Keeping Up With… Implicit Bias


This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Tarica LaBossiere, Endia Paige, and Beau Steenken.

Tarica LaBossiere is the Research and Reference Librarian the Panza Maurer Law Library at Nova Southeastern University, email: Endia Paige is the Pre-Law Advisor at the University of Georgia, email: Beau Steenken is the Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Kentucky Law Library, email:

What is Implicit Bias?

In 1995, Anthony G. Greenwald and Mahzarin R. Banaji published Implicit Social Cognition: Attitudes, Self-Esteem, and Stereotypes, a study that examined how social behavior is governed by implicit or unconscious attitudes. Greenwald and Banaji define implicit social cognition (a precursor to implicit bias) as a theory that recognized that “traces of past experience affect some performance, even though the influential earlier experience is not remembered in the usual sense – that is, it is unavailable to self-report or introspection.”[1] This early definition highlighted the dichotomy between the terms implicit and explicit, noting the overlapping distinctions with other antonymous pairs, such as unaware-aware, unconscious-conscious, and automatic-control. [2] The major characteristics defining the theory of implicit social cognition identified that our perspectives were influenced by unconscious, automatic, and unknowingly learned attitudes that had real world effects on our social behaviors.

This definition of implicit bias still prevails today. In their 2017 State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review, the Kirwain Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity defined implicit bias as:

"The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control. Can be either positive or negative. Everyone is susceptible." [3]

The Implicit Bias Review further identified key attributes of implicit bias:

  1. Unconscious and automatic: They are activated without an individuals’ intention or control.
  2. Pervasive: Everyone possesses them, even those avowing commitments to impartiality.
  3. Do not always align with explicit beliefs: Implicit and explicit biases are generally regarded as related but distinct mental constructs.
  4. Have real-world effects on behavior: Significant research has documented real-world effects of implicit bias across domains such as employment, education, and criminal justice, among others.
  5. Are malleable: The biases and associations we have formed can be “unlearned” and replaced with new mental associations. [4]

The Impact on Libraries

Librarians’ implicit bias— if we do not take active steps to counter it— can negatively impact virtually all aspects of library operations. Unacknowledged implicit bias saps librarian morale and effectiveness, as well as discourages patrons from engaging with reference services.

Implicit bias can negatively affect both engagement and effectiveness of librarians from underrepresented groups. Librarians who are the subjects of implicit bias have more difficulty forming trusting work relationships. [5] The emotional and mental energy it takes to cope with chronic implicit bias hinders the productivity of librarians confronted by it. [6] Furthermore, implicit bias can rob libraries of benefits associated with diversity. Libraries often struggle to achieve meaningful diversity, [7] and unaddressed implicit bias can interfere with the hiring and retention of librarians from underrepresented groups. [8] Even when libraries do successfully employ underrepresented librarians, implicit bias can exert pressure for them to “try too hard to fit into a particular group by mimicking others or holding back thoughts and opinions.” [9] This pressure to assimilate then precludes many underrepresented librarians from offering their unique perspectives and reduces the amount of creativity and innovation realized by the library. [10] Thus, implicit bias, if left unaddressed, can negatively affect library personnel and prevent libraries from fully benefitting from employee talent.

Implicit bias also impedes the services libraries offer to patrons. The key to providing meaningful reference services is to make patrons comfortable enough to share their research problems with a reference librarian. Minority patrons may not reach this level of comfort if a library’s environment implicitly communicates majority culture. For example, students of color do not always feel fully welcome in a law school library “where most of the students, most of the faculty, and all the portraits on the walls are white.” [11] It is incumbent upon librarians to actively create inclusive spaces, given the whiteness of libraries’ traditional culture, in order to be welcoming to all patrons. [12] Patrons, who do not feel a sense of inclusion in a library setting, will not seek out the assistance they need. To assist our patrons most effectively, librarians need to be aware of our individual and institutional implicit biases and take the necessary steps to minimize the effects of those biases.

Strategies for Minimizing Implicit Bias

Recruitment and Retention

  • Review your library’s diversity and inclusion statement. If your library does not have one consider drafting a statement that indicates the organization’s commitment to inclusion.
  • Create rubrics to ensure consistency when reviewing new-hire applications. Also use scripts during the interview process to minimize bias-based favoritism.
  • Promote training that enhances cultural competency.
  • Ensure that library displays and instructional materials reflect a commitment to inclusion.
  • Develop formal mentorship initiatives. Mentors often become invested in their mentee's success, regardless of demographic or cultural differences. [13]

All Library Professionals

  • Be aware of your own biases. By becoming aware of them, we can learn to catch biased thoughts before they become discriminatory actions. Use Harvard’s Implicit Association tests as a starting point. [14]
  • Periodically revisit library policies and procedures to ensure that biases have not become part of the policy. Be consistent in enforcing library policy, both with patrons and library colleagues.
  • Be aware of patterns in who is assigned the victor or the villain roles in your hypotheticals and teaching materials.
  • Being LIS professionals requires a commitment to being lifelong learners. This should also apply to staying current on diversity and inclusion topics and strategies.


  • Accept that implicit bias exists in your library and that microaggressions are occurring, even if they are not happening to you.
  • Seek cultural competency training to increase your confidence in facilitating conversations about diversity and inclusion.
  • Foster an environment that encourages honest discussion. Do not punish employees for speaking up about their experiences with bias in the workplace. Be intentional about creating avenues for conversation and feedback.
  • Call out inappropriate conduct. Allowing office bullies to go uncorrected or rewarding bad behavior can have a disastrous impact on staff morale.
  • Increase opportunities for interaction between individuals from different groups. One way to do this is to vary team assignments for projects. Interaction between people with different backgrounds allows for the opportunity to combat previously held stereotypes about specific populations.


Creating inclusive libraries requires intentionally. The unconscious nature of implicit bias makes it impossible to eradicate completely, but when librarians are aware of their biases they can be intentional about minimizing the negative effects. With this awareness, comes responsibility. Our professional sphere prides itself not only on our ability to obtain knowledge, but also in our ability to use that knowledge to foster positive change in our communities. Thus, it becomes the duty of all library professionals to be proactive in utilizing the above strategies to create safer spaces for our patrons and fellow employees and to ensure that we provide inclusive and welcoming libraries for all.


[1] Banaji R. Mahzarin and Anthony G. Greenwald, “Implicit and Social Cognition: Attitudes, Self-Esteem, and Stereotypes,” Psychology Review,102, no. 1 (1995): 4-27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Capatosto, Tenny, Mamo, and Cheryl Staats. “State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review, 2017 Edition.” The Kirwain Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, accessed December 15, 2018, 03:42,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Shamika Dalton and Michele Villagran, “Minimizing and Addressing Implicit Bias in the Workplace,” College & Research Libraries News, October 2018: 479.

[6] Ibid.

[7] James M. Donovan, “Diversity: How is AALL Doing?” 109 Law Library Journal, (2017):47.

[8] Dalton and Villagran, "Minimizing," 479.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Mary Whisner, “Race and the Reference Librarian,” 106 Law Library Journal (2015): 631.

[12] Julie Stivers, “The Critical Piece: Building Relationships with Teens of Color and Native Youth: Creating Inclusive Library Spaces and Programs,” Young Adult Library Services, Spring 2016: 14.

[13] Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Harvard Business Review, July 2016: 94.

[14] “About Us,” Project Implicit, Copyright 2011, accessed November 11, 2018.