Reviewed By: Shelley Carr, Kristina Cevallos, Karen Chacon, & Rachel Dunn
Link to article: http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/culturalcompetence/
In her article, “The Intersection Between Cultural Competence and Whiteness in Libraries,” Fiona Blackburn (2015) examines her experiences working in Australian libraries and the implementation of cross-cultural provisions as evidence of privilege and the predominance of “white culture” in libraries in Australia. While this article provides examples of services designed for culturally diverse communities, Blackburn focuses on evaluations of her experiences as a white librarian in Australia in regards to personal understanding and development of cultural competence, especially the influence of white privilege, whiteness, and “white culture.” The article acknowledges the predominance of white workers in the LIS field as well as the dominating bias toward Western ways of assessing, accessing, and organizing information. Though considering her personal experiences at multiple information organizations, Blackburn asserts the importance of cultural competence, which is defined by Overall (as cited in Blackburn, 2015, para. 17) as:
the ability to recognise the significance of culture in one’s own life and in the lives of others; to come to know and respect diverse cultural backgrounds and characteristics through interaction with individuals from diverse linguistic, cultural and socioeconomic groups; and to fully integrate the culture of diverse groups into service work, and institutions in order to enhance the lives of both those being serviced by the library profession and those engaged in service.
With this definition of cultural competence in mind, Blackburn examines this topic from the perspective of an Australian librarian, and also refers to supporting literature from U.S. LIS professionals who support the practices of cultural competence. In commenting on the importance of cultural competence in library and information organizations, Blackburn encourages a global awareness of whiteness and privilege in the LIS profession.
Core Research Questions & Methodology
As Blackburn describes her journey through librarianship in Australia and her growth and interest in cultural competence, whiteness, and intersectional librarianship, she seeks to answer a few questions. What is cultural competence in the context of librarianship? What is the connection between intersectionality and cultural competence in addressing whiteness in the library? And, how can librarians and library workers approach cultural competence in a primarily white workforce within a predominantly white industry with awareness of power and privilege? Blackburn explains her reasoning by way of her personal experiences as a librarian in Alice Springs, and elsewhere in Australia, and referencing existing scholarship on cultural competence, intersectionality, and diversity in libraries.
Blackburn uses her own experience as a “56-year-old, tertiary-educated, female Anglo-Australian librarian” (Blackburn, 2015) to seek answers to her questions regarding cultural competence, intersectionality, and whiteness in libraries. She notes that working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been her main source of learning about cultural competence and addressing whiteness in the library, but cultural competence goes far beyond just working with Indigenous peoples. Her awareness of her own culture (her whiteness) is her starting point on the journey to becoming culturally competent. Blackburn links together her personal reflections, professional experiences, research, and conversations with librarians as a method to form her conclusions.
Findings and Conclusions
Blackburn’s experience in Australia showed her that there were only a handful of librarians and libraries providing services specifically for Aboriginal people. For this reason, Blackburn focused on building greater engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Blackburn’s goal was for people to see their culture reflected in the library in order to build stronger connections between patrons and their library. This would require more of Blackburn’s colleagues to step in and help create that culture of support, inclusion, and engagement in all nine branches of the library system in which Blackburn worked. From her own experiences, Blackburn found that members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must be actively incorporated in their libraries’ programs and services in order to support library staff working together to create a culture of inclusion in that library. Once patrons are aware that library services and staff are focused on meeting their needs, patrons may attend engagement activities and library programs more frequently. Blackburn mentioned how some library staff resisted these new ideas due to not having enough time to connect with members of the community and not wanting to add any extra tasks to their workload. Blackburn asserts that once those new connections are built, library staff can focus on maintaining the relationship as the library patrons continue to come to the library.
As support for her arguments, Blackburn introduces the concept of intersectional librarianship which, “recognises the interactions between any person or group’s multiple layers of identity and the marginalisation or privilege attendant on each” (Blackburn, 2015, para. 30). Library staff members need to learn to become allies and active participants in change, which cannot be accomplished in a one-day training session. LIS professionals need to recognize their own biases and privilege before they can become allies to any group. Librarians must focus on understanding the challenges patrons may be facing and what necessary steps are required to mitigate these challenges.
Applications in the United States
The United States could stand to learn from Blackburn’s experiences with the Aboriginal populations in Australia and how the library spaces she worked in were able to support and include the voices and experiences of their patrons. By creating spaces where the patrons could see themselves reflected, connect with their culture, and inhabit a neutral space, they were able to foster engagement with the Aboriginal community and increase usage by that group. The United States could stand to improve inclusion and respectful interaction with Native Americans and other underserved populations by creating inclusive reflective spaces and deeply considering how whiteness comes into play within libraries.
White librarians in the United States could benefit from examining their own “whiteness” and white privilege in the context of the LIS profession after reading Blackburn’s article. Through this awareness and understanding, librarians in the United States can build upon their cultural competence and expand on the inclusion of diversity within their library services. Blackburn’s focus on building engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and her work with Libraries ACT lend some insightful findings that would benefit any library. However, the conversations Blackburn notes in her article give interesting perspectives on how libraries are seen as “white places” and are not as culturally inclusive as they could be. These conversations heighten awareness of cultural differences and what should be taken into account when designing services for diverse populations.
For example, often librarians are busy promoting their own services/programming and forget to work in collaboration with their colleagues for the overall success of that library. In addition, library staff should be mindful of cultural inclusion when designing services for groups that are underserved and seek to include those groups across all library programs and services. In some cases, librarians promote Black History Month or LGBTQ only for one month and forget to incorporate the concept for the rest of the year. In order for patrons to feel a sense of belonging to their library, this should be highlighted throughout the year, and included in collection development decisions and program planning.
U.S. libraries could observe the global practices of international information organizations and draw from their experiences in order to better design services for diverse populations. In her article, Blackburn references examples from U.S. LIS literature which support the inclusion of cultural competence in navigating interactions with diverse populations. Not all libraries in the United States practice cultural competence within their community, with whiteness being privileged in library and information spaces, making it especially important that LIS professionals in the country work to better serve the diverse populations of their community and nation. Based on Blackburn’s examples, U.S. libraries could potentially promote similar services to Native Americans, although regional differences would require more contextual adaptation. By practicing cultural competency by way of awareness of whiteness and privilege in ourselves and our libraries, libraries in the United States can better serve their culturally diverse communities beyond the basics.
Blackburn, F. (2015). The Intersection between cultural competence and whiteness in libraries. In the Library with the Lead Pipe, December. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/culturalcompetence/
Overall, P. M. (2009). Cultural competence: a conceptual framework for library and information science professionals. The Library, 79( 2), 175-204.