Last year, when I was running for a leadership position in the Virginia Library Association (VLA), I gave a speech to the organization’s executive committee and council chairs. As I looked out into the audience from the podium, I realized that—save for one other person—I was the only person of color in a room full of dozens of decision makers from across the state.
I was reminded of the words of the late US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” When I was eventually elected to the VLA vice presidency, I established the VLA Librarians of Color (LOC) Forum with that goal in mind—to provide more seats at the table and create space for meaningful engagement.
The lack of diversity in librarianship is a well-established fact (over 83% of librarians are white) that reflects the entrenchment of our nation’s power dynamics in sexism, racism, and social inequality. Less well established is the path toward a more equal playing field, which must start with recruiting and retaining qualified candidates of color and overcoming persistent wage gaps that shut them out of the profession.
A March 2020 study from the National Partnership for Women and Families found that Black women and Latinas earn just 62 cents and 54 cents, respectively, for every dollar paid to white men. With library compensation trending low compared to other professional fields and the expense of a master’s degree in library science, the return on investment isn’t guaranteed for candidates of color.
Hiring based on “fit” is often vague shorthand for in-group identification (see “Is ‘Fit’ a Bad Fit?,” June 2019, p. 78). We must work actively to overcome these unconscious biases and provide opportunities for qualified candidates to demonstrate their knowledge and convey their full potential. Often this means looking past demographic traits or keywords and critically evaluating a candidate’s competence, qualifications, and relevant experience. We also need to account for the possibility that some minority candidates self-select out of certain opportunities when they don’t see themselves reflected in the library staff, a phenomenon that I’ve personally experienced. Take a look at your library’s website, branding, and social media pages. Who do you see?
Hiring based on ‘fit’ is often vague shorthand for in-group identification.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on hiring and employment have disproportionately been felt by people of color, but some doors have opened. The virtual environment has reduced a few barriers for professionals, such as costly travel, overnight stays, and relocation—while facilitating access to speaking opportunities, fellowships, and job interviews. Recognizing opportunity amid the chaos is how I arrived at a new role as director of Newark (N.J.) Public Library—an in-depth interview process facilitated entirely online. (My term with the VLA ended this fall.)
We all need to be the change that we seek, especially when it comes to increasing diversity in the profession. Look around: If the staff and leadership of your organization don’t reflect the diversity of the communities you serve, step back and look for ways to remedy that. Be intentional about hiring people of color. When comparing qualifications, give candidates of color the same benefit of the doubt you would give a more traditional (likely white) candidate. Encourage and support people of color to complete an MLIS as a path to higher compensation and securing a seat at decision-making tables.
Despite myriad challenges and pervasive inequity, this time in the history of the profession—this period of reckoning, reconciling, and collective efforts to do better—offers significant opportunity. Nothing can or will improve without continued reflection and bold action. I am encouraged by this moment, when we are confronting matters in an unflinching way, and I believe the conversations that are happening now will help bring about meaningful change in staffing the profession.