From September 19-23, over 800 librarians, library staff, library supporters, and community participants converged on Kansas City for the 2012 Joint Conference of Librarians of Color (JCLC). The theme was Gathering at the Waters: Celebrating Stories, Embracing Communities. The conference was sponsored by the five associations of ethnic librarians: the American Indian Library Association (AILA), the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA), the Chinese American Librarians Association (CALA) and the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking (REFORMA).
This was the second time the five associations came together to present the library diversity conference—the first time was in 2006, when JCLC co-chairs Gladys Smiley Bell and Ken Yamashita, along with the rest of the Steering Committee, saw an idea come to fruition that had been developing for eight years.
As in 2006, JCLC 2012 brought together passionate advocates to identify issues affecting librarians of color, to analyze the lack of diversity in the profession, and to explore how to best serve the changing communities that use our services.
A Broad View of Diversity
Dynamic speakers Sonia Manzano (“Maria” from Sesame Street) and Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, captivated the audience during the Opening and Closing General Sessions. Author luncheons included Da Chen, David Truer, Sharon Flake and Lauren Myracle.
The variety of sessions featured in five tracks—Advocacy, Outreach, and Collaboration; Collections, Programs, and Services; Deep Diversity and Cultural Exchange; Leadership, Management, and Organizational Development; and Technology and Innovation—demonstrated that the conference organizers were intentional about developing a conference program that reflected many different facets of diversity. In addition to many sessions that addressed issues of race and ethnicity in the profession, the slate of programs included sessions addressing disability and access to information; senior library patrons; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities; issues affecting immigrants and refugees; and best practices for serving youth. These programs were well attended and reflect not only the reality of patrons we serve, but also the wider reality that many librarians have intersecting multiple identities.
In 2006, at the first JCLC, there was a perception that since the conference was sponsored by the associations of ethnic librarians, that only librarians of color could attend. This year, conference organizers worked hard to dispel that notion by crafting and disseminating publicity messages that emphasized that the conference welcomed anyone interested in diversity issues and librarianship. A tagline for JCLC was “A conference for all.” It was important to organizers that white librarians knew they could attend and the conference was not a “closed” event, as lack of diversity within our organizations affects everyone in an institution, not just the people of color. In addition, working on diversity issues should be the responsibility of each individual, as achieving racial and ethnic equity in our profession requires all librarians to work together to build healthy and strong organizations.
Recruiting, Retaining and Developing Librarians of Color
A recurring theme at both JCLC 2006 and JCLC 2012 was the need for increasing the number of librarians of color in the profession. The Diversity Counts program unveiled the updated results of the seminal study of race, gender, and age in the library profession at JCLC. Data showed a small gain in the percentage of librarians of color—from 11 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2009-2010. Despite recruitment programs like ALA’s Spectrum Scholarship, the library profession is a long way off from reflecting the diversity of the communities we serve. For a profession that serves a clientele that is becoming more diverse every year, this is not acceptable.
In addition to recruitment of librarians of color, several programs addressed the pressing matter of how to retain these librarians once they enter a predominantly white profession. Could we increase the overall numbers of librarians of color by encouraging more of them to remain in the profession? How can we nurture new librarians, provide guidance, and ensure they get involved in the profession without burning them out? How do we acknowledge new librarians for their knowledge, skills, and work ethic while still recognizing the groundwork laid by our elders? Can we create new leadership models that embrace our cultures, respect our many different ways of communicating and leading, and do not replicate outdated models that may be oppressive yet familiar? How can we mentor and develop leaders of color who chose to stay in the profession? Discussions like this took place throughout the five days of the conference, illustrating the need and importance of spaces to have deep dialogue around diversity issues.
Building a movement for librarians of color
Folks who have not attended JCLC often ask “Why does a conference like this matter? Don’t we talk about diversity issues at ALA or ACRL or PLA?” While larger conferences may have a few sessions about diversity issues, what makes JCLC a unique, one-of-a-kind conference is that the entire conference is focused on diversity. JCLC creates a safe space to have open and respectful dialogue; to share knowledge through conference workshops, panels, and presentations; and to create a network of professional contacts. Many attendees remarked that the exposure to diversity issues and to other like-minded colleagues helped to break the isolation that they experience in their institutions and made them feel visible and heard. In addition, JCLC is the only conference sponsored by, organized by, and led by the five associations of ethnic librarians. It is essential to have a conference focused on diversity issues, where attendees can learn and develop this skill set (and yes, it is a skill set…just like learning how to do reference, cataloging, or instruction). In an increasingly global society, our patrons are becoming more diverse, and having cultural competency and other skills is necessary for our profession to not only survive but to thrive. A conference presenter remarked that “This is a lifetime experience that I will never forget. I went back to my work and community motivated and energized.” How do we harness this motivation and energy between now and the next JCLC?
Throughout the conference, eager attendees were hungry for more and the question on everyone’s lips was when the next JCLC would be held. Leaders of the five ethnic library associations will make decisions on the third JCLC and will also decide on a process to select new leaders to carry the torch. In the meantime, how do we carry the work forward?
JCLC proves that when all five ethnic library associations work together, amazing feats can be achieved and great things created. The power of all of our associations working side by side deepened our connections to shared issues, strengthened our commitment to work cross-organizationally on diversity, and intensified the voices of each individual association. How do we harness that excitement that was generated and the commitment to create change in our profession? How can we build a movement and involve all the JCLC attendees who became activists in Kansas City? How can we continue to support each other between gatherings and work to transform libraries into more democratic, diverse organizations? Can we afford to wait until the next JCLC?
Alanna Aiko Moore is Assistant Department Head, Information Services and User Education and Librarian for Ethnic Studies and Gender Studies, Social Science and Humanities Library, University of California, San Diego.