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Supporting Diversity in Law Librarianship

September 11, 2013

Let’s begin by recognizing that the profession is already diverse, but there just are not that many law librarians of color compared to the number of people of color in the general U.S. population. I believe this difference will continue for generations and that we should address this by fostering a climate for diversity for library employees and patrons.  Here are some suggestions for supporting diversity in law librarianship.

Cultural Competence: More Important than Shared Racial Phenotypes

Lack of shared physical characteristics should not be an insurmountable obstacle to developing the kinds of ongoing relationships that law librarians have the opportunity and, arguably, the duty to develop with patrons.

Physical characteristics are insufficient evidence of a librarian’s capacity for cultural competence or to create an environment that is supportive to a diverse patron base. For example, internalized racism can inhibit a person’s cultural empathy, and life experiences such as growing up in an underprivileged community can result in increased cultural intelligence. Intersectionalities of race, gender, and other characteristics can mean a librarian may look like your patron base but experience life very differently due to differences in class, culture, and nationality or vice versa.

Minority Groups are not Homogeneous

Although shared racial phenotype characteristics may initially make law librarians more approachable to patrons who look similar, shared membership in a minority group, broadly defined by an external gaze, is not an indicator of a librarian’s ability to serve patrons from that minority group.  Pay greater attention to how librarians interact with people of various races.

Look for a unique mix of skills and characteristics. You will never find, nor do you need, a librarian who is similar to all members of a minority group that your library serves.  But you can add racial & cultural diversity and train the librarians you have to serve the needs of the patron base as it is and as it evolves to become increasingly diverse.

Job Flexibility & Autonomy Attract More Job Applicants

Increasing autonomy and flexibility in law librarian job duties also increases job satisfaction and dedication. Allowing employees more autonomy will attract and keep a larger more diverse pool of candidates overall.

Values Trump Learnable Skills

Choose applicants with the right attitude, values and behavior. Do not rule out job applicants who lack skills they could learn on the job. Relax the need for specific experience; instead, look for values. Look for the kind of cultural competence that would enable the librarian to connect with your patron base. A new law librarian who is ambitious, intelligent, enthusiastic, and committed to lifelong learning can learn the necessary skills and substantive knowledge. Select the candidate whose life experiences, cultural perspectives, and values have prepared them to serve your library’s specific patron demographic.

Equal Opportunity Does Not End After the Candidate Accepts the Job

Commitment to diversity means not only being willing to hire a law librarian of any age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality, but also being able to retain such a candidate. Be diligent in fostering and maintaining a supportive environment. An uncomfortable environment will encourage good employees to leave at the first opportunity. To “diverse” law librarians, I would add, look for an employer with a measureable commitment to fostering diversity.

Ongoing Cultural Competency Evaluation & Training is Essential

‘Respect for difference’ means training the entire library team to be aware of implicit bias, to develop cultural empathy, and to effectively communicate cross-culturally. Choosing only new librarians who can blend with the current team perpetuates homogeneity within the law library. Build a climate for diversity by behaving in a culturally competent way towards current library employees and by providing employee training that helps develop diversity competence.

Implicit Bias: Equal Treatment or Equal Outcomes?

Consider how your policies may be implicitly biased. Be willing to change policies that create unnecessary and arbitrary limitations resulting in some employees having to sacrifice more than others in order to enjoy the same career success. If you want to retain diverse law librarians, be ready to rethink library policies that were developed without taking into consideration the needs of the diverse librarians you seek to attract.

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