by Malikah Aquilah Hall
THE WORK OF DIVERSITY IN LIBRARIES BEGINS at the crossroad where superiority, inaction, and denial become intolerable. Yet in working toward true diversity, we work without the familiar construct of a mainstream. [This presents] us with questions that serve as teachable moments or paralyzing hurdles. Once at the crossroads, however, there are systematic strategies and operating principles for bringing significance, meaning, and action to this trend called diversity. – Sandra Rios Balderrama in This Trend Called Diversity, Library Trends 49(1), 194 (2000).
In Fall 2015, I was hired as the first Cornell University Diversity Fellow immediately upon graduating from a J.D./M.L.S. joint-degree program. While reading the Balderrama article referenced above and interviewing the next Diversity Fellowship candidates, I could not help but reflect on my time with Cornell. Specifically reflecting on how more opportunities like this fellowship are needed to create diversity and inclusion in law librarianship through immersion in the field.
The Cornell University Law Library Diversity Fellowship, the first of its kind in law librarianship, was created to provide opportunities for new law librarians from underrepresented groups. Cornell does not define “underrepresented” or “diversity” to the applicants. Instead, applicants are asked to define what diversity means to them. Some responses include belonging to a different nationality or religious background, being a member of the LGBTQ community, having experience working with or being a person with mental or physical disabilities, or being a person whose first language is something other than English. It is the brain child of Cornell’s Director, Femi Cadmus, to effectively recruit representatives that move the profession toward diversity and inclusion through tangible action.
The fellowship is essentially an immersion program: you learn by doing. You are required to teach (not co-teach!) twelve sessions of your own section of the first-year legal research and writing course and work at least eight hours a week at the reference work. Outside of these requirements, the program allows you explore different areas of law librarianship (technical and/or access services, collection development, administration etc.), with a concentration on your particular area of interest.
If the fellow chooses to stay on for the second year, they are given an opportunity to develop and instruct an upper-level advanced legal research course on a subject of their choosing. They can also work on their professional development skills via committee work, speaking engagements, and/or through publication. During my time with Cornell, I was able to create my own advanced legal research course that met the ABA experiential standard, accept a chair position for PEGA-SIS and the BCAALL, and speak at the annual meeting for our local AALL chapter ALLUNY.
Diversity fellowships help the profession to move toward true diversity and inclusion. Moreover, they also help to train and incubate the future of law librarianship through immersion. While some institutions may have certain constraints, these fellowships can be catered to a specific institution. At Cornell, the fellowship lasts up to two years. At a smaller institution or an institution with a limited budget, the fellowship could be the length of a semester or academic year. Perhaps your institution has a special project or goal they would like to accomplish – a diversity fellow could give a different or fresh perspective. There are so many program tailoring options available.
I am hopeful that other institutions will create similar fellowships to meet the charge of diversity and inclusion in the profession. Diverse representation and active experience help to move this profession forward. As I begin to transition out of the fellowship position, I can safely say that I feel more confident as a librarian. I am ready to actively contribute to the profession, and others deserve a similar opportunity. I challenge institutions to try to provide such an opportunity.