Where are all the diverse librarians? A data-driven reflection

1. on library demographics

Soon after my $20,000 library degree, I surveyed other grads about their experiences. Starting salaries in the Library Journal’s annual Salaries & Placements survey looked great… but they seemed to be missing half of all graduates. Perhaps, I thought, they were missing data on the ones who struggled, working part-time or juggling multiple jobs while trying to break into the field.

My own casual survey was unscientific, but the 380 respondents mirrored our profession: 90% white, 90% female, mostly affluent, mostly educated.

They mirrored me.

Shortly after graduation, I moved across the country to take a faculty position as a data librarian.

My path as a professional-class librarian was calibrated. I grew curious about the career as a teen, but waited for the MLS until saw a low cost, good reward opportunity.

When I moved to Maine, I had a library degree… which I convinced an employer to pay for… and three years’ full-time experience… which I got because a friend invited me to join her in a library… 7000 miles from home… a move I could make because I was debt- and family-free. I’d met her because we met at a conference… where I was presenting with my graduate advisor… who invited me to research in Asia with her… because I was referred by her colleague… because I found his name online and asked to meet… because my father sat me down one day and said he’d paid for my bachelor’s and now I was working in retail and with my interest in research, hadn’t I considered grad school?

I hope you can see how much being single, debt-free, the recipient of merit scholarships (otherwise known as “affirmative action for middle-class white kids”) and encouraged by family to travel for study and work helped to set me up for a good career as an academic librarian.


2. the limitations of class

My partner’s story is different.

As a first generation college student, Amos* wanted to study art, but his family wanted him to study something more practical. They couldn’t pay for his degree, but they made too much for him to get financial aid. His high school grades were decent, but not good enough for a full ride.

Without other options, he paid for his degree by borrowing from our future.

His family urged him to find a job with a decent salary, near home, and finish school quickly. (Not a library degree, obviously).

After those large loans for a bachelor’s, he worked in rural advertising. He didn’t have mentors to lead him out of the region. His family’s philosophy was to work and play hard. After minimum loan payments, he had just enough salary left for a night out, but not much to get ahead.

So I was honored when he uprooted to join me on the West Coast.

Yet we immediately faced class shock. His degree was respected in his home area, but paled beside the competition here in the Bay Area. The culture here is to hustle, always building a portfolio, self-promoting and networking, always learning, always selling.

Amos gave honest answers, related well, worked hard, and cared for others. He was underpaid relative to equally-qualified peers, and promised career growth that didn’t come. He took on uncompensated care labor, training and mentoring others. People appreciated what he gave, but I didn’t see him getting a lot back.

He didn’t face racial barriers—that would have made it so much more challenging–but I watched with sadness as his prior lack of access did make a difference.


3. underrepresented groups in libraries

This fall, I enjoyed the lively posts from the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color on twitter. It hit some points I’d been mulling over for a while, ever since I was asked to write up a proposal for a diversity residency program at an academic library four years ago.

Here’s a compelling chart from JCLC of what we should look like if we reflected the American population as a whole:

Image shared by LaQuanda T. Onyemeh, on Twitter

[Posted by LaQuanda T. Onyemeh, on twitter: https://twitter.com/LOnyemeh/status/1045027643089805312]

There are a lot more white folks in our profession, and a lot less brown folks, than we’d expect if we truly represented our nation.

And this white dominance of libraries haven’t changed in thirty years. We’ve had task forces and working groups, scholarships and leadership/mentorship programs, diversity residencies and pipeline programs. We specifically recruit diverse students as academic library employees, then to library schools, residencies, and entry-level jobs.

The lit reviews get longer each year, as people say, we haven’t seen the numbers change, but if we mentor some more… or recruit some more… or face our racism some more…

My colleagues of color spend untold hours mentoring, researching, writing, speaking, and working to shift libraries from a cozy white space to one where (in one of my white colleague’s words!), “we want to make the old white lady librarians uncomfortable.”

But the numbers aren’t changing.


4. the mls problem

Before I get too far into these numbers, I want to emphasize that librarians of color usually operate in a white workplace. This means they face a litany of small aggressions, requests, brush-offs, and pressures that white folk don’t have to deal with… and that all build up over time. Getting half the professionals in the room to be brown would be a huge relief just because… any time cultural needs come up, the whole room wouldn’t look to the one brown person to solve it.

But as a data librarian, I’m going to turn to my expertise and talk about numbers—because that’s what I do. And I’m going to use the numbers to argue against the MLS, at least as a program that takes money from the poor and provides income for universities.

We talk about recruiting and retaining diverse librarians, because we’re all better off when both librarians and users can learn in a place where their community is fully present and engaged.

And we like to think we reflect America. Take those what a librarian looks like books, that show how diverse we are, by age and class and race and weight and mental health and physical ability and sexuality and immigration status and political viewpoints and… was that education level?

No, you have to have one particular advanced degree to help fellow Americans find information in a library.

Yet once you impose the requirement of a master’s degree to enter the profession, diversity drops off the map.

When we think about trying to be representative of Americans (especially in small public libraries, or community college libraries), it’s helpful to recall how many talented, savvy Americans don’t have a master’s degree.

Using the ACS estimates from the US Census, I drew up this chart of education level by race for working-age Americans. Read it vertically within a race, so that among all self-identified blacks, 52% have up to a high school education, and 6% have five or more years of college:

% of anglos % of asians % of blacks % of native % folks of all races
HS or less 44% 30% 52% 60% 46%
Some college 26% 21% 30% 28% 26%
Bachelor’s 20% 29% 12% 8% 18%
Grad school 10% 20% 6% 4% 10%

[Source: Educational attainment (educ) by race (race), American Community Survey 2012-2016 5 year sample, filtered to age 18-65.]

See that bottom right slice?

Given the massive inequality in our society, it’s going to be awfully hard for our profession to represent all Americans if we come only from the 10% of folks with a master’s degree.

This isn’t to let us off the hook, however. If we compare ourselves just to other highly-educated Americans with a master’s, we see that we’re still far paler than you’d expect. 10% more librarians are white than folks with other masters, so there is something about our field that’s drawing a whiter pool than master’s degree-granting fields as a whole (and interestingly, we’re… low-paid enough? that the many Asians with a master’s aren’t coming into our field).

Librarians Americans with Masters All Americans
White 86% 76% 73%
Black 6.5% 9% 13%
Native .5% .3% .8%
Asian 4% 11% 6%
Other 3% 3% 7%
Total 100% 100% 100%

[Column 1: occ(2430) librarians by race on the 2012-2016 ACS census. Column 2 is educational attainment by degree (educd), and column 3 is all Americans by race. All limited to age 18-65). Hispanic ancestry is calculated separately.]

In other words, our nation has fewer black and native citizens with a master’s, or in librarian jobs, than you’d expect in a just world, where talented children could pursue the field unhampered by history, economics or other structural factors. And given the history and economics that put me where I am, I have a degree, and a profession, with less competition than I’d otherwise have if the field was more open.


5. that master’s slice

When Amos and I read White Working Class, we talked about my bottom-slice upbringing, one that led me to prioritize an intellectual career, taking risks, and separating from family for the sake of work or school. These are assumptions that don’t always make sense for his working-class extended family members.

He doesn’t come from a community that thinks paying $60,000+ for a bachelors… and then $25,000+ for a library degree… and then moving away from home for your first library job… then coming back to earn $30,000 in your rural hometown (while you pay all that debt)…when you could have made that much in a decent store manager job anyway… is a terribly great decision.

Again, I’m not using Amos’ story to erase the specific challenges of being the “token” person that even affluent librarians of color face. But I am highlighting our different experiences because it gave me a better understanding of the challenges some of my peers face (and given that many librarians of color also don’t come from the upper class, they also face these class barriers on top of racial barriers).

It has also shown me why taking on crippling debt and leaving your home community may not always be encouraged. Diverse students might be encouraged to get an MBA or MD and bring it back home… but it’s less likely they’ll be sent off to spend a lot of family time and money to be a librarian.

In fact, while many librarians particularly recruit and encourage folks of color to get the degree, fewer minority students are enrolled in LIS programs than we’d expect:

Posted by Mea Warren on twitter

[Posted by Mea Warren on twitter, https://twitter.com/meawarren/status/1045429271844376577]

(I know of no data on attrition during and after library school by gender, race, class, family status or other factors, but this is data we need to get).

I know many folks worked hard for their MLS and are proud of it, and I don’t want to diminish that accomplishment.

And strategically, I also get the benefits of the MLS-as-barrier. It proves we’re professionals, and keeps applicants from flooding the market.

But it also takes 6-8 years and 2-3 higher education degrees (BA, MLS, and sometimes MA/MS) before a young adult can become a librarian. Opening the gates would lead to more white applicants (e.g. not a solution in itself), but having these gates closed, given the inequality of American education, is part of the problem.


6. all those other masters

But even assuming we do keep the master’s requirement, we have to realize that prospective librarians are evaluating us against other master’s degrees for the best return on investment in whatever way matters to them. When Amos talks about a master’s, it’s always about counseling or teaching or engineering, and he weighs the pros and cons of each field against his values and desired life.

So what if we kept the MLS and just tried to poach high-achieving Americans of color from other masters fields? (I still think this is missing the point, but… thought experiment.)

Here, I again reflect on Amos’ family advice: if you’re going to get that degree, why not do something sensible, like business? Indeed, most master’s degrees are now in business, education, and health—and most jobs available for master’s degree holders (especially if you want to stay close to home) are in those same fields:

I wrote before that librarians can’t expect opening up about pay to change our pay, without looking at our labor market. We also can’t expect people to enter our field when opportunities outside of the field are more alluring–either for new entrants, or for those encountering librarian burnout and wondering whether to stay.

If students of color can’t afford a master’s, they won’t be a librarian. A few diversity scholarships haven’t changed the profession’s demographics. And when people hit repeated tokenism, insults, nonsupport, discrimination, or aggression, they often make a self-saving decision to drop out.

So if talented citizens of color can have better paying, higher status, more flexible, higher impact, and more creative careers through a different masters… why spend their lives on an MLS?


7. it’s on us

Let’s be honest. White librarians often recruit colleagues of color for us. It makes us feel like better people. It makes us look better, or seem more relevant. It reduces attrition among minority colleagues, without really having to change our institutions. So if we want to recruit a large pool of talented minority applicants who could do something else to change the world, for our own benefit, then solving that problem is also on us.

We may need to shift the requirements to enter, and to stay. We may need to rate CVs less on extended education, geographic moves, and ability to hop for low-paid work, as that often doesn’t work for parents, first generation folks, breadwinners, or those who need to give back to a community.

We might want to make *this* the autonomous, meaningful, well-paid, and creative job that everyone’s family tells them to go for… and the diverse applicants will follow.

Thoughts? Leave a note here!