Institutional and Departmental Diversity Statements

Your institution probably has a diversity or DEI (diversity, equity, & inclusion) statement. Take a minute and go read it, even if you’ve seen it before. Now check the diversity statements of a few other institutions; they’re pretty similar, aren’t they?

This is not a bad thing. The purpose of an institutional diversity statement is mostly symbolic: to publicly state support for DEIA initiatives and make members of marginalized groups know that the institution is paying attention and working to be better. The statements you just read probably accomplish these goals.

But they’re vague, aren’t they? That’s okay. If your institution is really on top of things, you might also find a diversity strategic plan (or maybe DEIA efforts are incorporated into the general strategic plan). If you take a look at one of those, you’ll see more specific – but still institution-wide – information about how the goals of the statement are meant to be achieved.

(Also, I know I’m making some broad generalizations. I’ve been working on a project which has involved reading a lot of diversity statements, so I know they aren’t all the same… Take a look at my own institution’s statement here; the bullet points have the specificity usually reserved for a diversity strategic plan.)

I say all this to get around to this point: While you and your library are beholden to the institutional diversity statement, that doesn’t mean it should be the only one you use for guidance. I am here to encourage you to create a library diversity statement, assuming you don’t already have one. (If you do: well done! Keep up the good work. Continue reading to see why you’re awesome.)

After reading so many institutional diversity statements that say pleasant but admittedly bland things about what the institution wants to be with regards to DEIA matters, I have decided that they don’t say much at all. It’s like if Dasani started putting “gluten-free!” on its labels… all the other brands of bottled water would have to do it too, so it wouldn’t seem like they had gluten in their bottled water. An institution needs a diversity statement to make it clear that they don’t support oppression and prejudice. (What a world we live in.)

I think the role of the departmental diversity statement, though, is more practical. It’s more like the diversity strategic plan, because it can get more specific. A library’s diversity statement can refer to the accessibility of library spaces, diversifying the collection of resources, and other library-specific concerns. Other departments would address different specifics: the library wouldn’t address the cultural diversification and dietary needs compliance of the menu in a cafeteria, but dining services would.

Additionally, a departmental diversity statement gets the people in that department more involved. The vast majority of people at an institution had nothing to do with the writing, editing, and approval of the institutional diversity statement. They feel less connected to it because it was made elsewhere, by others, and they probably first saw it in an email announcing its implementation. While I like our statement, I don’t feel involved in it. The library’s diversity statement feels closer to me. It feels like the difference between seeing your state and your city being mentioned on national news. I hear, “In Pennsylvania,” and I pay slightly more than average attention; I hear “In Hershey,” and my ears really perk up. That closer connection creates more buy-in from the individuals in the department.

In that same vein, a departmental diversity statement can take a different tone or voice than the institutional statement. Go back up and read the Penn State statement again, then read our libraries’ statement. The libraries’ statement has a stronger upstanding, more active tone. It is a call to action, while the institutional statement is a description of what the university would like to be: both important, compatible, but different approaches to the same goal. I see in the libraries’ statement a fist held high in the air, and in the university’s statement, open and welcoming arms.

If your library does not yet have a departmental diversity statement, I encourage you to advocate for one. You can make concrete the abstract intentions of your institution’s diversity statement, lend the library’s unique voice to the conversation, and put a “gluten-free!” sticker on the bottled water that is your library.

Being Pro-Pronouns

October is a time for National Coming Out Day, International Pronouns Day, and also happened to be the month in which I was added to our institution’s Diversity Council and attended my first meeting thereof. So I’ve been thinking about pronouns more than usual (which is actually pretty often to begin with) for a few weeks.

I think it’s fairly common knowledge now that including your pronouns as part of your introduction is a simple practice that we can all participate in, that makes everyone (especially the trans community) feel more welcome in any space. We as a profession (and as a society) are talking more about doing this, including here on ACRLog, with mentions in posts like this one from guest poster Adrianna Martinez, and this one from Emily Hampton Haynes.

One of the first things I noticed when I was offered my new job (I haven’t been here a year, it still counts as “new,” right?) was that the person in human resources who was sending me paperwork and instructions had included her pronouns in her email signature, and I thought that was great. One of the first things I did when I got my institutional email account set up was to write my email signature, and deliberate for a solid five minutes over where my pronouns should go in said signature. (Under my name? Under the wall of text that is my contact information? On a line unto itself, separated from both name and contact information by a blank line?)

I have seen many email signatures from people across the institution and outside our institution with their pronouns in their email signatures. I have seen conference nametags that provide space for your pronouns, and I’ve seen people add their pronouns to conference nametags that did not provide that designated space. I have seen one or two people with colorful buttons on their lanyards declaring their pronouns.

Honestly, at first, the English major that still resides inside of me was just really excited that so many people can identify a part of speech so readily. But then I also got really excited that normalizing the sharing of pronouns is really happening. The first few times I brought it up (in meetings, in conference presentations, in introductions to new people) it felt clunky and awkward, but now it’s a more natural thing to do. I like to introduce myself first or early when we “go around the room” in a meeting, because if I start the trend, others will follow my pattern: name, pronouns, job title.

To give you context for the rest of this paragraph, I am a cisgender woman. My name is Alex, as you may have noticed. Fun fact about me: my husband’s name is also Alex. So, clearly, I am very aware that our first name is a unisex name. But I’m also very aware that most people’s default assumption is that someone named Alex is male. Even with my pronouns listed in my email signature, I get email replies addressed to “Mr. Harrington.” (To be entirely fair, I also get email replies addressed to “Alexandria,” since my institutional Outlook listing uses “Alexandra” instead of “Alex.”) Also, for a few months after I got married, some people who knew my husband’s name called me “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]” even though I frequently made jokes about how I didn’t change my last name only because paperwork would be a nightmare if we both had the same first AND last names. Honestly, none of these things bothered me very much, because I don’t really care if people think I prefer “Mr.” over “Mrs.” or that my first name has an “i” in it, or that I took my husband’s last name. However, this is not all about me. It can be very upsetting, for example, for a trans or genderfluid person to be referred to as the incorrect gender, or for a woman in a same-sex marriage to be assumed to have taken her spouse’s last name.

The only point I have here is really just that we should all commit to paying attention. My rule of thumb has always been to address someone in an email however they signed their last email to me. This has also unfailingly helped me navigate issues like whether someone prefers to be called by their first name or “Dr. Last Name.” If I don’t have that option (I haven’t received an email from them before; they didn’t sign their email; I’m communicating in a different medium) I default to gender-neutral language whenever possible and address them by first name, risking informality over choosing the wrong title (Mr., Ms., Mrs., Dr., etc).

This is the first step of the conversation. In the past few days alone, I’ve heard or read people arguing over things like, “Jonathan van Ness identifies as non-binary, you can’t say ‘him’!” when he has gone on record as preferring he/him but being fine with she/her or they/them pronouns. It also seems like every week or so, I see another discussion of how “they” can’t be a singular pronoun, even though it has been in use that way for ages. (If you need an example, ask yourself where an unidentified person is going. Didn’t it feel natural to say, “Where are they going?”) If we start by paying attention to what others want to be called (whether that’s “Rob” versus “Robert” or “they” instead of “he” or “she”) we can move toward better understanding for everyone.

So, happy belated International Pronouns Day to all!

Amping up Diversity & Inclusivity in Medical Librarianship

This past week, I attended the 118th Medical Library Association (MLA) Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA. While it was a standard conference in many respects, it was also a historic one. Beverly Murphy was named the first African American president of MLA since it was incepted in 1898.

When I first considered becoming a librarian, I quickly learned about #critlib, which centers the impact of oppression and marginalization of the many –isms in librarianship. I wanted to be in a profession where I could provide information in a critical way, dismantling library neutrality. I found this through a hashtag which allowed me to meet diverse, inspiring, kind, and intelligent librarians. However, I find it slightly more difficult to apply a social justice framework as an academic medical librarian focusing upon the School of Medicine. I have tried my best through critical search strategies and educating others about bias within publishing. And of course, subject areas specific to public and/or global health easily lend themselves to health disparities. Overall though, I have noticed that medical librarianship has been slower to the game, especially in terms of coming together as a community. During this meeting, however, it felt different.

The annual Janet Doe lecture was given by Elaine Martin, focused upon social justice. I have listened to some talks concerning social justice that just scratch the surface. They seem to give a nod to diversity as more of a check box rather than a critical interpretation and call for action. However, Elaine stressed mass incarceration as a public health issue; she emphasized dismantling library neutrality; she quoted Paulo Freire, the author of the seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed. She received a standing ovation. It was inspiring, and while it may have just been pure emotion, it gave me hope.

I also attended a Diversity & Inclusivity Fishbowl session by MLA’s Diversity and Inclusivity Task Force. During a fishbowl, a moderator poses a question to a group of individuals seated in a few concentric circles. In our case, there were around 30 of us. There were four seats in the innermost circle, and the individuals in that circle answered the question and can be “tapped out” by others in the outside circles who wish to speak. Unless we were in the inner circle, we were solely active listeners. I’m not going to lie, when I saw the format of this meeting, which was three days into the conference and from 5:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m., I dreaded it. But I also knew this was an important issue. Not only did I feel welcome, but I enjoyed the structured yet conversational format. It can be difficult to talk about diversity and inclusion because everyone’s positions are well-intentioned, however, because this is an issue that historically induces trauma upon the marginalized, it can become very passionate. This passion is essential for affecting change, and this format provided a way to combine this passion with respect and compassion. While this is just the beginning of these discussions, it is important to understand perspectives, especially for those greatly affected by oppressions. It was assuring to see so many people coming together while sharing their individual experiences and beliefs for a topic I thought was somewhat dormant within medical librarianship. And, because of the incoming presidency of Beverly Murphy, I am full of hope and faith that events like these will result in an action plan.

I can’t say that I remember everything that Beverly said during the talk she gave after being named the new MLA president. But I can tell you how I felt in response. First, Beverly did not stand at the podium when delivering her words. She sat at a table on the stage to be in conversation with the MLA members. She included song, humor, and love in her words. It was warm. It was inviting. And given the previous events I witnessed, it felt promising. She incorporated the importance of diversity and inclusivity, so it wasn’t a mere check box. Rather, it was always part of the conversation. Just two days before, I met Beverly at the New Members Breakfast. As a co-convener of the MLA New Members Special Interest Group (SIG), I was interested in how we can further engage new members. Shannon Jones, the founder of the New Members SIG, was eager to share ideas with me and introduced me to Beverly, who immediately stated her commitment to advocating for new members. She also told me that she was asking first-time attendees she met to share their experiences, positive and negative, and to contact her directly. Real change comes from strong leaders and action. And diversity is more than an initiative – it is a way of being. Regardless of topic, subject area, or library role, it needs to be part of all we do. Beverly is firm in this commitment:

“No matter what race we are, what color we are, what ethnicity we are, what gender we have, or whether we have physical issues – we are all information professionals, with a common goal, and that is ‘to be an association of the most visible, valued, and trusted health information experts.’ Diversity drives excellence and makes us smarter, especially when we welcome it into our lives, our libraries, and our profession.” – Beverly Murphy

The solidarity and volume is increasing for diverse voices in medical librarianship, becoming a stronger driver for diverse and inclusive representation, pedagogy, scholarship, community, and more and vice versa. I know that equity of race, sexual orientation, gender, and ability is a long road. And I am appreciative we are on it.


#WeNeedDiverseBooks in Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from AJ Robinson, Islamic Studies & South Asian Studies Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Some people don’t expect to see themselves in the library.” This comment from Vivek Shraya, 2015 recipient of the South Asia Book Award, was a moment of clarity at the Conference on South Asia in Madison. The conversation among book award authors addressed #WeNeedDiverseBooks, an online campaign that has highlighted issues of exclusion in mainstream literature industries. “Diverse books” generally feature characters of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQIA identities, and/or varying abilities. Many libraries with a strong focus on serving young readers have embraced the campaign with displays, booktalks, and new collection development strategies. There has yet to be significant traction for this campaign in academic libraries, so as academic librarians we must ask ourselves: do our users see themselves in the stacks?

Despite the influx of university diversity and inclusion programs, minority students at many schools continue to report feeling like outsiders. The topic of diverse books exposed a critical gap for supporting my students—a visible collection that explicitly recognizes their presence. Making diverse books prominent in academic libraries is a necessary component for welcoming all users.

At my library, I started expanding the Popular Literature (PopLit) collection with novels and other non-scholarly titles representing authors, protagonists, and themes related to South Asia. PopLit is located on the main floor next to study spaces and arranged by genre for browsability. I also noticed other gaps in the collection, including a need for representation of my other subject specialty, Islamic Studies. Working with PopLit had the benefit of collaborating with other bibliographers, reducing strain on subject-specific collection budgets, and (most importantly) placed the books on shelves more accessible for casual browsing.

The push for diversity in books speaks to wider issues in systematic exclusion, including standard selection tools such as mainstream publishers and reviewers. Booklists such as the South Asia Book Awards and blogs like Arabic Literature (in English) have been instrumental in building a core collection. I also sought out alternative publishers such as Arsenal Pulp Press, Other Press, and Seven Stories Press. In selecting books, I prioritized finding authors who speak directly from personal experiences to balance popular journalist, travel writer, or ghost-writer accounts. I also sought materials with a wide variety of genres and formats, such as graphic novels and poetry.

To reach a wider spectrum of genres, my most useful tool were lists on GoodReads. Lists like “Desi Chick Lit,” “South Asians in Contemporary YA,” “Fiction featuring Muslim Women,” and “Queer Islam,” among others, were useful for identifying novels appropriate for pleasure reading, and the user-submitted reviews helped evaluate literary and content quality. Although GoodReads is now owned by Amazon, it’s possible to change the interface to easily check availability through BetterWorldBooks or IndieBound.

In processing new titles, student workers curate books for display on the centrally located New Books Shelf. The YA novels have eye-catching covers that draw interest to the shelves even from a distance. I also found an opportunity to promote the books through collaboration with the campus Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which is housed on the second floor of the library. We arranged to display a monthly book exhibit related to their programs. New PopLit titles complemented and balanced relevant academic texts. Books circulated from the exhibit each month, and several students expressed appreciation for the display.

If students immediately recognize that the library is intended for them, they are far more likely to see the rest of the services we provide. As librarians we must be deliberate and proactive to “meet users where they are.” Building and promoting the collection has challenged perceptions of the library to open conversations and outreach on campus. While a book collection alone cannot address the deep inequalities embedded in higher education, it is an important opportunity to show users that we see and value them in the library.