African Americans and Hispanics are some of the strongest supporters of libraries, and yet they continue to be thinly represented among the ranks of librarians. It’s a familiar story and always a bad trade-off that hurts the profession and, more important, hurts our society.
Statistical analysis in LJ’s Patron Profiles as well as the latest study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that race and ethnicity are “significant independent predictors of people’s attitudes about the role of libraries in communities, about current library services, and about their likely use of future library services.”
For example, LJ’s Patron Profiles report released in August 2012 showed that blacks and Hispanics are much more likely on a monthly basis than whites to access free Wi-Fi, borrow DVDs, use library computers, download audiobooks, check out games, and make use of a library bookmobile. They are somewhat more likely to download an ebook and attend a library event.
The Pew report, Library Services in the Digital Age, which was released January 22 and at press time was scheduled to be discussed at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, reaffirmed LJ’s findings, showing that African Americans and Hispanics “are especially tied to their libraries and eager to see new services.”
“For almost all of the library resources we asked about, African Americans and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to consider them ‘very important’ to the community. That includes: reference librarians, free access to computers/internet, quiet study spaces, research resources, jobs and careers resources, free events, and free meeting spaces.”
Yet this broad communal support never translates to a significant number of black and brown librarians. The diversity report from ALA, which was revised in 2012 (and reflects 2009–10 numbers), shows that among a total credentialed library population of 118,666, only 6,160 are black and 3,661 are Latino.
Combined, that amounts to about eight percent.
Pursuing this to the more rarefied levels, where more power resides, there are only 138 active African American library directors in the entire country, according to a list kept by the University of Kentucky Libraries.
That number, which accounts for deaths and retirements on the list, is lamentable.
However, as usual, the most disfavored group is African American males, who number only 563 among the credentialed librarian ranks, or 0.5 percent of the total. There are 2,865 library assistants who are African American males; still a small number but not a fully tapped pool, nonetheless. Why?
There are untold well-intentioned programs, such as ALA’s Spectrum Scholarships or the Association of Research Libraries’ Initiative To Create a Diverse Workforce, that do help, without a doubt. Equally doubtless, and without casting an aspersion, is that the results fall short, year after year. We need to do more (including LJ), even if that may mean rethinking aspects of credentialization—a third rail of library politics.
Not everyone can win a scholarship. Not everyone has the wherewithal to serve an unpaid internship or pursue a master’s degree. But there are library employees that come from disadvantaged groups that would conceivably welcome a better recognition, a fuller crediting, of homegrown experience and knowledge.
This is not an exhortation to do away with the MLS but a suggestion that libraries build upon the allegiance of blacks and Hispanics and acknowledge that there are degrees of experience that are worth the title of librarian.
Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief