Monday, October 23, 2006

Another Unreachable Goal

The ALA has officially confirmed that the profession of librarianship isn't very "diverse." It turns out that middle-aged white women make up the, er, bulk of the profession. This is one of the conclusions of a new study, according to this press release from the ALA. I of course could have told them that and saved the money spent on the report, but there's all sorts of other statistics to show that the demographics of the library profession don't perfectly mirror the demographics of the country. Of course, the ALA considers this a Bad Thing, and is making their usual ineffective effort to stop that Bad Thing.

I've already gone on the record about an underrepresented minority I'd like to see more of in librarianship. As usual, the ALA has ignored my concerns.

But let's just consider the ALA effort to recruit more racial minorities into librarianship, because that's the sort of diversity we're talking about. According to the press release, "To increase diversity, the ALA committed $1.35 million in 1997 toward the Spectrum Scholarship Program, a groundbreaking effort aimed at encouraging more people of color to become librarians." That's right, a "groundbreaking effort," because nobody ever thought of offering minority scholarships before. $1.35 million. That's a lot of money. But then, "A 2004 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) nearly doubled funding available for graduate students from racially and ethnically underrepresented groups to attend ALA-accredited master's programs or National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) library media programs." Does that mean we're now talking about approximately $2.5 million dollars? That's really a lot of money.

And what has the ALA been doing with it? Well, "since its inception, more than 400 students have received scholarships, mentoring and ongoing networking opportunities." Nine years, 400 students. But library schools graduate about 4,900 students a year, according to the same study. That's about 44,000 library school graduates since 1997. And that means that ALA's much touted "diversity" program has helped about 1% of library school students. That doesn't seem like much of an effort to me.

The future president of ALA agrees with me on this. Well, sort of. "'This study is a call to action for the profession,' said ALA President-Elect Loriene Roy. 'While we have made progress, the findings confirm the need to commit additional time and financial resources to recruit a more diverse workforce. If libraries are to remain relevant to all of our users, our staffs must reflect our country's demographics.'"

Is this study a call to action for the profession? Do the findings confirm the need to spend more money? Not necessarily. On the logic of the ALA, they only confirm the need if you accept the assumption that the profession of librarianship should exactly reflect the demographics of the United States. If you don't accept that assumption, these findings tell us absolutely nothing about whether we should spend more money on this issue. The problem is there's no evidence or reason to support this assumption. There's no rational reason why every profession should "reflect American demographics."

No one just comes out and says this is about helping minority students become librarians. The rhetoric has to be entangled with the impractical and illogical goal of "reflecting American demographics."

Roy claims that this perfect demographic reflection must happen "if libraries are to remain relevant to all of our users." Consider this statement closely. It implies that libraries are now relevant to all of our users, since we have to remain relevant. If libraries are now relevant to all of our users, and they don't now perfectly reflect American demographics, then according to Roy's logic the profession doesn't have to reflect the demographics of America to be relevant. I agree completely with her logic, though I'm not sure she would have said this if she knew what she was really saying.

There is a difference between recruiting a more diverse workforce or helping minority students and reflecting American demographics. We get this sort of tortured logic, though, because in fact there is no good reason for perfect demographic reflection. There's no logic behind this, only empty rhetoric to make us feel good.

After all, we're not talking about functions and skills here. This ALA "diversity" initiative isn't just saying "we should have librarians who can speak Spanish if we have a lot of Spanish speaking patrons." That's a relevant and logical demand, just like academic libraries often need people who speak all sorts of languages. If you need books in Arabic or German cataloged, then you need catalogers who read Arabic or German. They don't actually have to be Arab or German, though. This is the flaw in the "mirroring America" ideology.

It's also not as if the ALA just came out and said this is an affirmative-action activity to attempt to help racial minorities who historically have been denied opportunities to higher education and to certain careers dependent upon said higher education. This is at least a plausible and to many people a laudable activity that doesn't set up this foolish and unachievable goal of reflecting America's demographics. Helping qualified minority students with scholarships is very different from the bogus claim that the profession must mirror the American population. That's based neither on logic or on humanitarianism. It's just stupid. And it's an unreachable goal destined to end in failure. Does the ALA just go out of its way to create impossible goals for itself?

Obviously the ALA recruitment effort has been as ineffective as most issues they embrace. But why has it been ineffective? There could be several reasons. Perhaps it could be that librarianship is in general seen to be, and in truth often is, a boring profession that doesn't pay very well. With lots of professions trying to boost their minority representation, why would a minority student want to be a librarian? I'm trying to imagine the thoughts of the smart minority college graduate. Hmmm, I could go to law school, or business school, or grad school and probably get a high-paying job. No, I'll go to library school and make a relative pittance. Sign me up, baby!


Anonymous said...

Leaving aside the idea of mathematical congruence, the primary point is your last one. Try hiring well-qaulified minorities--elite law firms and investment banks are out there offering six figure starting salaries to those who have gone to an elite MBA/Law school based on either race or ability. But no matter, you're a minority, baby, and we want you!

Or you can get an MLS. What say you, Minority Persyn?

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those white, male, Western European backgrounded minorities that hasn't got jack in terms of financial aid for going to library school.

In the two classes I'm taking this semester, out of the thirty students in each class, we have one black, a couple of hispanics, a smattering of white males, but overwhelmingly the majority are white females.

So much for a diversity initiative.

mdoneil said...

You have to be kidding, they give people money for going to library school? They actually give them scholarships?

How can they gripe about having a student loan balance greater than their annual income like the rest of us then?

Bunny Watson said...

Mdoneil, you can thank the academic graduate degrees for that high student loan balance. One of the few decent things about my library school is that it passed out reduced tuition scholarships (app. 1/3 off) to anyone who met certain academic criteria - it had nothing to do demographics. Anonymous2 should have gone there!