National Dialogue on the Curriculum of Readiness for the 21st Century Librarian

ALA Annual Conference - Chicago, Illinois - Tuesday June 28, 2005


Plenary Session II: Diversity and Equity in LIS Recruitment, Education, and Readiness

W. Michael Havener:  Our first speaker is going to be Maurice Wheeler, from the University of North Texas.

Audience:  [applause]

Maurice Wheeler:  Good morning everyone! I have reached the interesting point in my life on the road to bifocals, where I can neither read with nor without my glasses.

Audience:  [laughter]

Maurice Wheeler:  So, you'll have to excuse me if I stumble through this. The year 2004 marked the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education court decision, requiring the desegregation of public schools in America.

This groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decision had a tremendous effect on libraries, and librarians. It reshaped laws, policies, practices, and to some degree attitudes about education, as well as the use of public facilities and libraries. It seemed hard to imagine that in 1991, the new generation of Supreme Court Justices quietly began to create what is viewed as an "incremental reversal" of that 1954 decision.

In fact, January 2004, the Civil Rights Project at the Harvard University, released the findings of a new research project on the re-segregation of American public schools. There is no need to research re-segregation of library schools in America. Statistically speaking, there are few if any, that have ever been truly integrated.

Librarian information assigns student and faculty demographics are a clear indication that while library school classrooms are not segregated by policy, they have remained so by negligent recruitment and retention practices.

The complexity of issues within the educational process is daunting. Yet, despite the frustrations fueled by enormous political and organizational challenges, there is optimism for the future. Indeed, great strides have been made in effort to provide African Americans, and later other people of color, with equal opportunities for intellectual and professional pursuits.

Yet, 141 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, and 40 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court determined that affirmative action in higher education is still appropriate, and still necessary.

America has yet to fully be exercised of its demons of racial bigotry and the inequities in education, there is still much to be done. Considering the tremendous range of cultural, ethnic, and other types of visible and invisible diversity in our lives, in what ways and by whom are students being prepared for the reality of the shifts in racial and ethnic majorities?

Meeting the information needs of a culturally diverse population, will require continuous assessment and reorganization of information in the advancement of cultural knowledge. For librarian's skills and abilities to be professionally relevant, they must possess a level of competence that enables them to function successfully, and provide effective information services in a racially and culturally diverse society.

How do we make this a reality? How do we move from rhetoric to action, and who is responsible for that outcome? This is the crucial question, who ultimately is responsible for these changes in our profession, and for moving the diversity agenda forward in LIS Education?

Certainly, it would not be inappropriate for me to say that we are all responsible. However, I believe that the responsibility falls with more weight in some areas than in others. In essence, some of us by virtue of our professional positions or participation are more responsible than others.

Although, I could discuss the LIS Administrative leadership in diversity or the lack of it, or the research that I have on faculty that shows they are not voluntarily to revise their current courses related to diversity, I will devote my today on another area of responsibility and that is of professional associations, and I'll start with ELIS.

I'm a new member to ELIS, and I certainly cannot say that I have my finger on the political pulse of the organization, but I am very observant. This past winter at the Annual Conference of ELIS, I facilitated a presentation on the research, current research and diversity.

Louise Robbins was present, but I expected her to be, because she's a big champion of diversity issues for a long time. But the sparse attendance at the session for me was an indication that the topic is no longer a collective agenda item for the association, and perhaps even for individuals. They don't see diversity as relevant in their daily lives as teachers. Moreover, without a critical mass of people who are insistent that diversity become a permanent and active aspect of the association's agenda, it never will.

Regarding ALA, although I am thrilled at the support that the Spectrum Initiative has continued for so many years, it appears to me that many people are happy to point to the Spectrum and suggest that all is well, and therefore the association and the profession are meeting their obligation. Yet, programs like today leave me hopeful that new initiatives will arise and we will see action for the future.

My research also tells me that faculty will do what they are required to do, the things that they cannot negotiate on. So, I go to the source of the power. The most recent version of the ALA standards of accreditation for masters programs and library information studies was last revised over 10 years ago.

It identified diversity as being important because of the changing racial and cultural composition of society. However, subsequent passages stopped short of taking prescriptive positions. Therefore, for me they are essentially window dressing.

For example, and I quote, "The school has policies to recruit, rank, and retain faculty for multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual backgrounds." That's great, but what good is the policy if there's no enforcement of it?

Sure, library schools might have policies, but how many of them have faculty of color in full-time tenure-track positions?


How many schools offer mainstreamed diversity-related courses on a regular basis?

While the inclusion of the four references on diversity in the accreditation standards of ALA is certainly no small feat -- and I know how painful it was to arrive at that -- the reality is that now 10 years later they lack the level of detail that commands action and response.

More important, the library schools know that the issues within the standards on which they are challenged are not related to diversity. The mere presence of the topic in the standards can provide support for schools that want to improve diversity.

However, the statements are sufficiently weak that schools and programs with no interest in the topic can easily point to halfhearted and marginally related activities in attempts to show their diligence.

The standards conclude by stating that there is a desire to include diversity. If a reader had previously any concerns about whether the references were prescriptive or not, the statement regarding desire makes it clear. The answer is "no". It's not a mandate. It's not even strongly encouraged. It's a "desire".

By contrast, the National Education Association, NEA, in its policy statements has taken a much strong position. While still avoiding heavy-handed prescriptive measures, the standards provide a clear articulation of the association's position and states it with some degree of specificity.

In the policy section on curriculum reform it reads, "Any effort at curriculum revision should be designed to prepare all students for effective citizenship and participation in an increasingly diverse multicultural and multiracial society. A common body of intellectual reference must be inclusive of all traditions and realities."

The NEA also recommends that, quote, "In designing the college's curriculum and schedule, the faculty should take the responsibility to ensure that it is suited to the needs of a multiethnic multicultural society."

In many ways, the library information science profession is a reflection of the society it serves. Nevertheless, it is essential that librarians are prepared to not only work with people from diverse backgrounds, but are also able to pursue multiple and divergent perspectives even when their own opinion, personal boundary, or belief is not validated or affirmed.

Library education programs must accept the responsibility of populating the profession with a new generation of culturally competent librarians. That task falls squarely on the shoulders of faculty.

Their success will be determined by how well their teaching reflects the evolution of both our society and our profession. Thank you.