When Luis Chaparro said that the American Library Association can do more to promote diversity, seven nearby heads nodded in unison.
“The profession, and ALA in particular, needs to work a little bit harder to bring in more minorities,” Chaparro, the head librarian at Valle Verde Library in El Paso, TX, and a past president of REFORMA, said on Monday. He was part of an eight-person Diversity Council panel, the first such panel in two years, at the ALA conference in New Orleans. “It’s not that they aren’t aware of it, surely they are, but sometimes their awareness has to be triggered into action,” Chaparro said.
“Because if you see the people represented at this table, and you take a look at the ALA Council it’s not the same,” said Chaparro, a native of Mexico, in an interview following the panel.
A look at Spectrum Scholarship numbers
According to the 2011 Current Population Survey from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, which Chaparro cited, 83.9 percent of librarians are white; 9.2 percent African American; 5.2 percent Hispanic; and 1.7 percent Asian. ALA’s most recent report, which was last revised in 2007 and uses 2000 census figures, puts the number of white librarians at 89 percent.
“I’m glad they are doing the Spectrum Scholarships, and the Gates Foundation just gave them more money, but if you analyze the number of Spectrum scholars you will see that even within [that program] there are fewer Latinos [than in the general population],” Chaparro said.
The Spectrum Scholarship Program is designed to address the lack of diversity in the profession, and in a taped announcement presented at the conference’s opening session Melinda Gates announced the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is going to invest $300,000 in the program.
The actual scholarship numbers, however, may not bear out Chaparro’s assertion. From 1998 to 2010, there have been 681 Spectrum scholars. Twenty-seven percent have been Hispanic, 41 percent black/African American, 25 percent Asian, five percent American Indian/Alaskan Native, and two percent Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, according to Miguel Figueroa, the director of ALA’s Office of Diversity, of which the Diversity Council is a subcommittee.
“To put this information in context, it may be useful to consider data from the past four years of Spectrum applications and scholarships,” Figueroa said via email. “Of the 623 Spectrum applications received over the past four years (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010), Hispanics comprised 32 percent (198 of 623) of applicants and 30 percent (80 of 271) of awarded scholarships.”
Regardless, Chaparro said the fact that Hispanics represent 16 percent of the population and are one of the fastest growing segments means librarians need “cultural competencies” to better serve that population.
“I know every ALA president has addressed that issue, but the problem is complex in the sense that if we don’t have any leaders in the pipeline, and the library schools are not producing enough Hispanics, then ALA will not have the material to incorporate into the profession,” Chaparro said. “And once you get them in, and I think [ALA President] Molly Raphael is working on it, how do you welcome them into the profession, how do you mentor them so they become leaders within ALA?”
Cultural differences: a help or a hindrance?
Minorities becoming leaders, at ALA and in the profession at large, can create unsettling questions of power, said Anchalee ‘Joy’ Panigabutra-Roberts, a metadata and multicultural services librarian at the University of Nebraska, who sat on the panel with Chaparro.
“You may be OK with us now when we are at the entry level, but what would happen when we move along the career ladder, how would the dynamics of interaction and communication change?” she asked. “We have been the objects of knowledge of librarians and curators for a long time. What if we want to switch that role where we are now the knower, not only in areas of study where people think we belong but in the mainstream? We need to have a dialog on this,” she said.
The fact that ALA was holding the panel pleased all the participants, but more programming in this vein was needed, they all said.
“We are using this as a starting point to have a conversation to ask how our cultural background helps us or hinders us, either to serve our users or to work with our colleagues,” said Shuyong Jiang, a Chinese studies librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Haiwang Yuan, a professor at Western Kentucky University, and Jiang both said that their cultural background had sometimes hindered their career.
“Sometimes some of the issues are not that obvious,” Jiang said. “Sometimes it’s really subtle. [Chinese] respect the people older than us, or the people higher than us, and by that we mean we don’t direct[ly] confront those people who can affect our career,” she said.
Such cultural as well as linguistic problems will not go away, including accents, said Panigabutra-Roberts, who demonstrated Thai diphthongs that an English speaker might have difficulty mastering.
A key part of building an awareness of cultural differences is not to make assumptions and not to be afraid to ask questions.
“Unfortunately, there are times when people will say or do something that is discouraging, but there are a lot of other people out there who want to contribute, and as librarians that is a huge part of our culture-wanting to help and educate-and we need to embrace that and take advantage of that,” said Jody Gray, a diversity outreach librarian at the University of Minnesota and a member of the American Indian Library Association.