During the 2015-2016 school year, we saw multiple high-profile accounts of issues regarding diversity and freedom of expression on campuses across America. Conversations around how to make colleges more inclusive and welcoming for people of all backgrounds and with all kinds of experiences have been widely publicized at prestigious colleges including Yale, Claremont McKenna and the University of Missouri.
Not only do these conversations impact the academic library, they offer an opportunity for academic librarians to further diversity efforts in the library and around the campus. However, it can be difficult to know where—and where not—to get involved in issues concerning campus diversity, which can be emotional and fraught.
As Dracine Hodges, the head of acquisitions at Ohio State University says, “it is easy to see the connectivity of libraries in the pursuit of social justice ideals. So much of the conversation we’ve been having pertains to administrative and cultural constructs that frustrate diversity. These are large and lofty issues in scope. I often think their enormity makes us dismissive of the tangible impacts of diversity in the commonplace work performed in libraries every day.”
That being said, there are certain ways to use the library as a safe, open space to discuss cultural sensitivity and diversity on campus. Here are just a few.
Think about what information is included (and what’s excluded) in your collection.
To quote Todd Honma, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at Pitzer College, “as an institution that collects, preserves, and distributes information, libraries serve the function of helping to create and circulate knowledge in our society. How institutions construct and curate information, and how users access and synthesize that information, are not outside the realm of the political.” Essentially, the resources you have available shape not just students’ studies, but their sense of identity. For example, a philosophy wing heavy on Enlightenment thinkers and light on Black existentialism, classical Indian philosophy and/or Chinese Mohist logic prioritizes the former at the expense of the latter. What kind of message does this send to a student whose heritage isn’t aligned with that Western history?
Take the summer to review your current collections. Are they as diverse as they could be? Are you presenting students with a wide variety of resources from different geographic areas and historical periods, written by authors of different races, genders and experiences? Consider asking students what kinds of resources they’d like. Bringing their voices into the conversation allows you a better idea of how to serve a diverse student body—and it makes their voices heard.
Embrace and implement diversity standards.
Man, librarians all over are saying awesome things about diversity in the library. Check out these diversity standards from ACRL, in which they begin by saying, “if libraries are to continue being indispensable organizations in their campus communities, they must reflect the communities they serve and provide quality services to their increasingly diverse constituencies. To achieve diversity in substance as well as in form, libraries have to open their arms to all perspectives and experiences. That requires competency in matters of cultural pluralism that are not intuitive and must be learned, like any other essential skill.”
To actually make sure you are achieving diversity in the library, you need to hold your internal processes to certain standards. ACRL has you covered here: their 11 diversity standards, covering everything from cross-cultural leadership to community service is a great place to start. However, we challenge you to use these standards as a starting place to create more standards, specific to your campus community. Maybe you’d like to see more connection between exchange students and their US-born classmates, so you’d like to implement language-learning resources to help these two groups communicate. Think critically: what are some sustainable, evergreen standards you can hold yourself and your library to?
Be a safe space.
Libraries have a history of acting as a safe space to marginalized segments of the population. It’s essential to celebrate that history and to work to further it, making the library a safe, welcoming space to people of all backgrounds, abilities and experiences. To that end, it’s essential that every member of your staff is working actively, every day, to make your library a space for discussion at your campus. Invite local speakers, student groups and professors to speak on issues pertinent to the campus community, and always keep your ears open for feedback. Make sure that students, staff and professors have their voices heard at your institution—it will go a long way.
If you’re looking to make some innovations at your library over the summer, let us help out. Take a look at our checklist: 9 Innovations Shaping Today's Academic Libraries, for some ways to get your resources up-to-date.