Diversity and inclusion in libraries

Diversity and inclusion in libraries

It’s a critical moment for those of us working in libraries to talk about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice, and for us to make it the center of our work. I’m fortunate to work in a ‘slashed career’ where I get to foster diversity and inclusion in different contexts. For three days a week, I work in an academic library where I’m passionate about open education and digital inclusion. For two days a week, I work in a HR diversity and inclusion role, where I’m passionate about fostering inclusive environments. I also casually tutor Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and freelance about disabilities, accessibility and mental health.

I believe libraries have an opportunity and a responsibility to advocate for diversity and inclusion across two streams – diversity and inclusion for our communities (our patrons); and diversity and inclusion for our profession (our staff).

Diversity and inclusion for our communities

Library staff provide access to information, as well as the tools and skills to critically evaluate that information in ways that promote diversity and inclusion. We also have a responsibility to ensure that we are providing fair and equitable access to marginalised community members. As librarians, we need to ask ourselves:

  • Do our services, programs, collections and resources reflect the diversity of our communities, especially those who may be marginalised?
  • Do all patrons have equitable access to these services, programs, collections and resources?
  • Are our policies and practices inclusive of all our patrons?
  • Do we outreach and advocate for those who are marginalised within our communities?
  • Are we using inclusive language when interacting with our patrons, verbally and in writing?
  • Is our library a physical and virtual safe space for everyone?
  • Is our physical and digital infrastructure accessible?
  • Are we working with our communities to collect and preserve local histories?
  • Are we promoting books, articles, videos and other resources by and about people from marginalised groups?
  • Do we speak out when the rights of marginalised people are restricted?
  • Do we advocate for policies and campaigns that increase equitable access to information for all (e.g. Cooking for Copyright Campaign, Open Access policies and the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty)?
  • Are our library staff LGBTIQ ‘allied’ and disability trained, and willing to handle diversity related issues?
  • How do we create cultural and psychological safety so everyone feels welcome in libraries?

Diversity and inclusion for our profession

If we take a good look at our profession, I don’t think we’re that diverse. We are dominantly white and dominantly female. We are advocates for diversity and inclusion but it’s not reflected in the staff of our profession. To support diversity and inclusion in libraries, we need to ask ourselves:

  • Do we have policies and practices that help us recruit, manage and build teams with diversity and inclusion in mind?
  • Have we created an inclusive environment where library staff feel safe to disclose? How do managers and peers support disclosure?
  • Do our professional development opportunities encompass themes of diversity and inclusion?
  • Do we have diverse speakers and voices at LIS conferences/events? And in the literature we publish?
  • Do we provide professional development opportunities on unconscious bias, interpersonal communication styles, inclusive leadership, bystander intervention, cultural competency and emotional intelligence?
  • Do we address harassment, discrimination and workplace bullying?
  • Do we encourage courageous conversations in the workplace?
  • Is workplace flexibility distributed equitably to all staff? Does it extend beyond parental support? Is it inclusive of people with disabilities, carers of people with disabilities, staff who experience or witness domestic or family violence?
  • Do we talk about and provide enough support regarding mental health?
  • Do teams’ value diversity of thought, draw on the talents of all people, and make staff feel both a sense of uniqueness and belonging? Do each of us consider ourselves as leaders regardless of our position, and understand that we all have a role to play in nurturing inclusion?
  • Do we take the time to work on our own self-awareness in order to develop understanding and empathy for others?

Libraries need diversity. We are the holders of diverse stories and diverse histories. When we nurture diversity, we are essentially nurturing our empathy and understanding for others.

Diversity includes characteristics such as cultural background and ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, language and education. Diversity also includes characteristics such as professional skills, working style, and life experiences. Diversity recognises all the ways we differ. Some of these differences we are born with and cannot change. Anything that makes us unique is part of this definition of diversity.

However, above all else, we need inclusion. Inclusion is a sense of belonging, where everyone feels valued, empowered and respected.

Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.

So, how do libraries become more inclusive?

Inclusion through physical and digital infrastructure

Do our communities have access to safe and inclusive physical and digital spaces in libraries?

We need to build awareness and capacity among our profession towards best practice when creating and communicating our digital content:

  • Are we using inclusive language and inclusive representation in our online content?
  • Are our technologies accessible on ScreenReaders and mobile devices?
  • Do we use Universal Design Principles when producing content?
  • Do our collections reflect the diversity of our communities?

And are our physical spaces inclusive of difference? Do we have different sorts of chairs for different heighted people? Is everything accessible for a wheelchair user? Do we have braille signage?

And are our libraries welcoming of everyone?

It was interesting to read the diverse tweets on ALIA’s recent leadership and innovation forum on libraries and our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Some people were saying that libraries were doing a great job at creating a culturally safe space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, whilst others were saying libraries were a culturally unsafe space. In all honesty, I sit on the fence about this. However, what I do know, is that libraries can do better.

However, the quote from Clinton Schultz really resonated with me. He states: “Create spaces for us to be Aboriginal in the workplace. In a way that fits for us. Where people can see a piece of themselves. When you put a piece of your heart and spirit into a place it’s very hard to walk out the door.”

Libraries need to do this for our communities and our staff. We need a place where we can see ourselves in our environment; a place where we feel a sense of uniqueness and a sense of belonging. In libraries, this could be feature walls or murals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork, or rainbow stickers to show support for our LGBTIQ community, or hanging Chinese lanterns (or other cultural features) to represent diversity the diversity of our communities.

We need to reflect the diversity of our communities in order to make them feel valued and included.

Inclusion through language

Words matter. They reflect the values and knowledge of people using them and can reinforce both negative and positive perceptions about others. Language is not neutral. Derogatory or discriminatory language undervalues individuals or groups, denigrates, humiliates and perpetuates stereotypes and inequality in society.

Our use of language – how we speak, write and visually represent others is an important part of our work as librarians in enabling a progressive and inclusive society. This includes using non-binary language, understanding cultural protocols and terminology, and using language that focuses on individuals, not stereotypes (e.g. the individual, not the disability of an individual).

I think language is one of the most underrated, but one of the most powerful enablers of inclusion.

Inclusion through behaviour

We need to promote and embed inclusion into the foundation of our everyday activities and behaviours. Take it off the paper and practice in our everyday lives. We are not born homophobic, or discriminatory or a bully…it’s not our innate human nature. It’s learnt behaviour that is malleable and influential.

Libraries are forever evolving and there are challenges ahead that require us to be even better in the way we work and engage with our communities. It is not possible to achieve our goals through technical and structural changes alone; each initiative has a human dimension requiring a shift in attitude and behaviour too.

Therefore, it’s imperative as a profession that we look at the foundation of what drives our behaviours. Inclusion is an innate behaviour we all have the ability to choose. It lies deeper than our cultural lens. Inclusion is telling us all, that at our foundation, we are all the same by the simple fact that we are different.

Life presents us all with situations that can be uncomfortable, challenging and where we don’t feel completely equipped to manage. It is this feeling of not being equipped to deal with life and  challenging situations that lead us to use behaviours that impact negatively on ourselves and those around us – our unwanted behaviours. Behaviour is not who a person is but what a person does. What we do can be changed when the behaviour is correctly understood and behavioural change strategies are taught. I heard a quote recently at and event: “the worst disability is ignorance and small mindedness.” This is absolutely spot on – and dangerous to librarianship. As librarians, we need to challenge ignorance and exclusion to inspire transformational change and create a safe space for everyone.

Inclusion through connection

Our communities are crucial to everything we do. We are advocates of social justice. Our work is crucial to democracy and the wellbeing of the communities we serve. The media constantly reminds us we are in political polarisation – racial inequality, gender inequality, LGBTIQ rights, the #MeToo campaign – are all issues in the forefront of our work.

Librarians are the unsung heroes of diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice. – both within our communities and within ourselves.

Remember: inclusion is telling us all, that at our foundation, we are all the same by the simple fact that we are different…

And that is the beauty of connectivity.



Note: This is an extended piece on my previous post ‘diversity and inclusion in librarianship.’


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