Diversity Panels vs. Diversity on Panels

img_0819In spring 2016 I attended my first library conference, LACUNY Institute 2016. The theme was Race Matters: Libraries, Racism, and Antiracism. For a first-time conference attendee it was an ideal event. Diversity, in librarianship and in general, is something that I feel passionate about. As a Brooklyn College alumna, the venue was special to me, too.

I looked forward to seeing one of my Twitter favorites, April Hathcock, speak and she did not disappoint. We began with her riveting, and quite funny, opening talk. She spoke her truth about diversity, identified different roles to be filled and methods and practices we could use to encourage more diversity in the larger library community. The breakout sessions focused on these and a variety of diversity-related issues. The key takeaway from April’s talk, and the conference as a whole, was the necessity to focus on “diversity and inclusion, recruitment and retention.”

Then, this past July, I traveled to Coral Gables, Florida to attend RBMS 2016 as an IMLS-RBS fellow. This conference, Opening Doors to Collaboration, Outreach and Diversity, was also focused on diversity in librarianship and archives. RBMS’s scale is much larger than LACUNY’s, with perhaps triple the attendance and events spread out over several days. It coincides with the annual ALA conference and is always located nearby. This meant that conference attendees came from far and wide. The opportunity for in-depth conversations with colleagues from around the world was enlightening, and being somewhat confined to a remote location allowed for extended interaction outside attending conference events. The large scope and greater volume of content at RBMS makes it harder to point to one key takeaway. I can say that I was left with an overall feeling of hopefulness and excitement about archives and libraries and my place in them. Though, after both events, a question lingered:

Should we apply our focus to organizing and promoting diversity panels or strive for diversity on panels? This subtle, but crucial, distinction may not seem all that important.

It is.

The topics discussed, collections discovered and breakout sessions at both LACUNY and RBMS 2016 could have been slotted into any event about libraries and archives. The story of saving Zora Neale Hurston’s archives from burning to ashes was riveting. Learning about the clutter and dust of an archive hidden in a hoarder’s nest made us all cringe and sympathize. These collections, just two of many discussed in Coral Gables, happened to focus on the works of people of color and were spearheaded by them, too. There is nothing else about them that made them especially suited for a diversity-themed event. Similarly, the panels and talks at LACUNY’s event, though focused on aspects of race and librarianship, could also fit into series about customer service in libraries, fostering welcoming workplace environments, collection development or collection building.

The goal of diversifying spaces and professions is a noble, and necessary, one. But, without an effort to fill conference panels, staff boardrooms and reference desks, appoint university faculty and the like with people from varying backgrounds through proactive means, can we truly achieve diversity?

I have reason to hope. Since the conference, LACUNY and METRO have kept the dialogue going while planning an un-conference addressing the issues, concerns and potential strategies discussed at the LACUNY institute last spring.  There have been in person meetings and a series of group edited Docs where the discussions have focused on the best way to go from talking points, to concrete steps, to diverse and inclusive librarianship. This effort has created a safe space to dig into these issues. Which is wonderful. However, we need to devise a way to reach those who won’t attend these kinds of meetings and conferences. Those on hiring committees whose subconscious prejudices affect hiring practices even with safety measures and EEO codes of conduct in place.

It’s a good beginning, but we’ve still got so much work to do to change the landscape.


About the Author

Wanett Clyde is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian. She is also a student in the MALS program.