Where are all the diverse librarians? A data-driven reflection

Where are all the diverse librarians? A data-driven reflection

1. on library demographics

Soon after my $20,000 library degree, I surveyed other grads about their experiences. Starting salaries in the Library Journal’s annual Salaries & Placements survey looked great… but they seemed to be missing half of all graduates. Perhaps, I thought, they left out the MLIS grads who struggled, working part-time or in multiple jobs while trying to break into the field. I know my own program never contacted me to find out where I was placed.

My own casual survey was unscientific, but the 380 respondents mirrored our profession: 90% white, 90% female, mostly affluent, mostly educated.

They mirrored me.

Shortly after graduation, I moved across the country to take a faculty role as a data librarian.

My path as a professional-class librarian was cautious. I grew curious about the career as a teen, but waited for the MLS until I saw a low cost, good reward opportunity.

When I finally landed a US-based faculty librarian role just out of my MLIS, I had a library degree… which I convinced an employer to pay for… and three years’ full-time experience… which I got because a friend invited me to join her in an Asian library 7000 miles from home… a low-paid move I could make because I was debt- and caregiving-free. I’d met her because we met at a conference… where I was presenting with my graduate advisor… who invited me to research in Asia… because I was referred by another colleague… because I found his name online and asked to meet… because my father sat me down one day and said he’d half-paid for my bachelor’s and now I was working for minimum wage and with my interest in research, hadn’t I considered grad school?

I hope you can see how much being single, debt-free, the recipient of merit scholarships (otherwise known as “affirmative action for middle-class white kids”) and encouraged by family to take risks and travel helped set me up for a career as an academic librarian.


2. the limitations of class

My partner’s story is different.

As a first-generation college student, Amos* wanted to study the arts, but his family only supported something more practical. They couldn’t pay for his degree, but he didn’t qualify for aid. Without other options, he paid for his degree by borrowing from our future.

His family urged him to find a job with good pay, near home, and finish school quickly. (A library degree was unlikely to meet these expectations.)

After taking out large loans for his family’s first degree, he worked in rural sales. He didn’t have mentors to help him find other opportunities out of the region. His family wanted him close to home. After minimum loan payments, he had just enough salary left for a dinner out, but not much to get ahead.

So I was honored when he uprooted to join me on the West Coast.

Yet we immediately faced class shock. His BA was respected in his less-educated hometown, but paled beside the competition here in the Bay Area. The culture here is to hustle, always building a portfolio, self-promoting and networking, always learning, always selling.

Amos was a quick learner, honest, generous, hard-working, and committed to his organization and the people around him. Yet as a working-class first-gen worker, he was constantly underpaid relative to equally-qualified peers, and promised career growth that didn’t come. He took on hours of uncompensated care labor, training and mentoring others. People appreciated all that he gave, but I didn’t see him getting a lot back.

He didn’t face racial barriers—that would have made it so much more challenging–but I watched with sadness as his prior lack of access and cultural values of equality over self-promotion did make a difference in how he was received.


3. underrepresented groups in libraries

This fall, I enjoyed the lively posts from the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color on twitter. It hit some points I’d been mulling over for a while, ever since I was asked to write up a proposal for a diversity residency program at an academic library four years ago.

Here’s a compelling chart of what we should look like if we reflected the American population:

Where are all the diverse librarians? A data-driven reflection

[Posted by LaQuanda T. Onyemeh, on twitter: https://twitter.com/LOnyemeh/status/1045027643089805312]

We have more white folks and fewer brown folks than we’d expect if we truly represented our nation.

And this white dominance haven’t changed in thirty years. We’ve had task forces and working groups, scholarships and mentorship programs, diversity residencies and pipeline programs. We actively recruit diverse folks as student library employees, then to library schools, residencies, and entry-level jobs.

The lit reviews get longer each year, but the numbers don’t change. Yet people keep saying, if we mentor some more… or recruit some more… or face our racism some more…

My colleagues of color spend untold hours mentoring, researching, writing, speaking, and working to shift libraries from a cozy white space to one where (in one person’s words), “we want to make the old white lady librarians uncomfortable!”

But the numbers aren’t changing.


4. the mls problem

Before I go into numbers, I want to emphasize that numbers are only one slice of the pie. Librarians of color often operate in a white workplace, and face a litany of small aggressions, requests, brush-offs, and expectations that white folks don’t deal with… and that build up over time. Getting half the room to be brown would be a relief just because… the dynamics would change. People would be free to excel in their particular areas of librarianship, rather than being the one brown person the whole room looks to on diversity issues.

As a white data librarian, I can’t speak to that. Instead, I’ll use my expertise to add some numbers highlighting the problem. I’ll argue against the MLS, insofar as it requires spare time and money from people who may not have it, and indebts young workers to a profession with few placement opportunities,  giving quick cash to colleges without really providing for equitable opportunities and outcomes.

We talk about recruiting and retaining diverse librarians, because we’re all better off when librarians and users can grow in a place where their home community is fully present and engaged.

And we like to think we reflect America. Take those what a librarian looks like books, that show how diverse we are, by age and class and race and weight and mental health and physical ability and sexuality and immigration status and political viewpoints and… was that education level?

No, you have to have one particular advanced degree to help fellow Americans find information.

Yet once you impose the requirement of a master’s degree to enter the profession, diversity drops off the map.

Let’s pause and note how many talented, savvy Americans don’t have a master’s degree.

The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey lets you look at how educated working-age Americans are in each major racial group. Read this top-to-bottom, so that 44% of all black folks age 25-65 have a HS diploma or lower, and 8% have a masters or higher:

Whites: Asians: Blacks: Native: All:
HS or less 35% 25% 44% 50% 36%
Some college 30% 19% 35% 35% 30%
Bachelor’s 22% 31% 14% 10% 21%
Grad Degree 12% 24% 8% 5% 12%

[Chart updated in 2021: Degree attainment (educd) by race (race), American Community Survey 2014-2018, filtered to age 25-65.]

See that bottom row?

Given the massive inequality in our society, it’s going to be awfully hard for our profession to ever represent all Americans if we only recruit from the 12% of Americans with a grad degree, or the <1% of Americans with an MLIS.

Even if we compare librarians with other grad degree holders, our profession is still more white than you’d expect. 89% of librarians are white as of 2018, while 78% of all grad degree holders are white. (Interestingly, 13% of grad degree holders in the US are Asian (and 24% of Asians, above, have a graduate degree) but there are fewer Asian librarians than one would expect given their high average level of education).

% of librarians who identify as: % of all grad degree holders who identify as: % of Americans who identify as:
White 89% 78% 79%
Black 6% 9% 14%
Native .5% .3% 1%
Asian 4% 13% 7%
Total 100% 100% 100%

[Col 1: occ(2435 “librarian”) by race on the 2014-2018 ACS census. Col 2: degree attainment (educd) by race, Col 3: Americans by race. All limited to age 25-65).

In other words, our nation has fewer black and native citizens with a master’s than you’d expect in a just world, where talented children could pursue the field unhampered by history, economics or other structural factors.

Given the history and economics that put me where I am, I have a degree, and a profession, with less competition than I’d otherwise have in a more open field.


5. that master’s slice

When Amos and I read White Working Class, we talked about my bottom-row upbringing, one that led me to prioritize an intellectual career, education, taking risks, and separating from family for the sake of work or school. These aren’t things his working-class values, or things that necessarily make sense in their environment.

He doesn’t come from a community that thinks paying $60-$200K for a bachelors… and then $25K-$50K for a library degree… and then possibly another degree for a “side masters”… and then moving away from home for your first library job… then coming back to earn $30,000 as an academic librarian in your hometown (while you pay all that debt)…when you could have made that much in a decent store manager job anyway… is a terribly great decision.

Again, I’m not using Amos’ story to erase the challenges affluent librarians of color face. But I am highlighting how seeing his experience gave me a better understanding of the challenges my working-class peers face. And given that not all librarians of color come from the elite, many face class barriers entwined with racial barriers.

Amos’ experience has also shown me why taking on crippling debt and leaving your home community may not always be encouraged. Diverse students may be encouraged to get an MBA or MD and bring it back home… but it’s less likely they’d be sent off to spent 6-8 years and $100-250K to become an entry-level academic librarian.

In fact, while libraries keep trying to recruit folks of color, fewer minority students are enrolled in LIS programs than we’d expect:

Posted by Mea Warren on twitter

[Posted by Mea Warren on twitter, https://twitter.com/meawarren/status/1045429271844376577]

I know many folks worked hard for their MLS and are proud of it, and I don’t want to diminish that accomplishment. I also see the value of enculturating people into the profession (but… isn’t there a cheaper way for the debt-laden individual?).

And strategically, I also get the benefits of the MLS-as-barrier. It lets us frame ourselves as professionals, and keeps applicants from flooding the market.

But it also takes 6-8 years and 2-3 degrees before a young adult can become a librarian. Opening the gates would lead to more white applicants, so that’s not a solution in itself. Yet having these gates closed to non-MLS holders, given the inequality of American education and wealth, is part of the problem.


6. all those other masters

But even assuming we do keep the master’s requirement, we have to realize that even prospective librarians with the time and family/debt-based money to get an MLIS are evaluating us against the opportunities they’d have with other master’s degrees. When Amos talks about a master’s, it’s always about counseling or teaching or engineering or instructional technology. (And side note, why couldn’t one master’s prepare you for many fields? It really does seem like a deliberate economic barrier, given how few jobs there in each individual field. What happens when you want to change fields?).

So given all these barriers, what if we kept the MLS requirement, and just tried to poach recent college grads of color from other masters fields? (I still think this is missing the point, but… thought experiment.)

Here, I again reflect on Amos’ family advice: if you’re going to get that degree, why not do something sensible, like business? Indeed, most master’s degrees are now in business, education, and health. Most jobs for master’s holders, especially in inner-city or rural areas, are in those same fields:

I wrote before that librarians can’t expect opening up about pay to change our pay when our labor market is so constricted. We also can’t expect people to enter and stay in libraries when there are better and more numerous opportunities for educated folks of color in other fields–either for new entrants, or for those encountering librarian burnout and wondering whether to stay.

If students of color can’t afford a master’s, they won’t be a librarian. A few diversity scholarships haven’t changed the demographics. And when people hit repeated tokenism, insults, nonsupport, discrimination, or aggression, they may make a self-saving decision to drop out.

So if talented citizens of color can have better paying, higher status, more flexible, higher impact, and more creative careers through a different masters… why spend their lives on an MLS?


7. it’s on us

Let’s be honest. It seems that white librarians often recruit colleagues of color for their own purposes. It makes us feel like good people, or look relevant on our campuses. It helps us hold onto existing minority colleagues. We try to recruit without ever really changing our institutions.

So if we want more talented POC colleagues to join us, for our benefit, fixing some of the barriers is also on us.

We may need to shift the requirements to enter, and to move up. We may need to rate applicants less on extended education, national moves, prestigious affiliations, and ability to hop for low-paid work. Those expectations present barriers to parents, first generation folks, breadwinners, and those who need to give back to a community.

We might want to make *this* the autonomous, meaningful, inclusive, well-paid, and creative job that everyone’s family tells them to go for… and then perhaps the diverse applicants will follow.

Thoughts? Leave a note here!