Issue 28, 2015-04-15

But Then You Have to Make It Happen

Librarianship as a profession has a strong commitment to diversity and tends to attract professionals ethically inclined to champion inclusion. The authors, both from historically underrepresented populations in library information technology, have a half-century of combined experience in the field and have held positions ranging from technician, systems librarian, instructional technologist, head of circulation, and digital scholarship and services librarian to associate dean in an academic library. The authors share their experiences and discuss how diversity and inclusion must be embraced at the individual level in order to develop a culture of diversity within an organization and to attract and retain diverse technology teams. Internal commitments to supporting a diverse environment are ultimately critical to recognizing, assessing, and fulfilling the needs of patrons. The authors identify and detail individual and grassroots efforts that have led to library technology programming for underserved populations, including programs involving outreach to diverse student and prospective student communities over the course of their careers. They reflect on strategies to create and retain a diverse technology group within the library and to advance and support diversity within the day-to-day work environment. They posit that a mix of experiences is necessary to advocate for access to underrepresented patron populations and to negotiate and implement a truly diverse environment with regard to ethnicity, gender, age, and socioeconomic background.

by James Williams III and Jolanda-Pieta van Arnhem


This article is for administrators, supervisors and managers who are seeking multiple perspectives on creating a more diverse staff or reviewing their current diversity plan and activities, as well as anyone interested in diversity in librarianship. The authors place in context the broader issues and challenges faced in creating a diverse workforce and articulate from personal experience both the rationale and the benefits of having a diverse staff. Innovation, whether in technology or the services enhanced by technology, requires diverse perspectives and perceptions. Issues of representation and agency, starting with basic assessment of user needs, must be examined from all angles. Diversity brings unique perspectives based on personal experiences that help organizations and institutions consider a wider worldview and develop a culture of inclusiveness and active questioning.

Learning from Personal Experience

The authors, both from historically underrepresented populations in library information technology, have a half-century of combined experience in the field and have held positions ranging from technician, systems librarian, instructional technologist, head of circulation, and digital scholarship and services librarian to associate dean in an academic library. Williams, an African-American, has served in libraries in varying capacities involving circulation and stack maintenance since elementary school, never thinking in those early years that he would make it a career. After graduating from his undergraduate studies in 1995 with a degree in Philosophy, Williams worked as a library technical assistant (LTA) in the library’s circulation department. Williams wanted to apply what he learned in computer science courses he had taken as an undergraduate student, but library administration expressed concerns over his ability to negotiate and implement complex library systems without a degree in computer science as they were transforming into networked services dependent on campus information technology (Lynch 2000). One forward-thinking department head saw Williams’ talents and desire for lifelong learning and was convinced that he could make an impact by helping others learn how to use and implement rapidly changing technologies. Williams sought to broaden the access of library information and services as the World Wide Web continued to transform and inform the role of the information professional as well as the organization (Rice-Livey and Racine 1997). Williams was given the opportunity to move to an entry-level position in the technical services department where he was able to gain hands-on experience using, maintaining and implementing library automation systems. His continued interest in technology led him to obtain his MLIS and become a systems librarian working on network administration. Technical success with project implementations led him to leadership opportunities and in 2000, Williams was appointed the head of the circulation department. After working for years in library automation, he was convinced that the library would continue to experience major technological changes in all departments (Lynch 2000) and was concerned by the lack of access to technology, professional development and growth opportunities available for circulation staff. With equipment and training, staff quickly learned how to word-process, manage data with spreadsheets, create informational materials, and manage course materials through an online Electronic Reserve System. Today the circulation department works closely with faculty to add course reserves to the campus learning management system, helps administer digital signage solutions, and provides assistance with copyright and accessibility of library resources. Williams now serves as the associate dean of public services and continues to empower library staff by supplying them with the tools and training opportunities they need to keep them viable, productive and marketable. Williams notes the importance of support he received from coworkers at every step of the way in his career, from student assistant to associate dean and has used these experiences to influence his management style, strategic planning, hiring, research and implementation of library initiatives throughout his career.

Van Arnhem has been involved in the technology field since 1989, beginning her tech career as a contract employee for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She took a hiatus from the field, primarily due to NASA budget cuts during the Clinton administration (Conway [date unknown]). Facing downsizing, she was unable to keep up with the cost of staying current with emerging technologies and found herself frustrated with the limited opportunities for growth in the field for women in the early to mid 90s. Having worked in a variety of demanding fields, she often found the tech sector unwelcoming, demanding that women work harder for less money than male counterparts. She further found it necessary to temper her accomplishments with a high degree of femininity and humility, and, like many women, had to choose between a balanced lifestyle, home and family obligations (Margolis and Fisher 2004).

Most of van Arnhem’s technology skills have been self-taught and learned from experience. In an effort to acquire the technology skills she needed to stay competitive in the workforce and have access to the equipment and software required, she took a position as a temporary office manager in an academic computing department in 1998, moved to a field technician position at the university, became an instructional technologist, and ultimately took a librarian position in the digital scholarship and services department at the university. During this time she also completed her BS in Education, MFA in Visual Arts and finally an MLIS as a first generation “non-traditional” student, all while working full-time. The arduous work and school load van Arnhem faced made her sympathetic to other women, non-traditional and minority students she often sees facing similar circumstances. She is happy to see an increasing awareness for the need to inspire and provide educational opportunities for girls from organizations like Girls Who Code (About … [updated 2015]) and Code Savvy (Organizations … [date unknown]), as well as improved access for adult learners to computer science instruction at an affordable cost from programs such as the Georgia Institute of Technology, Udacity and AT&T’s online accredited Master of Science in Computer Science MOOC (Presidential Double-Down … [updated 2015]).

The authors’ interest in diversity is personal and stems from the acknowledgment of the intuitive need for a conscious effort to act and operate in a way that promotes diversity. The need for more outreach to women and underrepresented populations in the field of computer science is noted by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, citing that in 2013 only twenty-six percent of the computing workforce were women, three percent were African-American, five percent were Asian, and two percent were Hispanic (By the Numbers … [updated 2014]). The American Library Association’s study of gender, race and age in the field showed a small increase in the percentage of minorities working in the library profession from eleven percent in 2000 to twelve percent in 2009-2010, but notes that the field “remain[s] predominantly female and white” (Diversity Counts … [updated 2002]). Statistical data for members of the LGBTQQAAIP community appear to be non-existent in mainstream surveys, and the authors hope that organizations will provide more inclusive options in the future. These numbers, coupled with the recent disclosures by Google and other companies in the tech sector such as Apple, LinkedIn and Facebook, all show that they are “struggling to recruit and retain women and minorities” (Getting to Work … [updated 2014]). The similarity between the tech sector reports and the numbers of women and minorities in library technology leads one to question how, with the high number of females in the field, the numbers for both women and minorities are not higher in library technology (Peterson 2014).

It is important to move from the idea that sexism and racism was a problem “back then” and that everyone has the same access to knowledge and resources (Accardi 2013, p 1). Innovation needs diversity, and diversity needs support. In “The Data on Diversity” Nelson discusses the benefits and challenges of supporting diversity and argues, “diversity has been shown to create a cognitive and social environment that is a positive indicator for innovation.” Based on the analysis, Nelson also provides the caveat that “there is not a clear causal relationship shown between diversity and success,” and cites numerous challenges faced when creating effective diverse teams, including “unconscious bias, stereotype threat, exclusion from critical social networks, lack of role models and unaware managers.” Nelson posits, “these dynamics may have real-world consequences” (Nelson 2014, p 88-89). This same sentiment is echoed in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, where he states, “[t]oday, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work” (President Barack Obama’s … [updated 2014]). The same can be said about most minority populations when equal access to education and resources and barriers to workforce entry are taken into consideration (Weise and Guynn 2014). Google’s own report on improving diversity within the field found that encouragement, self perception, academic exposure and career perception are actionable factors that can increase participation (Women Who Choose … [updated 2014]).

Obama’s call for payroll equity and Google’s report on diversity echo John Dozier, Chief Diversity Officer for the University of South Carolina’s notion that “diversity is a verb,” underscoring the need for active, rather than passive, approaches to institutional inequalities. Author, MIT instructor, and MacArthur Fellow Junot Diaz summed it up in his exaltation to male authors writing female characters:

“I think the average guy thinks they’re pro-woman, just because they think they’re a nice guy and someone has told them that they’re awesome. But the truth is far from it. Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of [expletive] representations” (qtd. in Fassler 2012).

Diaz could just as easily have been writing about any group with unrecognized privilege not understanding the issues facing people outside the group (Fassler 2012). Further discussion of this topic is found in the work of Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan, who found that “[b]ehavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies” (Henrich et al. 2010, p 76). This tendency towards marginalization of needs not only hurts the primary victims; it blinds the very organizations that engage in practices of poor reflection and forethought, engendering institutions that fail to know themselves. Heinrich et al. note the use and subsequent overrepresentation of white, Western undergraduate students in university psychological studies. “Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population” (Henrich et al. 2010, p 61). This is the same problem any large technology project that has failed to examine real use cases and do solid user testing encounters. Subsequently, users whose needs are surely already met by existing systems are made up, instead of examining actual users. “Gravitation pull” is a wonderfully apt way to frame problems of cultural and institutional scale. Active, daily attention is needed to combat inequalities.

Diversity is a Verb

Williams and van Arnhem thus realize the need for a conscious effort to act and operate in a way that promotes diversity in library technology. Laura Weidman, founder of CODE2040, whose organization “aims to close the achievement, wealth, and skills gap for blacks and latinos” sums up how important it is to embody an internal commitment to support a diverse environment and promote change, stating that it requires “stay[ing] uncomfortable, and hav[ing] an impact in addressing uncomfortable issues” (Gilpin 2014). People want to see people like themselves: If you want to attract a diverse community, you have to be one.

In 2012, the College of Charleston adopted its first Diversity Strategic Plan, which is providing campus leadership, promoting a more diverse campus environment, and providing an open climate for dialogue about our “campus diversity realities and challenges” (Diversity Strategic Plan … [updated 2012]). There is still a lot of work to do, and developing a culture of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and on campus over the past decade often required grassroots activities and leading by example. The authors have found that every interaction matters and have diligently worked to identify and promote efforts that have led to library technology programming for underserved populations, including programs involving outreach to diverse student and prospective student communities over the course of their careers. They have adopted a “feminist lens” in order to reduce gender, race and other bias in the workplace (Accardi 2013, p 15). Every campus is different and has different needs. Williams and van Arnhem hope that by sharing their collective experiences at their institution, readers will identify strategies and efforts that they can employ on their own campus to promote diversity.

Fostering Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Diversity leadership at the institutional level matters. A culture of diversity must be promoted within an organization to attract and retain diverse technology teams. In “Comparing Status and Statistical Theories of Gender Discrimination,” Correll and Benard note:

“[e]ven when the direct effect of a single act of discrimination is small (and sometimes such effects are large), the consequences of employers’ decisions accrue over a life course. When contributions of individual women are systematically downplayed, overlooked and misattributed, women as a group disproportionately see their applications disregarded, their promotions fail to materialize and their raises are meager. The resulting gap in material rewards fuels perceptions that women are less interested in such rewards or less capable of achieving them, shoring up cultural beliefs that contribute to persistent disadvantages” (Correll and Benard 2006, p 112-113).

Wyche has similarly noted a “cement ceiling” for African-Americans and other minorities (Wyche 2008, p 166), and Wilson subsequently underscored the importance of mentorship and social responsibility in helping those affected with skills maintenance (Wilson 2014). As staff is replaced through attrition, the library must constantly be aware of potential age bias as there is a natural tendency to focus on newly minted professionals in the field.

One major reason why diversity matters is that individuals want to see someone who resembles themselves participating in all aspects of the organization, but especially in technology. The assumption that many individuals are “comfortable with technology” may not be true. They may want and need someone who they feel is approachable and with whom they can identify, ask questions, and learn from. Representation is important in reaching all members of a community and can also lead to interest in joining the library and information science profession. If people don’t see diversity in a field, they infer that there are limited or no opportunities for them. A recent study by Cheryan, Plaut, Handron, and Hudson sheds an interesting light on how commonly accepted computer science stereotypes (for example the white, geeky, male with a fascination for Science Fiction) and past and current media representations may discourage individuals, particularly females, from developing an interest in computer science or STEM fields (Cheryan et al. 2013, p 61).

Strategies for supporting diversity within the field must include acknowledgment that library pay is not only unequal with regard to gender but also often quite low in the best circumstances. Library Journal’s recent salary survey notes that academic librarians in the South had the lowest annual salaries in 2014, and survey respondents commented that the profession suffers from gender bias. In regards to gender and pay, Girmsheid and Schwarts also note that in the “female dominated field, women librarians make roughly 89% of what their male counterparts earn” (Girmscheid and Schwartz 2014). With many of these barriers in mind, Williams and van Arnhem actively advocate for the library to promote individual growth and provide staff with the skills they need to be current and marketable.

When pay cannot be addressed directly, Williams looks for other areas of coworkers’ day-to-day lives that can be made better. This includes simple recognition of achievements or performance, such as certificates and small monetary tokens of appreciation and recognition of outstanding achievements. Williams also advocates for release time from routine activities for library staff and faculty to focus on specific projects of interest. Providing exemption from desk hours or other tasks to pursue professional activities helps to affirm the library’s commitment to staff for professional development, research and lifelong learning. Providing library staff and faculty with professional leave, flextime and opportunities to work from home are other ways of supporting professional development and growth.

Commitment to providing ongoing access to emerging technology and learning opportunities is an essential component of promoting diversity and inclusion in the library. It is important to constantly look for creative ways to enhance job skills and access to emerging technologies, whether through webinars, campus training programs, or other offerings in the community that can yield professional development. Williams and van Arnhem continuously strive to find opportunities to present library staff and faculty with learning opportunities that they may not receive otherwise. van Arnhem has worked one-on-one to design learning programs tailored to specific departments’ or staff’s expressed goals. Professional development topics have included video editing, podcasting, captioning and accessibility, social media, technology classroom equipment, and digital scholarship tools. Willams continuously strives to seek funding for and provide access to new technology in all departments and has been instrumental in creating a staff training committee with a small annual budget. The committee is responsible for bringing in speakers and providing webinars and workshops. Staff are encouraged to express their interests and needs. Supervisors are encouraged to promote activities and facilitate attendance and participation.

In addition to providing professional development opportunities and access to emerging technology within the library, it is important for library faculty and staff to participate in the field by attending and presenting at professional conferences. Though professional development resources are limited, library staff who show an interest in the field of librarianship or wish to know more about it have been sponsored to attend the American Library Association annual conference and report back what they learned from the experience at library wide staff meetings. Staff are also encouraged to submit travel requests for state and regional library conferences and pursue staff development grants. The library has also made a concerted effort to offer tuition assistance to help staff begin or continue their education in the library field as funds are available.

Bartlett notes that formal and informal mentoring for library professionals cannot be underestimated and argues that mentoring activities create a positive organizational culture, contribute to professional development, and may aid in filling library leadership positions as the baby boomer generation begins to retire and leave the workforce (Bartlet 2013). Williams advocated for a pilot staff mentorship program in 2012. Interested staff provided an area of interest and described their current and future goals. Five staff members were selected and paired with senior staff members who worked towards outlining projects and activities that increased the mentee’s knowledge in a specific area. Participants agreed to share their experiences and provide feedback on the pilot program. Due to numerous position searches, including a new Dean of Libraries, and major library renovations, the pilot is still in its infancy and is scheduled to fully resume in 2015. Initial feedback from participants has been positive. Williams also advocated for a small group of senior faculty to provide guidance and answer tenure and promotion questions from junior faculty in order to help alleviate some of the anxiety associated with the tenure process. Junior faculty are more productive and feel supported knowing that the library is behind them, supporting collaboration instead of competition.

All library faculty and staff serve on library committees, which helps to promote a culture of diversity and inclusion. Committee work can provide a vehicle for library staff and faculty to learn from and help each other, share expertise, and enable members to reach individual professional goals. As noted by Nelson, inclusion of all library staff on committees is one way to provide access to social networks and role models and can lead to innovative projects and services (Nelson 2014). A few recent notable outcomes from committee service by library faculty and staff at the College of Charleston Libraries include a Banned Books Week advocacy program, library-wide student worker orientation events, and an ad-hoc social media and digital signage committee, which includes representatives from all libraries and departments. Williams and van Arnhem note that the key ingredients to successful committee outcomes are providing support, including stipends, equipment, release time, and training for additional skills development. Although many of these efforts may seem to be minor interventions, they play a vital part in developing, as Simmons-Welburn notes, a team-based organization. Williams and van Arnhem agree that many of these interventions fall within the realm of “workplace civility,” recommended by Simmons-Welburn to help build community, and that doing so provides positive benefits for the library and the institution (Simmons-Welburn 2004).

Championing Participation and Awareness in Students

Accardi states that “[s]ystems of cultural and societal oppression are frequently replicated and perpetuated in the educational setting” and promotes active engagement with academic feminism in order to bring value to personal experience and raise consciousness about oppression (Accardi 2013, p 30). The authors agree and argue that it is important for the library and its staff to be seen participating in promoting diversity education, outreach, and initiatives. An important role of the library is to provide students, regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic background, with encouragement and academic exposure to successful strategies, proven instruction, and tools that they can employ throughout their education and professional lives. With this in mind, the library promotes outreach not only to campus groups but also to high schools in the local community. From an institutional perspective, community outreach initiatives and partnerships can aid in diversifying student recruitment efforts. The US News diversity index rating for the College of Charleston, taken from the student body during the 2013-2014 school year, is 0.29, with 1 indicating a more diverse student population and 0 representing complete homogeneity (US News… [updated 2015]).

Reaching out to local high schools is one way to build partnerships, connect with the community, and show students that the college is interested in creating a diverse student body. Williams, with the help of a library donor, worked to provide local high school students from an underperforming and underfunded nearby high school with access to laptops with reading skills, SAT, ACT and GED prep software. This was done in conjunction with library instruction on how to conduct online research following research guides set up by the librarians to highlight local resources accessible to high school students, while ensuring that students are questioning the relevance, authority and timeliness of these sources in accordance with principles of information literacy. Williams, van Arnhem and others participated on panels assisting in the critique of senior portfolios for another, predominantly African-American, area high school, which included a critique of their public speaking skills and use of presentation software. Librarians also provided professional development workshops for high school teachers on information literacy topics delivered in a tailored summer program. Unfortunately, these initiatives were not as successful as Williams had hoped due to logistical issues. The high school students had difficulty securing transportation to the library, the senior portfolios presentations were moved to a time that was difficult for library staff to attend, and donor support for professional development activities was not ongoing. However, in all cases, feedback about the library’s interactions and outreach efforts were positive. Since the formal adoption of the college’s diversity strategic plan, campus outreach efforts have had a more directed focus, and university administration is making a concerted effort to increase its diversity recruitment efforts and face the challenges of bringing more minority students to campus (Knich 2015).

In addition to creating a welcoming atmosphere for prospective students, it is also important to improve and support student academic success at the university. This can include a number of facets, from library instruction based around critical pedagogy to working with programs and departments, promoting access, drawing attention to needs of different student populations, and giving students a voice. Williams and van Arnhem actively seek to promote library partnerships with campus constituents. The authors routinely work with campus Multicultural Student Programs and Services, including TRIO Programs and the Speedy Consolidation and Transition Program (SPECTRA) to promote equal opportunity and access to emerging technologies, resources, services and support. Workshops and programs focusing on information literacy and digital fluency are designed and developed in order to provide a firm grounding in the processes, tools, and digital scholarship skills required to successfully complete academic projects. Librarians also collaborate with First Year Experience, the Realizing Educational and Career Hopes (REACH) program, and various campus student support services departments. Williams encourages all library staff to volunteer and participate in diversity training opportunities and service activities in order to help provide a safe and comfortable atmosphere at the library. As a result, the library has numerous Safe Zone Allies, participates in student mentoring programs, and organizes and participates in local community outreach projects. A few notable projects that have occurred as a result are the library’s annual Teacher’s Supply Closet, which provides donated school supplies to needy families, and Food for Fines, where library patrons can pay library fines with food that is donated to the local food bank.

Access to technology resources is a primary concern of Williams and van Arnhem, particularly for underrepresented student populations on campus. The university does not have a computing requirement, making accessibility to library computing resources key. Limited access to computing and digital scholarship tools can limit exposure to STEM/STEAM activities and hinder entry to or advancement in these fields. To that end, the authors have written and submitted grants and communicated their concerns to library and university administration. One recent outcome of these efforts is an iPad lending program, which helps to provide access to a technologically rich environment that encourages technology literacy, information literacy, and collaborative learning. Providing mobile devices for checkout, as well as tutorials and instruction, has proven beneficial to underserved populations.

In order to provide students with a voice at the library, Williams advocated for the creation of a Student Library Advisory Board to provide input on library technology, resources and services. Now in its third year, students from the advisory board have contributed both a unique and vital perspective on issues such as collaborative learning, desired study atmosphere, technological needs, uses of current technology, and recycling. The advisory board has also contributed to the creation and development of a student video collection, advocated for longer lending periods for graduate students, successfully funded and installed a water bottle refilling station in the library, and provided recommendations for library innovations. In the future, the advisory committee will serve as a focus group and provide user testing for the library website redesign project.


Writing this article has provided the authors with the opportunity to evaluate previous efforts and consider new directions. Admittedly the approach of seeking opportunities for improvement wherever they may arise has the drawback of being difficult to assess from a broader perspective. There is still a lot of work to do individually and institutionally; however, the college administration’s leadership is providing new opportunities to widen the discussion about campus diversity needs and challenges. Moving forward, Williams and van Arnhem will continue to lead by example by actively participating in diversity efforts and volunteering service to diverse groups on campus and within the community. The authors will continue to assess library diversity efforts and dedicate time for research in order to learn new strategies to facilitate an open climate. Williams and van Arnhem will also continue to reach out to staff, facilitate dialogue, and advocate for diversity efforts at their institution. For those who agree that promoting diversity is “everyone’s work” and are interested in continuing the discussion about how to support efforts for diversity, equity and inclusion, the authors recommend joining the American Library Association’s Diversity Member Initiated Group (Young 2015).

Many of the experiential strategies to raise consciousness of diversity issues that are discussed here appear straightforward and at times small in scale; however, they all share the commonality of being actionable. A simple strategy like adopting feminist pedagogy and using the search term “women in computing” can provide entry for numerous points of discussion and provide the juxtaposition of ideas, perceptions, and information to counter the replication of patriarchal systems in the education system (Accardi 2013, p 37). Aurora and Accardi note that similar patterns of erasure appear in the literature of librarianship and “advocate for a conscious improvement of the diversity in the voices we are listening to” (Peterson 2014; Accardi 2013). In order to promote diversity in the library technology field, all voices must be considered, whether in the educational experience, the workplace, or the literature of the field. Diversity and inclusion must be supported and championed to remove barriers and encourage participation. The smallest efforts can affect an individual’s trajectory.


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About the Authors

James Williams is the Associate Dean, Public Services at the College of Charleston Libraries in Charleston, South Carolina. He oversees library internal operations, ensures high quality instruction, programming and services are delivered, and supervises the library computer technicians.

Jolanda-Pieta van Arnhem is the Instructional Design Librarian at the College of Charleston Libraries in Charleston, South Carolina. She provides instruction for digital scholarship tools for research and classroom use in the arts and humanities.

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