Reflecting Our Communities

Internship programs open doors and minds

January 11, 2012

Visitors experience the reinvented Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library at its October 2009 reopening, and are reflected in the moment. Photo: Edward Lifson
Visitors experience the reinvented Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library at its October 2009 reopening, and are reflected in the moment. Photo: Edward Lifson

Few would disagree that a diverse work force makes us better stewards of the communities we serve. It enhances our ability to respond to an increasingly changing world of patrons, strengthens relations with our communities, and expands the creativity of our libraries.

While efforts to diversify the profession have gradually improved in the past quarter-century, librarianship remains relatively monochrome. ALA’s 2006 Diversity Counts report, which surveyed 110,000 librarians at a wide range of institutions, found that 88% of respondents were white and 82% were women.

Libraries can help address the imbalance by offering internship programs that devise concrete strategies to recruit students of varying gender identities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, physical abilities, and other backgrounds. The three of us were lucky enough to be part of one such program in summer 2009 at the Brooklyn College Library.

The lack of diversity among full-time librarians in the BC Library is as noticeable as the contrasting diversity among the student body. The college’s student population is approximately 29% non-Hispanic white, 18% black, 10% Asian, 8% Hispanic, and the rest undeclared or other. By sharp comparison, the BC Library faculty is 95% white and 5% Asian.

But diversifying the library faculty is as challenging for BC as it is at similar institutions. The library’s appointments committee must contend with the complex realities of rigid hiring processes and infrequent vacancies. Consequently, a library that serves a highly diverse public urban population, as BC does, is likely to see slow change in its attempts to better reflect that population—even as student demographics continue to shift with the arrival of new immigrant groups seeking opportunities for themselves and their children.

The BC Library internship program is fortunate to draw on graduate students attending the five library schools in the New York City area, as well as students attending programs elsewhere who are spending time in the city or who live in the area but are studying via distance learning. A significant number of New York City high school students, BC undergraduate students, and MLS graduates have also interned at the BC Library. As a result, the library’s internship program has benefited from the diversity of the next generation of students who are interested in professional careers as academic librarians and are looking for site placement in New York City.

The summer 2009 intern cohort worked on a broad range of projects. The interns’ presence at the reference desk and in other areas of the library offered BC students a chance to identify with those serving them and gave them an opportunity to experience the academic library as a less alien and forbidding place.

The intern experience: Barnaby Nicolas

Working at the BC Library was a valuable and rewarding experience. During my undergraduate years, I had worked as a student assistant in the main library of my college and was therefore already familiar with a library work environment. However, it was the internship that expanded my understanding of the profession. I was able to employ fundamental concepts and theoretical principles I learned in the classroom and in my work experience in order to complete projects and tasks assigned to me. For example, I put to use my BA in Africana Studies by assisting the intern supervisor with collection development duties in the Africana Studies subject area. By participating in projects with library interns and BC Library faculty, I gained insight into how collaborating with librarians with diverse experiences can result in efficient completion of projects and library activities.

Assisting at the reference desk as an intern was a novel experience for me. Though I had previously worked in circulation as a student assistant, helping patrons with routine questions, I discovered that being stationed at the reference desk as a soon-to-be librarian was an entirely different experience. While working at the desk, I noticed that virtually all the patrons I encountered thought nothing of asking me directional questions and for help with the online catalog. However, I realized that several patrons, especially those from underrepresented populations, were taken aback when they realized I could be a librarian in a position to assist them with their reference and research queries. It became clear to me that my physical appearance made me stand out from the BC Library faculty they were familiar with. Not only am I an African-American, but I turned 23 during the course of my internship and am noticeably younger than my colleagues.

During the internship, my goal was that patrons would leave the library satisfied with my service. I believe great customer service is beneficial in making patrons, especially those with diverse backgrounds, feel more welcome and less apprehensive about asking for assistance, while at the same time tackling stereotypes about what a librarian looks like.

The intern experience: Kate Angell

As a librarian who identifies as queer, I have always found it important to use my position as a member of the LGBTQ community to have a positive impact on this population of patrons and researchers, as well as on LGBTQ collections. This belief informs my professional trajectory—I am presently a reference librarian at a small liberal arts college and have the privilege to help develop a collection on gender/queer studies. I also frequently meet patrons who are undertaking research projects that involve queer issues. Over the years, LGBTQ individuals have faced discrimination from a multitude of systems and institutions, including medical, legal, and religious. As part of undoing and rejecting this discrimination, we must maintain a solid presence in the fields that create and retrieve information: libraries and archives.

My experience at BC, which was my first academic library internship, provided me with a strong foundation for combining activist ideologies with professional practice. In particular, participating in the 2010 National Diversity in Libraries Conference with the other two interns and our supervisor deeply affected my commitment to carving out a place for LGBTQ individuals in the LIS profession. Barnaby and I traveled to Princeton University for the conference, where we presented a poster that detailed our duties at Brooklyn College and steps academic library internship programs could take to diversify LIS staff. I also had the opportunity to attend panels that spoke to facets of identity less frequently discussed in library literature, such as issues raised in the panel  “The Embodied Teacher: Fat, Queer, Disabled Authorities,” presented by Emily Drabinski, Lia Friedman, and Alana Kumbier.

As a reference librarian fully open about my identity as a queer woman, I demonstrate to society and my user community that the profession need not be dominated by people who identify as heterosexual. I view myself as an advocate as well as a comrade and want the LGBTQ community to be aware that those who consuming the information (patrons) are well represented by those moderating and teaching it (librarians).

Recruiting teens

Brooklyn Public Library also offers an internship program, but it has one significant difference: Participants in its Multicultural Internship Program (MIP) are all teens interested in library careers. They receive paid internship positions at BPL’s branches and gain firsthand experience in the field.

As BPL’s Jennifer Thompson wrote in the February 2011 Voice of Youth Advocates, “We recognized BPL’s work force wasn’t as diverse as the populations we serve. By involving members of our diverse cultural and linguistic communities, we felt we could better serve Brooklyn’s needs.” While this leading-edge librarian is not the first to elucidate librarianship’s ongoing inability to reflect the greater community’s varying social, cultural, and economic identities, Thompson and her staff accurately describe the importance of recruiting young people to help diversify the profession.

While the funding for MIP came from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, other prominent LIS organizations have also understood the importance of undertaking similar projects. The American Library Association’s Office for Diversity offers an annual Diversity Research Grant. The grant program, which began in 2002, aims “to address critical gaps in the knowledge of diversity issues within library and information science.” Three winners are selected every year, and each person receives cash grants to conduct original research as well as present his or her findings at the ALA Annual Conference. This program illustrates that financial and professional support exist for those committed to diversifying the many facets of librarianship, such as improving services for patrons with disabilities (Clayton Copeland, 2009) and examining the information needs of day laborers in Los Angeles (Diana Tedone, 2009).

Linking library school students and academic libraries through internship programs can help efforts to diversify the profession. Research has shown the need for diversity in all types of libraries. Library staff should reflect the increasing heterogeneity of the United States—and the temporary infusion of interns working side by side with full-time permanent staff will help in reaching that goal.