Student Scholarship Winner – Paul Sager

sagerBy Paul Sager

It was an honor to accept a student scholarship to attend the ACRL/NY’s annual symposium, held at Baruch College on December 4, 2015. The symposium’s goal was to examine the ALA’s Core Values in relation to academic librarianship. The organizers chose to highlight the values of social responsibility, democracy, education, and professionalism.  I found this exciting because, for me, one of the most vital aspects of the library profession is the ALA and ACRL’s commitment to promoting democracy and social equity.  I was offered a scholarship based on a short application essay.  In it, I expressed the hope that the symposium’s program (still unannounced when I wrote) would address open access and critical librarianship, which I saw as key topics for applying the Core Values to academic librarianship.  As it turned out, the meeting focused heavily on a Core Value that I had not raised in my essay, but which is arguably even more important: diversity.  All but one of the speakers chose to grapple with the question of how to make academic libraries more inclusive for and representative, primarily for people of color. The full inclusion of all marginalized groups was implicitly on the table at this symposium, but the burning issue was the need to make the library profession less white.

None of the speakers brought up male/female gender representativeness, per se, as a concern (Michael Waldman’s poster on welcoming trans- and gender-nonconforming aside), and for good (if implicit) reason. Yet the diversity discussion is about more than representativeness.  It is also about equality for those who are represented—an important, if basic, insight I took away from the symposium.  In a world in which men still enjoy significant socioeconomic privilege, male librarians can hardly be said to constitute an oppressed minority in the profession, regardless of gender stereotypes, which affect men as well as women.  Socio-institutional tendencies still put disproportionate numbers of males in technology and leadership positions within the profession.  Many speakers and discussants (including on Twitter), therefore appropriately invoked feminism, either as an overarching political vision that integrates working to increase diversity (the radical/queer feminism of Chris Bourg and Lareese Hall) or in more particular ways, as in Isabel Espinal’s testimonial account of micro- (and macro-) aggressions experienced from her colleagues as a Dominican (ex-public) academic librarian with children.  In a profession that remains 80 percent female (though the percentage is lower among academic librarians), females obviously continue to suffer from patriarchal bias. Some speakers (Bourg, Hall, Drabinski) mentioned sexual orientation, and Waldman’s poster addressed transgender issues.  One participant from the audience emphasized the need for outreach and overcoming bias toward people with disabilities, but such categories never held center stage.

The primary concern at the symposium, and arguably in the larger discourse today, was and is the search for the means of increasing racial inclusiveness.  The day’s discussions brought out a host of insights and concerns about this question. Ione Damasco stood out by sharing vital empirical results from her path-breaking research-in-progress on academic libraries’ diversity plans—or, what is much more often the case, the lack of such plans.  Of the 1,561 academic libraries Damasco examined, only 22 had diversity plans in place—a sobering testament to how underdeveloped the diversity movement is in this field. Damasco’s systematic inventory of which institutions have plans in place, and the content of those plans, turns an enlightening spotlight on what concerned academic librarians often discuss solely from anecdotal perspectives.

The speakers themselves were certainly diverse in phenotype and ethnicity, with a notable presence of members of minorities of color—African-American, Latina, Asian-American—along with minorities of sexual orientation.  The social categories the presenters reflected were disproportionately those of racial and sexual minorities among academic librarians.  The symposium thus offered leadership on diversity precisely from people of social categories whose numbers in the profession should grow with progress toward that diversity.  The symposium itself thereby embodied such progress.

Being a straight, white, cisgender male who is just entering the field, the diversity question troubles me.  Given that the library profession is “painfully homogenous” (as Chris Bourg, one of the symposium’s keynote conversationalists, had previously put it in a co-authored piece on the issue: Morales, Knowles, & Bourg, 2014), am I—or rather the gender, sexual, and racial categories in which I am placed—part of the problem?  Am I entering a zero-sum library game, where my statistically privileged presence inevitably displaces or blocks one person of color, one gay or lesbian, one woman?  If so, can I not, by conscious activism, work within the field to open more future opportunities for people who are now excluded—excluded, in some sense, by my own inclusion?  Can active work toward future opportunities offset, in some sense, the carbon footprint of failing to personally represent diversity in the profession? Is it acceptable or hypocritical—or both?—for members of majority categories to get jobs or promotions yet to try to steer future opportunities toward members of minority categories in order to expand representativeness?

It is arguably challenging for members of dominant groups to speak and even think clearly about diversity, given the intrinsic pull of privilege and the relative lack of authentic experience of deprivation, denial, and invisibility.  Added to those factors is doubtless the fear we often feel of saying or doing something that will be judged—perhaps rightly—as blinkered or morally reprehensible.  The gnawing worry I have that my very entry into librarianship is part of the problem is part of this dynamic.  And it is precisely why straights/whites/males need to make much more of an effort to contribute to the discussion and to the concrete steps toward change.  Members of majorities must also lead.  It would probably be retrogressive or perverse for members of dominant categories to dominate (if only numerically) a forum on diversity like this symposium, but meetings of “white librarians for diversity” is not inconceivable, and might be what some of those 22 existing diversity plans actually represent, tacitly, in practice.

I am grateful to ACRL/NY for giving me the opportunity to confront a profound, almost existential social question at the outset of my career as an academic librarian. I am elated to be a member of an association that explicitly adopts such values and struggles to put them into practice.  I hope this symposium will be one of many paving stones on the road to a library field containing many more complexions and persuasions than my own.  

Reference:

Morales, M., Knowles, E. C., & Bourg, C. (2014). Diversity, social justice, and the future of libraries. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 14(3), 439–451.

Paul Sager completed an MLS at Long Island University in January 2016 after earning a PhD in History and French Studies from New York University in 2013.  He is currently a Reference and Instruction Librarian for English and Romance Languages at Hunter College. His library studies interests include the unfolding role of the ACRL Framework in information literacy education and the effect of the digital divide in higher education on scholarly communication. He is conducting research on the effects of mass digitization on historians’ research practices.

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