their ethnic heritage. There is also a recognition that America is not the melting pot that so many have believed, for in actuality, it is a society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups autonomously participate in the development of their cultural or special interests within the confines of their common, cultural heritage. In American society in the year 2000, there is a greater awareness and recognition of cultural diversity and ethnic pluralism. Evidence of this growing awareness is that in recent years there have been dozens of conferences on how to achieve cultural diversity, not only in the American Library Association, but in many other professional organizations as well.


Finally, if the library staff and other information specialists truly want diversity, it can be achieved. In the development of diversity programs, we must not be fearful of those persons who want to throw cold water on our efforts. When we are working hard towards cultural diversity in our library systems, we mustn't be fearful of the kinds of code words that will be thrown at us. There will be some who will call you "politically correct." It seems that there are people who throw words around to hold back progress. It was Ron Mason of Tulane University who commented on political correctness when he said, "I think it is a clever tactic used by the forces of reaction. They throw a lot of different concepts around, some of which are good and some of which are extremes and ram them with a name that plays on the fears and ignorance of the masses."

One of the new buzzword phrases sweeping corporate America is "managing diversity." This concern with diversity comes from the simple demographic fact that white males have become a minority in the workforce, and their share of jobs will shrink further since most new workforce entrants are women, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans. In order to find the people to run their businesses, companies must aggressively recruit, train, and promote minority workers and managers. Libraries must do the same. John Jacobs, the former president of the National Urban League, has said, "When managers are as accountable for achieving diversity goals as they are for achieving production goals, half the battle is won." American society has a long way to go to achieve cultural diversity in higher education, in libraries, in business, and in many areas of American life. It is good that steps are now being taken to work toward cultural diversity.


Roger Wilkins, "Dream Deferred But Not Defeated," The Nation. 258 (May 23, 1994): 714.

Library and Information Science Education 1999 Statistical Report. (Arlington, VA: Association for Library and Information Science Education, 1999), 121.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. "The Cult of Ethnicity, Good and Bad," Time (July 9, 1991): 21.

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