Competency C: Recognize the diversity (such as cultural and economic) in the clientele and employees of an information organization and be familiar with actions the organization should take to address this diversity.
Meaning and Importance
Libraries and information professionals must be able to accommodate and provide services for a wide range of diverse communities, whether socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, race, physical ability, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or gender. It must go beyond merely complying with nondiscriminatory law– librarians must make an intentional effort to create programs and deliver services that provide access to information for all of their patrons. As the American Library Association (2017) says “access to materials, without prejudice, to every member of the community must also be assured.”
Furthermore, the library profession needs to put that same effort into acknowledging and supporting diversity in the workplace. Deliberately hiring and promoting staff from diverse backgrounds is one way to accomplish this goal.
A Diverse Patron Community
It is easy for librarians and library staff to fall into a habit of only considering the patrons that they see every day. For instance, a public library centered in a community of mostly retirees, young families, and college students, may end up catering their programs to those audiences, as they’re the ones who show up. However, what about the others? Every community is diverse in some way: that same retiree community may also have a large subset of homeless or poverty-stricken patrons, or a group of at-risk teenagers, or a neighborhood of recent immigrants. These groups may not be coming to the library because they don’t see services or programs that have what they need, and they feel unwelcome. Considering who might not be coming to the library, and why, and proactively working to change that, is an important part of being a librarian.
There is a wide range of economic diversity in library patrons. The library can be a place of economic leveling, through providing free resources, programs, lectures, and materials. Libraries also need to make sure that they have resources available for patrons in all economic levels, but particularly for lower-income patrons, who often need more and a wider range of resources and help.
Similarly, handicapped patrons need to be considered beyond the basics. Though the United States has ADA guidelines that all libraries must comply with, it’s astonishingly easy to do only the bare minimum and not think of what else patrons might need until it’s too late. I’ve had several instances of patrons asking for accommodation and not being able to help because my library wasn’t prepared for it. For instance, all public access computers should have adjustable text sizing or text-to-speech software, for patrons with vision disabilities. Patrons with motorized scooters or wheelchairs need open spaces to navigate easier without blocking access for other patrons.
Economics and the Digital Divide
There is a wide range of economic diversity in library patrons. The library can be a place of economic leveling, through providing free resources, programs, lectures, and materials. Libraries also need to make sure that they have resources available for patrons in all economic levels, but particularly for lower-income patrons, who often need more and a wider range of resources and help. For instance, keeping a list of local food banks, family services, and homeless shelters at the reference desks for patrons to peruse, can have a positive effect. Libraries should also consider the effects that fines can have on lower income families, who often cannot pay them off and so stop coming to the library. A fine forgiveness program, such as “working off” fines by reading for a certain amount of time, can be a way to encourage lower economic children and families to maintain their library membership without being shamed about their fines.
The divide between lower economic patrons and middle- and higher- economic patrons can also be seen in the “digital divide.” Patrons are usually divided two camps: those who are comfortable using technology in their every day life, and those who are uncomfortable or even adverse. While libraries should strive to incorporate and encourage use of digital mediums, they should also be aware that not every patron is able to use them, for multiple reasons.
A Diverse Workplace
Alongside considering the diversity of a library’s community, library management should also consider the diversity of the staff. Encouraging and actively pursuing a diverse staff is beneficial not only for the library itself, but for the library’s community. Hiring staff members from diverse background encourages wider range of voices giving input on library programs, collection development, and outreach. It can also help with how the public views the library, as seeing someone of a similar background can be comforting.
One way to encourage a diverse staff would be to foster a completely “equal opportunity” environment, whether in putting up job postings, hiring staff, or training and professional development opportunities. No matter a staff member’s education, socioeconomic status, disability, ethnicity, race or sexual orientation, library management should strive to provide access to jobs and job development equally.
INFO 200: Information Communities – The Historian Information Community research essay.
I took INFO 200 (Information Communities) in my very first semester of Fall 2015. Though I had been working at a public library for over a year at the time, I hadn’t put much thought into the diversity of the library beyond what we had in our collection. I knew we needed a wide range of subjects, authors, and genres, but I didn’t much consider what the patrons (or staff) might need in terms of information accessibility. And while I knew that it was important to have access to technology (such as public computers for patrons), I didn’t consider the difficulties that patrons might be having with that technology. At the time, I had no real idea what the digital divide was.
In INFO 200, we were told to pick a community and conduct deep research into their information needs. In my essay, I focused on the historian community, as I was interested in seeing how their research practices changed over the last few decades. The process of researching the essay involved locating and reading multiple papers written by librarians and information professionals on their experiences with helping historians research, and in conducting surveys of historians on the information needs. I started with papers as early as the late 1960s and went up until the early 2010s.
Much of what I found in my research was focused on technology, as the changing digital landscape has proved the largest upset to the historian community. Historians mainly work with paper, and they have consistently been resistant to change even back when the hottest tech was microfilm. Every new technological shift has caused some issue, and librarians in turn tried to figure out how to best serve their historian patrons through those issues.
Back in the 1970s-1990s, the major shift was going from solely paper, to microfilm, to the early computers and internet. The 1990s-2000s shifted even more towards the internet and computers, and now, in the 2010s, it’s gotten to the point where the main focus is on digital content and digital access. This has made things easier in some ways, because historians have more options for organizing their research and obtaining articles from far-away locations. It was also easier for librarians, as they could obtain materials much easier in electronic form. Rare books and papers would rarely be allowed through Inter-library loan, but a scanned copy was no big deal.
However, I found that there were still historians who were “left behind,” on the other side of the digital divide. For instance, many historians hated scanned copies of documents. They wanted the originals, as it could provide potentially more information than a digital copy could. They also weren’t sure about how to organize their research online, and were distrustful of modern technology as it wasn’t as “safe” as keeping paper copies (harddrive crashes, viruses, etc. are all dangers to their research). And finally, some historians were either too used to their own way of doing things, and so were resistant to learning something new through sheer stubbornness. Librarians were often left scrambling for ways to serve these patrons, but were unable to due to funding or time.
This same scenario has played out in my job, as well. Since taking INFO 200, I have been working at a public library for four years, and on a reference desk for three. The increasing emphasis on ONLY having digital options available for certain things has changed more than just historians’ research practices. I see patrons struggling with job applications, which are often now only available online and set up in overly complicated ways. Patrons struggle with filing taxes, especially as libraries have been sent fewer paper copies than in the past. Though there are digital copies available to print online, often older patrons don’t want to (or can’t) navigate through the IRS website.
This situation reminded me of my research paper for INFO 200. My patrons are not historians, but they still have the same struggles adjusting to technology as the people in my research paper did. As we move forward into an ever more digitally-focused world, it’s important to remember that there are always patrons who will need help bridging that gap. One advantage to having a diverse staff, particularly in age, is that older patrons often feel more comfortable talking to older staff members.
As a library professional, I have a duty to my professional community and the community of patrons to foster a welcoming, encouraging environment which provides access to information for everyone. Through my coursework at SJSU, I’ve learned that patrons can have a difficult time keeping up with the rapid changes in society and technology, and that librarians can help bridge divides, whether those bridges are socioeconomical, language-based, cultural, or technological. Through my experiences at work and at SJSU, I feel confident that I can work to address the needs of a diverse library community.
American Library Association. (2017). Advocacy, Legislation & Issues – Access to Library Resources and Services. [online] Available at: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/access [Accessed 1 Oct. 2018].