Academic research libraries are many things: knowledge storehouses, teaching and research partners, technology hubs. When it comes to the people who staff and lead them, however, these institutions look too much the same, skewing heavily white and female. That assessment, which won’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention at library conferences, is one of the standout findings of a report released today by the nonprofit group Ithaka S+R.
The report analyzes employee demographics and director perspectives at a group of member institutions of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). It’s a partial but useful snapshot of how much work the research-library community has left to do to achieve meaningful diversity and equity at all levels of the hierarchy. And it provides data likely to help amplify recent critiques made by high-profile academic librarians and commentators such as April Hathcock, Jennifer Vinopal, and Chris Bourg, who in scholarly articles, blog posts, and conference presentations have been holding the profession increasingly accountable for its lack of progress when it comes to diversity. (The report mentions the work of all three.)
“The findings are probably not going to be earth-shattering for people who have spent any time thinking about employment in academic libraries,” says Roger C. Schonfeld, director of Ithaka’s Libraries and Scholarly Communication program and co-author of the report (along with Ithaka analyst Liam Sweeney).
The report indicates that research libraries are doing pretty well on the gender front, Schonfeld says. “It’s with respect to people of color that they have quite a way to go.”
Ithaka’s analysis found that women constitute 61 percent of employees at participating libraries, while men make up 38 percent. (“Very few employees are categorized as transgender,” the report says, adding that that is likely “an artifact of the conventions of HR systems.”)
The racial breakdown is much starker. According to the report, more than three-quarters of employees in librarian roles are white. That figure climbs to almost 90 percent for library staff in the top echelons. Directors don’t always see the problem clearly, either, tending to describe their libraries “as more diverse and more equitable than the community more broadly, regardless of the patterns at their institutions,” Schonfeld says.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation asked Ithaka to conduct the survey as part of an ongoing series gathering diversity data from different walks of cultural and academic life. Originally the Ithaka team hoped to get substantial data from the whole range of academic libraries, not just ARL members. It got a disproportionately robust response from ARL libraries, so they became the focus of the final product. Ninety-eight supplied spreadsheets with their employees’ demographics, and 56 supplied answers to a questionnaire about directors’ views on how well their libraries are doing on the diversity front. (The ARL has 123 institutional members in all.)
“I personally would be surprised to see a dramatically different pattern if we’d had all of the ARL libraries participating,” Schonfeld says.
Beyond the Pipeline Problem
The imbalances described in the report persist in spite of an array of ongoing attempts to support a broader and more-diverse library community. The report mentions several such efforts, including the long-running Spectrum Scholarship Program, started by the American Library Association 20 years ago. The ARL has put in place several diversity-and-inclusion programs, and the Association of College and Research Libraries has established a Diversity Alliance “to increase the hiring pipeline of qualified, talented individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.”
The Ithaka report does not attempt to explain why academic libraries still struggle so much with diversity and inclusion. (See April Hathcock’s 2015 article “White Librarianship in Blackface” for a detailed critique of how diversity initiatives set up to remove barriers can actually create them.)
There’s the so-called pipeline problem—and then there’s what happens after people actually get hired. “How do you manage talent once you’ve recruited it?” Schonfeld asks. “How do you think about the whole lifecycle of promotion, retention, and development?”