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June 1, 2013 / Christian M.

Recruiting & Retaining a Diverse Staff in the Library Field

A little over a week ago, there was an interesting editorial published in Library Journal. I read it when it first came out, but I have been taking some time to think about this issue. In “The MLS and the Race Line“,  Michael Kelly criticizes current methods of recruiting minorities to library science.

Many efforts to diversify the ranks of librarians focus on well-intentioned but expensive projects to recruit a small number of aspiring students who may, or may not, become long-term members of the profession. … If the library world wants to create more quickly a persistently diverse workforce of librarians, it should devote more of such grant money to minorities who already are committed library workers but who remain at a lower level because they may lack the wherewithal to attend graduate school.

He uses the Association of Research Libraries’ (ARL) diversity programs as an example, specifically targeting the Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce (IRDW), and ARL’s recent collaboration with the Society of American Archivists to provide a scholarship. As a recipient of two diversity scholarships (ARL’s IRDW and ALA Spectrum), I was a bit taken aback by Mr. Kelly’s assertions that these type of programs may be misguided or ineffective. Mark Puente, the ARL’s director of diversity and leadership programs posted a great response to the editorial with some stats on the success in retention of past scholarship participants.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • He implies that the recipients of these scholarships are not already library workers. Of course, not everyone is. But looking at my IRDW cohort, most of us are currently working or interning in libraries and information centers. We have hands-on experience, and we are committed  to this career path. There is nothing preventing library workers from qualifying for the existing diversity scholarships.
  • I think that providing a diversity scholarship program specifically for library workers is a GOOD idea. Kelly points out in his editorial that 27 percent of library assistants are minorities. So I agree that this is a good pool of people to recruit from. They already have some experience and practical understanding of what it’s like to work in a library or information center setting. ALA does provide some scholarships for support staff that are open to everyone. At the moment there are no diversity scholarships geared towards paraprofessionals that I am aware of. However, I think this type of scholarship program should be in addition to existing programs, and not replace them.
  • He implies that most minority paraprofessionals are not pursuing a master’s degree because of the cost. Finances are a huge factor, but not all paraprofessionals want to become librarians. I have been working in a public library system for 3.5 years, and I was initially surprised by the number of library associates (who perform many of the same tasks as librarians) who are content in their paraprofessional position. For me, it was just a stepping stone to a professional position. However, some choose not to pursue the degree because they are happy with what they are doing now. Others are not sure that they want to stay in the library field as a long-term career. There are also those who become paraprofessionals as a second career after retiring from something else. Recently, I have spoken to two of my (minority) colleagues who are in their thirties and have been working as library associates longer than I have, but are still considering a change to other career paths.  They told me they don’t want to invest the time and money for a degree in a field that they are not sure they want to commit to long-term.
  • The library job market is still tough and very competitive right now. Being a library worker before starting the degree does not guarantee the opportunity to immediately transfer to a professional position post-degree. Some libraries are reducing the number of MLS-degreed positions that are available. Also, not all librarians that are of retirement age, are retiring. So this limits the available opportunities too.
  • There are other ways to use a library science degree besides the traditional library setting. If someone ends up becoming an  analyst for the CIA, or a knowledge manager, or a competitive intelligence analyst for a corporation, are they also considered “failed attempts” at recruiting too? How are we measuring success and retention? That is what I was a little confused about. Does someone have to stay in a library-related field for the rest of their life to be counted as a success? The ARL’s IRDW scholarship requires that the scholarship recipient work in one of the ARL member libraries for a minimum of two years after graduation. There is a level of understanding though, that this depends on the availability of open positions. Should diversity scholarships in general include a requirement that recipients remain in the library field for a certain number of years?

Diversity recruitment and retention is a complex issue. We don’t have all the answers yet. Even though this editorial ruffled some feathers, it’s needed. We have to talk about it, and work together to come up with multiple methods of accomplishing the goal of having a diverse workforce that reflects our user  communities.

What are your thoughts and experiences with diversity issues in librarianship?



Leave a Comment
  1. Evelyn N. Alfred / Jul 4 2013 10:32 pm

    I haven’t read the initial article, but after reading your response, I plan to. You are certainly right about some paraprofessional folks being satisfied with the positions they are in and people who could retire, not retiring.

    I don’t think the current diversity scholarships should be eliminated by any means, I wish there were more (so I could have gotten one 🙂 ).

    Mentoring could possibly help retain Black folks and other POC in libraries, because it’s helpful to “know” people in such a seemingly small library community.

    • LibGirl09 / Jul 5 2013 12:22 pm

      I agree, more scholarships are always good! 🙂 Mentoring is a good point too. I also like the model that ALA and ARL use to host events so that scholarship recipients can meet and connect. Having that support network is helpful and encouraging too.

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