Tapping Student Talent to Diversify the Library Collection

At the university where I work, all students are required to participate in a cross-cultural experience. Some students go away for a semester abroad–often through a partner institution. Some professors here take students to a different country for anywhere from 1-3 weeks. But it doesn’t have to be international either–we also offer domestic trips to different cities, rural locations, the US/Mexico borderland, and Native American reservations. They key is to create an immersive experience. You must go beyond simply being a “tourist.” I’ve chaperoned two trips to Italy and it’s a rewarding experience for students.

As part of the preparation, the library collection often comes into play. A lot of the cross-cultural experiences require students to read a novel set in the locale/country they are visiting, written by an author from that locale/country. The librarians see a lot of research questions like:

“I need to find a book set in Peru and written by a Peruvian author.”

…And that’s when we found our library collection was not too diverse. A lot of the fiction was 1) white and 2) US or Eurocentric. We needed to diversify.

This is where student workers come into play. One of our excellent circulation student workers happens to be an English and Global Studies major. Besides having her do regular circ desk work, why not use her skills from English and Global Studies? It’s a chance for her to use her course experiences and apply them. After talking with her, this is the project we devised:

  1. Get a list of countries/regions/locales where students can complete their cross-cultural experience requirement.
  2. Using Novelist, Amazon, Worldcat, and other tools, research books set in some of the areas where students will be studying, written by authors from those areas.
  3. Check our library catalog to make sure we don’t already own the items.
  4. Organize the list by area, followed by titles/authors.
  5. Using her English/Global Studies background knowledge, prioritize novels by areas with greatest need.

The student worker was able to make recommendations using knowledge from the courses she had taken and then used the tools to find more books. She was passionate about the project and it gave her the opportunity to see how the library is directly connected to student success and support. It was also a project she could put on her resume. It’s important to mention that we always need to be mindful that we are not exploiting students for their labor (and the student worker was paid for this work), but if we can find worthwhile projects that match student interests and career goals, then go for it!

I then was able to order the novels using the library’s “diversity” fund line in our materials budget. Several years ago we had carved out this fund line from the “big” materials budget explicitly for diversifying the collection. We use a broad definition for diversity, and this project fit the bill.

Now when a student says, “I’m studying in Morocco and I need a novel by a Moroccan author”…we have it!

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Why are all your Lego librarians white? Diversity in the Library Profession

Several readers have commented and emailed me in earnest asking:

Why are all of your Lego librarians white?

Well, my first reaction to this question is that they’re not white. They’re Lego yellow, devoid of ethnicity.

Lily white or Lego yellow? [screen shot from Lego website]

Lily white or Lego yellow? [screen shot from Lego website]

Quoted by Gizmodo in 2010, Lego’s Brand Relations Manager Michael McNally stated:

The yellow-headed minifigure was a conscious choice. Because of their ethnically neutral skin color, Lego people can be any people—in any story, at any time.

Lego does produce non-yellow minifigures, but these are only part of special licensed sets (such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, DC and Marvel superheroes, etc.) in which skin color is matched to the actor’s appearance. This began in the early 2000s, when Lego produced an NBA series featuring star basketball players, many of whom were African-American. The decision was made to produce the Lego minifigures in the athletes’ likeness. Makes sense.

Reflecting on Our Profession

This brings me back to the original question. We project our own notions onto these Lego people. Does a sea of yellow Lego librarians really read “white”? Is it because of our own lack of ethnic diversity in our profession?

It’s an interesting question. Why isn’t the library profession more ethnically diverse? The latest data I could find on the ethnic make-up of librarians was from 2009-2010 and posted on ALA’s Office for Diversity website: the Diversity Counts 2009-2010 report. Here’s a snapshot:

  • 118,666 credentialed librarians
  • White: 88%
  • Black: 5%
  • Asian: 3%
  • Native American: < 1%
  • Two or more races: < 1%
  • Latino: 3%

These statistics mirror more recent data collected on ALA members: remember NOT all librarians belong to ALA.

So what is it about librarianship that fails to attract minorities? Is it a lack of promotion about librarianship as a career? A lack of mentors? Barriers to the MLS? Or are we failing to retain minorities that enter the profession?

Michael Kelly writing in Library Journal addressed some of these issues earlier this year (The MLS and the Race Line and Diversity Never Happens), while Hui-Fen Chang examines the issue from an academic library perspective.

There are a good number of scholarships, grants, and leadership programs in place by professional organizations and academic institutions to recruit and attract a diverse workforce. Detractors will argue that we shouldn’t be “privileging” one group of people over another. But that’s not what diversity is about. It’s about bring people who haven’t had a seat at the table TO the table. It’s about taking steps to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse and multiethnic clientele.

So see, Lego librarians aren’t just cute and fun…they can also lead us into debate on serious and timely issues, too.