June 18, 2018

Do Librarians Discriminate? | BackTalk

Suppose a librarian receives an email from a man named Greg Walsh, wanting to become a cardholder and politely asking what he needs to do to make this happen (e.g., Does he need proof of address?) or simply inquiring about the open hours. Would the librarian reply? And, if so, would the reply be polite, including for instance some form of salutation, such as “Hello” or “Good morning”? Does your answer change if the guy is called Tyrone Washington? Is a librarian treating Jake Mueller differently from DeShawn Jackson?

Unfortunately, it turns out, the answer is yes.

Got answers? who’s asking?

Together with Corrado Giulietti and Michael Vlassopoulos, both at the University of Southampton in England, I sent out emails of this kind to approximately 4,900 libraries around the United States (as well as to several other public services, such as school districts and sheriff’s offices). We used the American Library Directory and contacted all libraries for which we could find a valid email address. We randomly assigned to each library one of the four fictitious names listed above, so that there are no systematic differences in the characteristics of libraries receiving an email from Greg (or Jake) rather than Tyrone (or DeShawn). In most cases, we used a general info address, e.g., “office@.” The results are reported in a study titled “Racial Discrimination in Local Public Services: A Field Experiment in the US,” which is forthcoming from the Journal of the European Economic Association, one of the most important academic journals in the field of economics.

What we found is that 69 percent of U.S. libraries sampled reply to requests from a person with a white-sounding name (we used Greg Walsh and Jake Mueller) while the response rate for those with a black-sounding name, either Tyrone Washington or DeShawn Jackson, was lower, at 65 percent. This difference of four percentage points is statistically significant: we can exclude with a high degree of confidence that it is owing to simple randomness.

It is in line with what we found for school districts and smaller than for sheriff’s offices, where the gap is seven percentage points. The gap for county treasurers is also around four percentage points, albeit probably not statistically significant owing to a smaller sample size, while for job centers and county clerks we find no evidence of a gap in the response rate.

Further analysis reveals that the gap is much stronger in libraries located in rural counties, with a whopping eight percentage points difference, while for libraries in urban counties the difference is only two percentage points. In our sample, only 30 percent of libraries are in rural areas. Looking at geographical areas in more detail is complicated, as the sample size becomes small, making the results less robust from a statistical perspective. With this caveat in mind, the analysis shows that the Midwest has a larger gap, six percentage points, compared to the Northeast, two percentage points, while the South and West are in line with the four percentage points.

TO WhoM Are we nice?

We also found a similar difference in terms of the politeness of the replies. While on average 72 percent of replies from librarians address the sender by name or contain some form of salutation, this is five percentage points less likely to happen if the reply is to a person with a black-sounding name. So, a person with a distinctively black name is not only less likely to receive a reply, if a reply is sent, it addresses the recipient in a less polite manner.

To check whether this gap was owing to discriminatory attitudes toward people from a low socioeconomic background rather than racial bias, in a second round of emails to the same libraries, we included in the signature “Real Estate Agent. Buy–Sell–Rent,” thus holding constant the profession for both black and white senders. This made no difference in the observed gaps, thus confirming that racism is the most likely reason for what we found.

Why emails matter

We believe that this measure captures a more general discriminatory attitude. A librarian not replying to requests for information coming from an African American may also treat African Americans differently in other aspects of library service.

A nationally representative survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 shows that library services are particularly important to “[w]omen, African Americans and Hispanics, adults who live in lower-income households, and adults with lower levels of educational attainment.” The type of behavior our study uncovered means, however, that libraries risk being part of the problem rather than the solution, and failing, or alienating, some of the users who need them most.

Mirco Tonin (@mircotonin) is Professor of Economic Policy at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano in Italy.

This article was published in Library Journal's January 1, 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. So you decided to use generic white people names and names of famous Black Americans for your experiment? Kind of strange, don’t you think?

    • Dianne Betsey says:

      Walsh is the name of that guy on AMERICA’S MOST WANTED. Mueller’s sounds like that guy who investigating Donald Trump. Explain to me how these names are generic. I must have gone to school with 100 Tyrones. Why do you think that famous and not generic?

    • John Walsh is the guy on America’s most wanted. Desean Jackson is a famous football player. Tyrone Washington was a famous musician. It’s Robert Mueller (pronounced Muller) not Jake. So I really have no idea what you’re talking about.

  2. anonymous coward says:

    Is the data the survey used publicly available? I’m not doubting the results, but I would be interested in seeing the data and how it slices in different ways.

  3. Thanks so much for making the paper available. This is really important as we try to walk the talk of diversity and inclusion to make sure we’re really doing what we say. I’m a little surprised at the low response rates generally as well as distressed by the racial disparity

    • anonymous coward says:

      On the upside, we show less racial disparity than most other groups in the study- and I believe if I get the raw data I might find that there is a correlation between libraries most likely to showcase such disparity and libraries most likely to have a non-MLS staff member… it’s my working hypothesis anyway.

      However, you are right- the fact that any statistically significant disparity exists at all is alarming and disheartening- as is the fact that over 30% of all inquiries did not receive a response at all. That number is stupefying.

  4. I find the hypothesis that those libraries who have “non-MLS” staff might be more likely to display these disparities dismaying and classist. Degrees do not bestow good manners and good customer service.

    • Dianne Betsey says:

      I have worked for Public Libraries in Maryland for 25 years and can tell you that Libraries is one the most racist places in anybody’s town. Recall that libraries in the south didn’t allow black people to enter their buildings – by law (Virginia) – not to long ago. I had a black girl friend who was married to a white man. They had three beautiful children with blond afros. She kept trying to tell her husband the children were being discriminated against when they went to the library. He didn’t believe her until she took him to the library and had him sit where he could see his children approaching the librarian’s desk where they were treated shabbily. I’ve seen Asian children treated shabbily in libraries. I’ve gone to libraries where people don’t know I work for libraries and been treated shabbily myself. I’m an African American. Glad to see this report out there.

  5. Like Jamie, I find your hypothesis that libraries with a higher ratio of non-MLIS degree holders have a higher percentage of discriminatory practices to be highly classist and problematic. Because to take that hypothesis to its logical conclusion, libraries where all the employees have the degree would be the least likely to employ discriminatory practices. And that is simply not true.

    First of all, a degree is a piece of paper. It does not bestow knowledge of critical race theory (CRT) and anti-racist praxis. Especially the MLIS! The degree granting programs for the MLIS often do NOT include classes teaching CRT and other such theories. And if these programs do teach it, the information is often isolated to a single elective. So, your hypothesis assumes incorrectly assumes two things-that those with the degree have been taught anti-racist praxis AND that those without the degree (like many staff members) don’t learn that information elsewhere.

    Secondly, many of the people of color (POC) in librarianship tend to be concentrated in staff positions. So, in actuality, could it not be argued that libraries with more staff have less racial disparity since they too would have “ethnic” sounding names?

    Finally, it seems to me that your comment(s) assume that those who work in libraries are somehow less racist than those in other fields? Hence why those without the degree would me more likely to discriminate? And I think that it’s wrong on two fronts-it uses a few staff members as representative of the whole, and it ignores the very real, very large racial disparities within librarianship.

    • Please, examine the cliche that the degree is a “piece of paper.” The American Library Association accredits the degrees with great attention to diversity concerns.
      Many of us teaching include weeks on library service to diverse populations. This term I am teaching a course on “Libraries and Human Rights.” The enrollment includes many people of all backgrounds and many support staff–some SPECTRUM scholars. The “piece of paper” gives the opportunity to take courses in “Multicultural Children’s Services” (always fully enrolled). Perhaps the support staff I teach are inclined to be open and non-discriminatory since so many are themselves new Americans or international students, but rather I think it is because the staffs of our libraries work assiduously to be welcome to all.
      I have rural students who have been rural support staff. Rural areas in Florida includes many diverse people especially migrant workers and people leaving their homes because of disasters or fleeing intolerable governments. In my long experience support staff have worked seamlessly with degree holding staff to provide open and kind service.

      –Kathleen, School of Information, an ALA-accredited program
      University of South Florida

    • anonymous coward says:

      I was unclear. My NON-MLS staff member, I meant as the director/manager in charge. Most libraries have non mls staff members. I meant, and failed miserably at clearly expressing this, that those who have no MLS librarians on staff at all.

      My comment was, based on the study information, libraries showed less bias than other professions included. It wasn’t an assumption- it was a conclusion of the data. As to my hypothesis, it’s just a hypothesis. I wasn’t presenting it as fact and, like any hypothesis, needs to be checked against the data to test it’s veracity.

  6. Jessica Fields says:

    Using a generic email address such as “office@” found in ALD seems like an odd way to replicate how an actual patron would submit a question and ignores the fact those emails may be going not to “librarians” at all but to administrative support staff that don’t typically deal with the public’s questions at all. Many library sites have specific Contact Us or Ask Us forms set up to ask questions of librarians. And with ALD being a paid service, it’s unlikely how the public would find an email for their local library. Wouldn’t they be more likely to go to their library’s website and submit a question that way than to use ALD, which requires registration and payment for full detail?

    • That is the question– what emails are listed on ALD. Are some of those inquiries they wrote in floating out in space? I find it extremely strange that regardless of names the overall response rate was 31-35% period. That seems very strange. Potentially things were also flagged as spam. Such a small response rate period begs to many questions in my book. What email other than “Office@” were they sending from… what’s the @ part. I also wonder if they were sending from .uk addresses to the US?

  7. Marian H. Griffin says:

    Very illuminating study and article. My concern is, why aren’t library responses at 100%? The stats show 31-35% of questions directed at libraries are not being answered at all! This does not bode well for any library patron regardless of the ethnicity of their names.

    Marian Griffin
    Library Director Catherine Schweinsberg Rood Central Library
    Brevard County, FL
    USF Graduate

  8. Not a Librarian but play one on TV says:

    Librarians acting classist and better-than-thou?
    Get out… Never have I heard such drivel…

  9. Fascinating, and not surprising. Methodology seems solid.

    Non-degree folks have less awareness of the laws regarding our work, that is my observation of 20+ years as a professional. Non-pros much more willing to allow personal bias influence their actions with patrons, and much more willing to apply rules and codes in a subjective manner, often without realizing it. I regularly tell people part of my job is to protect the public from the staff.

    The low-response totals abysmal, supremely lame that any librarian would ignore any question, ever.

  10. Woah, I think I got one of these emails! I only got one from a Tyrone Washington though, not a Greg Walsh or Jake Mueller so perhaps they decided not to use my response.

    I’m glad I was polite and helpful, though kicking myself really for thinking that because, duh, that’s what I should always be, it’s my job, and I don’t deserve cookies just for managing to not be racist that one time.

    We really do have a long way to go.

  11. A Librarian says:

    These results are pretty scary (though yay for being less biased than some other public services!). As a Hispanic MLIS-holding librarian in a 90+% white rural community I can tell you that my experiences have been:
    A) The non-MLIS-holding librarians here are, indeed, the less-inclusive and more racist ones.

    B) I encountered a lot of racist/classist assumptions and microaggressions about and toward me in grad school by other library degree seekers in an urban/diverse community/degree program.

    C) My particular (ALA accredited) program strongly emphasized diversity and inclusiveness in multiple classes, not just in one elective (ironic considering point B).

    Also as a side note we do not publicly list our email address, we have a form. Sometimes when we get direct emails from people we haven’t given them to, rather than messages through our form, we think it’s spam (or it gets filtered as such) and we ignore it.

  12. Hmm, my white son gets told often by his black classmates that he “has a black name.” Will have to keep on eye on whether his forms and emails get treated differently than those of his siblings with “whiter” names.

  13. Stephanie says:

    This is depressing. I would also like to see a follow up study done of academic libraries that are open for public use, though since not all such libraries offer library cards to public patrons, one might need to come up with another question. Perhaps one might ask something along the lines of “Do you allow the general public to use your books and databases in the library?” I’d like to see if the pattern holds in academe. Also, I do think that it’s worth examining the possibility that some of the emails might have been filtered out as spam, as another commenter noted.

  14. This seems poorly done. If each library responds to only a black or white sounding name, there’s no guarantee that they wouldn’t have responded equally politely or rudely to the opposite.

    This study would be much more effective if libraries responded to both a black sounding and white sounding name, the responses compared to each other, and the breadth of differences compared between libraries. Instead, from my understanding of the study, the same library was sent the same race, and the type of email changed rather than the race of the sender?

    Could it be that rural libraries are not in fact racist, but less polite? Wouldn’t more rural libraries encounter emails less often, and be more likely to recognize that one person sent a second email? Are workers in white rural areas unsure, culturally, of an appropriate way to formally address a name from a different race? Do urban libraries encounter emails more often and therefore have a more generic, polite-sounding response but which is less genuine?

    It seems less likely you can conclude racial discrimination from this and more likely you can conclude email etiquette and cultural address of peoples based on education (degree vs. non-degree) and location (rural vs. urban).

    • This is one of my main concerns about this study as well. By sending only one email to each library in the first round you are only seeing their response to that email. To truly see if there is inherent bias you would need to multiple similar emails to the same library. This would allow you to compare responses and see if that particular library is just less polite in answering, or if they truly do have a racial bias against names.

      Further, as another person mentioned, some of the lack of response could be related to the study’s choice of contact method. By choosing an email associated with the library or library system rather than a contact form or similar method the email could be lost, which would produce a lack of response.

      While I don’t doubt that there is bias and racism in the US, and in libraries, I don’t think that this study in particular does an adequate job of researching and addressing it.

      (apologies for this late response, I was brought here by the Feedback: Letters to LJ article)

  15. Steve Fosselman says:

    From page 10 – “Overall, about 70% of the 19,079 emails that we sent received a response (see Table B.3 for detailed statistics). This indicates that public service providers are generally quite responsive to queries coming from the public, despite a non-negligible share of them going unanswered…A possible explanation…”

    The 30% that go unanswered should have set off more of an alarm for the researcher. As a non-researcher, I would say that the most non-negligible factor in this study is that 30%. There are lots of explanations other than the researcher’s that make the practice of an email survey much more suspect than a telephone survey. Especially if someone is trying out something as serious and illegal as a discrimination hypothesis.

    Maybe a coincidence or not – I remember a series of emails being discussed by libraries on PubLib or another listserv a few years ago that used terminology I would swear to be “I would like to become a member of the library.” I don’t remember it being about getting a library card, though, which most of the time in US is “how can I get a library card” regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, etc.

  16. Nancy Heredia says:

    Jeepers, a lot of time wasted with this study. I could have told you in a NY minute that there are racist librarians and support staff in public libraries! I’ve worked with and for them over the course of 30 years. What a lot of nonsense.

  17. The folks responding to the emails may not have been front-line, customer service staff, and they may not have been librarians. that said, I know there are a range of discriminatory behaviors, and that needs to be explored.

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