BackTalk: Diversity and the MLS

I attended a diversity workshop last fall at Emporia State University, KS, where I mentored a Latino student who had won a full scholarship as part of the school's effort to bring more minorities into the library profession through a program supported by a federal grant. In one exercise, we brainstormed on the obstacles minorities face in becoming librarians. Most of the comments fell into two oft-cited categories: insensitivity toward minorities by members of the profession (expressed as 'minorities want to see someone who looks like them') and lack of outreach to minority communities. A colleague, however, suggested that requiring an MLS to enter the profession was also an obstacle. That statement intrigued me. For minority librarians, could the financial burden associated with gradaute school be more daunting than the cultural ones?

Degrees of separation?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 72% of Americans over 25 are white and non-Hispanic. Yet in the library field, according to the American Library Association's (ALA) 'Diversity Counts' report, 88% of 'credentialed librarians' (those with a master's degree or higher) are white - a substantial imbalance, with whites overrepresented by 16%. ALA also reported the numbers for library assistants, technicians, and 'noncredentialed' staff. Here, the numbers are not so imbalanced - 78% of assistants and 76% of technicians are white - only a four percent to six percent overrepresentation, while noncredentialed staff are overrepresented by ten percent. While these numbers may not be enough to lay the diversity problem entirely on the MLS, we can say that nonwhite groups work in libraries in higher numbers when a master's-level degree is not required. Unfortunately, there has been too little research on the reasons librarianship lacks diversity. Gwendolyn Prellwitz at ALA's Diversity Office is working on a survey of LIS programs to examine whether LIS schools are recruiting - or recruiting but not retaining - enough minority degree candidates, or, perhaps, whether these graduates are not finding positions. Until that work is completed, all we really know is that there is a clear lack of minority representation in jobs that require the MLS. Some work has been done, however, with minority undergraduates. A survey at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, for example, found that finances are the greatest obstacle to minority students completing their degrees. That survey revealed that more minority students drop out for financial reasons than their white counterparts despite feeling prepared for and enjoying the college experience. And roughly 75% of minorities indicated they received financial aid, compared to 50% of white students. Another study found minority student satisfaction levels lower, but this doesn't seem to relate too closely to graduation levels. Asian Americans, for example, who statistically come from families with incomes above the national median, graduate in numbers higher than their percentage of the population, while African Americans and Latinos, coming from families with incomes often below the median, graduate in numbers lower than their population percentage.

Barrier to entry

Until someone convinces me otherwise, I believe the biggest factor keeping minorities out of our profession isn't racism or neglect but the financial burden that accompanies our entry-level degree. How many other professions have a master's degree as the entry-level credential? The five most common master's degrees awarded in 2001-02 were in education, business, health, public administration, and engineering. But all these professions can also be entered with a bachelor's degree. Except for the better-paying fields of law and medicine, library science is one of the few professions to require a graduate degree for an entry-level position. Minority scholarship programs, meanwhile, like the one at Emporia State, and ALA's Spectrum, which awarded 80 full scholarships to minority MLS students last year, are a drop in the bucket compared with the 1300 minorities in library school in any given year.

Proper level

One possible solution to the diversity problem in libraries would be to put the entry-level library degree at its proper level: the bachelor's. Removing the MLS requirement could not only ease the financial burden that contributes to racial imbalance but many of the profession's other problems as well, such as proper training given at the proper level, salaries commensurate with education, and greater accessibility to the profession for the population at large. The MLS would still be available for people interested in management or advanced study. Is this going to happen? Not likely. That battle was won by pro-MLS forces long ago. Whether this is a pyrrhic victory remains to be seen. One thing is certain: the profession has a lot to learn before its policies on diversity are based on anything more than assumptions.
Tony Greiner ( cowrote the recent Analyzing Library Collection Use with Excel (ALA Editions). We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to LJ/BACKTALK, 360 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010  

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