Reviewed By: Naomi Paven, Mary Jo O’Connor, & Mario Torres
Link to article: https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/perj/article/view/4887/4833
Soliciting input from three librarians and one MLIS candidate, “Roundtable: What is holding librarianship back from being more inclusive of visible minorities?” initiates a long-overdue conversation about the lack of visible minority representation within the field in Canada. As addressed in this article, the important discrepancy between Canadian demographics and the makeup of librarianship in Canada cannot be pinned on a single factor or event. Hiring and promotional structures within library systems, recruitment initiatives by information schools, and collection development are listed as areas where potential bias and barriers exist. Beyond the stacks, however, there is an emphasis for the consideration of race, racism, and white supremacy in Canadian society. Librarians, library systems, and information schools must examine their contributions to unfair and unequal practices with a critical eye, and question to what extent their workplaces are a reflection and perpetuation of a biased society.
Although geographically close and sharing powerful economic and political ties, Canada is not a sparsely populated carbon copy of its southern neighbour. With one tenth the population of the United States and governed by a parliamentary system, this officially bilingual nation struggles to define its cultural identity. However, like the US, Canada has also experienced a recent spike in social tension—initiatives to address the wrongs of colonialism, a surge in race-based violence, and a heated federal election scheduled for October 2019 elicit opinions from pundits to laypersons. This article scratches the surface of where diversity and inclusion, Canadian society, and Canadian librarianship intersect.
The article seeks to address the disparity between the great variety of ethnicities in the Canadian population and their lack of representation in librarianship. Bell, Chan, Liu, & Ramos are tasked with answering “What is holding librarianship back from being more inclusive of visible minorities?”. This is a particularly important question in Canada since the 2016 Canadian Census reported that over 250 different ethnicities and ancestries can be found in the Canadian population, with 40% of census respondents identifying more than one ethnic ancestry. The majority of Canadians identify as European descendants, with Chinese, East Indian, and Filipino being among the most common non-European ancestries.
The province with the greatest number of librarians identifying as a visible minority is British Columbia at 15%. Ontario, the country’s most populated province comes in third with only 9%, and all three Territories, as well as the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island, recorded no librarians who are visible minorities. These discrepancies could be due to hiring practices within institutions, or also through inherently racist or biased recruitment of MLIS candidates, or several issues within the profession and society. It is also possible that the current library demographics reflect the cultural, economic, and political dominance of white people in culture in Canada and, more broadly, North America. This article raises potential obstacles to the effective recruitment of visible minorities into the library profession and addresses how Canadian Librarianship can overcome these challenges.
While the article does not adhere strictly to the standards of a research paper, it does use a format backed by academic precedent. In this instance, a written roundtable where multiple individuals in the profession respond to the same question. Tamara Noor, the compiler of the responses that form the article, does not necessarily state that these responses are meant to be representative or authoritative regarding diversity in librarianship. Rather, the responses are presented merely as four opinions from those who have had, by virtue of working in or towards a career in the LIS professions, opportunities to confront this question. This is appropriate as this article appeared in the “Features” section of an otherwise research focused journal.
In a sense, this method attempts to likely capture the voice of their reading and target audience, Canadian, and more broadly North American, library and information researchers, professionals, and students. Despite not outlining a specific methodology for this article, there was clearly editorial thought put into the selection of opinions as they are well chosen by representing a diverse range of positions within information professions. Respectively, an associate librarian, a collections librarian, a systems administrator/manager and an MLIS candidate were consulted. While the subjective nature of the question would make it difficult to address through quantitative analysis, this short article provides an interesting look into some of the likely more common opinions regarding this topic.
Given the nature of the article, the findings are likewise diverse. Norda Bell, an associate librarian, points to larger systemic issues with western cultural itself, claiming that these underlying forms of bias and cultural hegemony perpetuate inequality and lack of diversity in the profession itself. In short, that problems of diversity and retention of diversity in MLIS field will not be solved by internal solutions alone, but by addressing “racism, exclusion, and structural barriers”. While Bell writes with strong sentiment and valid arguments, she doesn’t offer many ideas or methods for broaching this intensely sensitive question, or what happens thereafter, how these ideas are merged into MLIS practice effectively and efficiently.
Mary P. Chan, a collections librarian, gives a similar opinion, but grounds it in facts and possible solutions—she notes that librarians need to worry less about whether there is a lack of diversity in the profession as research, data, and experience will prove to most individuals, the problem is there. Chan claims that action is more important at this stage and offers a list of ideas for possible solutions. She addresses the issue from an institutional standpoint and highlights three core areas of the profession which can create change: administrators and managerial level librarians, professional associations, and MLIS schools/programs.
Of all the respondents, Guoying Liu, Head of a Systems Department, presents her argument most like a research paper. Liu first addresses the demographics in Canada and points out need for improvements in CAPAL data. She then systematically discusses several issues relating to diversity in Canadian librarianship. In Liu’s estimation, the most salient issues affecting the roundtable question are: the issue of proper environment to encourage diverse libraries, and the perceptions of librarians on this topic; lack of diversity recruitment and retention; and deficit of visible minority voices in the MLIS field. Finally, Astrid Ramos is a MLIS candidate and thus has the least first-hand experience on the topic, but also has studied it in her program. She focuses on the idea of recruiting students at all academic levels to increase interest and knowledge of opportunities for people of diverse background to join and strengthen profession.
While well intentioned, diversity initiatives have often proved to be unsuccessful, and are frequently met with opposition in both Canadian and American institutions. The argument is that that the most qualified person, regardless of circumstance, will be hired. This perspective is a result of the unconscious bias that fails to recognize the systematic forces which leave people of color with less access to resources than their white peers. This lack of access has a direct impact on who could be considered the most qualified person for the job. Libraries are not exempt from this bias. This article states that in order for diversity initiatives within Canadian organizations to be successful, there must be an accompanying discussion which confronts inequalities within institutions.
American libraries face a similar issue. In order to make the career path more welcoming to visible minorities, there must be an institutional effort to “[a]cknowledge that past grievances like systematic discrimination and lack of properly funded educational opportunities will deter potential students” (Bell, Chan, Liu, & Ramos, 2018, p.3). American libraries can do as this article suggests and make diversity an institutional priority. Doing so will require addressing those previous grievances and providing alternative opportunities that will ease the way for visible minorities who wish to gain employment within an information institution. A diversity initiative that does not acknowledge the harmful structures in place and work to remove barriers is destined to be unsuccessful. In order to truly bridge the gap within American libraries, this article suggests incorporating feedback from visible minority librarians into strategies and action plans that seek to improve institutional inclusivity.
Canadian Association of Professional Academic Libraries. (2017). 2016 Census of Canadian academic librarians cross tables. Retrieved from https://capalibrarians.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Cross_Tab-Report_June_16_2017_FINAL.pdf
Bell, N., Chan, May P., Liu, Guoying., & Ramos, Astrid. (2018). Roundtable: What is holding librarianship back from being more inclusive of visible minorities?. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 13(2) DOI: http://doi.org/10.21083/partnership.v13i2.4887
Statistics Canada. (2017, October 25). Ethnic and cultural origins of Canadians: Portrait of a rich heritage [webpage]. Retrieved from https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016016/98-200-x2016016-eng.cfm