Barriers to Diversity

The problems of LIS internships and practica

May 1, 2019

In Practice by Meredith Farkas

In my March/April column (“Unintentional Inequity,” p. 46), I described how libraries sometimes have policies or practices that, while well intentioned, disproportionately affect certain segments of their service population. This issue touches all institutions and not surprisingly affects LIS education as well.

Sometimes structures are designed to help the same people they unintentionally harm. Most LIS programs encourage or even require students to complete a practicum or internship where they get real-life work experience. For some, this can lead directly to a job at that institution; in other cases, LIS students gain valuable skills that make them more competitive in a tight job market.

However, this experience comes at a cost. Most LIS practica and internships are unpaid, and students also must pay for the credit hours they earn. They frequently have to complete practicum or internship hours during typical work-week hours—a significant obstacle for those working full time or in less-flexible jobs. The existence of unpaid practica and internships in LIS education is a barrier for students without generational wealth, which can undermine diversity efforts. While I’m certain no one who championed the inclusion of experiential learning in the LIS curriculum did so to block diversity in the profession, it can be an unfortunate side effect.

What might be a more equitable model for getting students practical experience during their LIS programs? Paid practica and internships are an option but would likely place students only at well-funded libraries. In April 2018, I attended a workshop at the University of Washington that focused on community-driven learning. We devised ways to integrate experiences with instructional and participatory design into LIS curricula (a report on the project can be found here). My group discussed the idea of building service learning projects into LIS courses in partnership with libraries and other organizations. Service learning would provide students with practical work on real issues in libraries and provide organizations with valuable support and new ideas. It would also keep the LIS curriculum fresh and focused on current topics in libraries and information organizations. This route would require significant time and effort from LIS programs and faculty, but it could provide all students, regardless of financial means, with practical experiences via their coursework.

The existence of unpaid practica and internships in LIS education is a barrier for students without generational wealth.

Unpaid internships and practica are by no means the only hurdles to diversity in our profession. An absence of pathways that allow workers to jump from para­professional to professional roles, the use of “cultural fit” in evaluating job candidates, and a lack of mentoring support can all play a role in keeping our profession homogeneous. Looking holistically at structures that might inhibit the growth of diversity in librarianship and cause people of color to leave the field is critical. This is difficult work that requires many of us to see beyond our own experiences, as whiteness can often blind us to these structural issues.

In order to best serve patrons, library staffing should reflect the diversity of the communities libraries serve. Yet according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, our profession is 86% white, and diversity initiatives like scholarships and residencies are not enough. Ohio State University Libraries Associate Director for Information Technology Jennifer Vinopal’s essay “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action” looks at the value of diversity and some of the structural and attitudinal impediments to it.

I believe that diversity initiatives will not lead to the gains we seek unless we, as a profession, look deeply at systemic issues in LIS education and in our own libraries that discourage diverse candidates and lead to attrition. Bringing down the barriers to practical experience for LIS students would be a promising step in the right direction.


In Practice by Meredith Farkas

Unintentional Inequity

Examining equity gaps in our libraries

In Practice by Meredith Farkas

To Move Forward, Look Back

Improving our work through reflective practice