Many efforts to diversify the ranks of librarians focus on well-intentioned but expensive projects to recruit a small number of aspiring students who may, or may not, become long-term members of the profession.
For example, in April the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) gave a grant of $487,652 to support a joint diversity recruitment program of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) that targets 15 students. It’s a laudable program; it deserves support, as do other similar programs.
But that averages about $33,000 a student (if the matching non-IMLS money is included, it comes to $56,000 a head). These are students who, despite the expenditure, may decide librarianship and/or archival work isn’t for them, or they may work at it for a while and then leave the field.
If the library world wants to create more quickly a persistently diverse workforce of librarians, it should devote more of such grant money to minorities who already are committed library workers but who remain at a lower level because they may lack the wherewithal to attend graduate school.
These are the 32,775 library assistants [PDF] who either are African American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, Native American, or biracial. These workers, 27 percent of the 122,768 assistants overall according to the American Library Association (ALA), have duties and abilities that can overlap and even surpass those of MLS staff in key service areas (including speaking Spanish and other languages).
More effort should be made to promote these library assistants to librarians, where the ranks are now overwhelmingly credentialed, white, monolingual females. When merited, these assistants should receive expanded responsibilities, training, and higher salaries without requiring a master’s degree. In such deserving cases, the MLS credential is a hindrance to diversity. Face it, the degree is sometimes unnecessary for the work at hand (or the work to be learned), and it costs too much money.
Fully 84 percent of the participants in the ARL’s Initiative To Recruit a Diverse Workforce said that the most attractive feature of the program by far was the $10,000 stipend. No other program elements—such as mentoring or career resources—ranked close to the stipend, which addressed a crying need and a major obstacle.
Diversity is one of ALA’s “five key action areas to ensure high-quality library services to all constituents.” But there is a tension between the desire to accredit the profession and the wish to diversify it. Exceptions to the costly MLS can be made without a dilution of librarianship, and these exceptions should be made in fairness to groups already disproportionately burdened by financial inequities. In fact, promoting more qualified library assistants would invigorate the ranks of librarians by more tightly embracing many competencies already on the ground.
So what if one year, to change the debate and better acknowledge these competencies, the IMLS made a radical declaration that it is a crisis that only 563 black males are credentialed librarians (out of a totaled credentialed population of 118,666)? What if the IMLS took the full annual appropriation of the Laura Bush 21st Century Library Program ($6.1 million in FY13) and divided it into three-year, $10,000 microgrants to increase the salaries of 600 newly promoted minority library assistants? What if the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation did the same?
Recruit students and bet on their future at $56,000 a head? OK. But such programs really are not having an impact on overall numbers. Let’s also bet on the nonwhite, possibly bilingual person already in the library, whose dedication deserves more credit and whose talents could bolster the relevance of libraries.
Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief