Do Librarians Discriminate? | BackTalk

Suppose a librarian receives an email from a man named Greg Walsh, wanting to become a cardholder or simply inquiring about the open hours. Would the librarian reply? And, if so, would the reply be polite, including for instance some form of salutation, such as “Hello” or “Good morning”? Does your answer change if the guy is called Tyrone Washington? Is a librarian treating Jake Mueller differently from DeShawn Jackson?

Suppose a librarian receives an email from a man named Greg Walsh, wanting to become a cardholder and politely asking what he needs to do to make this happen (e.g., Does he need proof of address?) or simply inquiring about the open hours. Would the librarian reply? And, if so, would the reply be polite, including for instance some form of salutation, such as “Hello” or “Good morning”? Does your answer change if the guy is called Tyrone Washington? Is a librarian treating Jake Mueller differently from DeShawn Jackson?

Unfortunately, it turns out, the answer is yes.

Got answers? who’s asking?

Together with Corrado Giulietti and Michael Vlassopoulos, both at the University of Southampton in England, I sent out emails of this kind to approximately 4,900 libraries around the United States (as well as to several other public services, such as school districts and sheriff’s offices). We used the American Library Directory and contacted all libraries for which we could find a valid email address. We randomly assigned to each library one of the four fictitious names listed above, so that there are no systematic differences in the characteristics of libraries receiving an email from Greg (or Jake) rather than Tyrone (or DeShawn). In most cases, we used a general info address, e.g., “office@.” The results are reported in a study titled “Racial Discrimination in Local Public Services: A Field Experiment in the US,” which is forthcoming from the Journal of the European Economic Association, one of the most important academic journals in the field of economics.

What we found is that 69 percent of U.S. libraries sampled reply to requests from a person with a white-sounding name (we used Greg Walsh and Jake Mueller) while the response rate for those with a black-sounding name, either Tyrone Washington or DeShawn Jackson, was lower, at 65 percent. This difference of four percentage points is statistically significant: we can exclude with a high degree of confidence that it is owing to simple randomness.

It is in line with what we found for school districts and smaller than for sheriff’s offices, where the gap is seven percentage points. The gap for county treasurers is also around four percentage points, albeit probably not statistically significant owing to a smaller sample size, while for job centers and county clerks we find no evidence of a gap in the response rate.

Further analysis reveals that the gap is much stronger in libraries located in rural counties, with a whopping eight percentage points difference, while for libraries in urban counties the difference is only two percentage points. In our sample, only 30 percent of libraries are in rural areas. Looking at geographical areas in more detail is complicated, as the sample size becomes small, making the results less robust from a statistical perspective. With this caveat in mind, the analysis shows that the Midwest has a larger gap, six percentage points, compared to the Northeast, two percentage points, while the South and West are in line with the four percentage points.

TO WhoM Are we nice?

We also found a similar difference in terms of the politeness of the replies. While on average 72 percent of replies from librarians address the sender by name or contain some form of salutation, this is five percentage points less likely to happen if the reply is to a person with a black-sounding name. So, a person with a distinctively black name is not only less likely to receive a reply, if a reply is sent, it addresses the recipient in a less polite manner.

To check whether this gap was owing to discriminatory attitudes toward people from a low socioeconomic background rather than racial bias, in a second round of emails to the same libraries, we included in the signature “Real Estate Agent. Buy–Sell–Rent,” thus holding constant the profession for both black and white senders. This made no difference in the observed gaps, thus confirming that racism is the most likely reason for what we found.

Why emails matter

We believe that this measure captures a more general discriminatory attitude. A librarian not replying to requests for information coming from an African American may also treat African Americans differently in other aspects of library service.

A nationally representative survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 shows that library services are particularly important to “[w]omen, African Americans and Hispanics, adults who live in lower-income households, and adults with lower levels of educational attainment.” The type of behavior our study uncovered means, however, that libraries risk being part of the problem rather than the solution, and failing, or alienating, some of the users who need them most.

Mirco Tonin (@mircotonin) is Professor of Economic Policy at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano in Italy.

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The folks responding to the emails may not have been front-line, customer service staff, and they may not have been librarians. that said, I know there are a range of discriminatory behaviors, and that needs to be explored.

Posted : Jan 22, 2018 12:56

Nancy Heredia

Jeepers, a lot of time wasted with this study. I could have told you in a NY minute that there are racist librarians and support staff in public libraries! I've worked with and for them over the course of 30 years. What a lot of nonsense.

Posted : Jan 12, 2018 01:18

Steve Fosselman

From page 10 - "Overall, about 70% of the 19,079 emails that we sent received a response (see Table B.3 for detailed statistics). This indicates that public service providers are generally quite responsive to queries coming from the public, despite a non-negligible share of them going unanswered...A possible explanation..." The 30% that go unanswered should have set off more of an alarm for the researcher. As a non-researcher, I would say that the most non-negligible factor in this study is that 30%. There are lots of explanations other than the researcher's that make the practice of an email survey much more suspect than a telephone survey. Especially if someone is trying out something as serious and illegal as a discrimination hypothesis. Maybe a coincidence or not - I remember a series of emails being discussed by libraries on PubLib or another listserv a few years ago that used terminology I would swear to be "I would like to become a member of the library." I don't remember it being about getting a library card, though, which most of the time in US is "how can I get a library card" regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, etc.

Posted : Jan 10, 2018 03:26


How is testing a discrimination hypothesis illegal?

Posted : Jan 10, 2018 03:26


This seems poorly done. If each library responds to only a black or white sounding name, there's no guarantee that they wouldn't have responded equally politely or rudely to the opposite. This study would be much more effective if libraries responded to both a black sounding and white sounding name, the responses compared to each other, and the breadth of differences compared between libraries. Instead, from my understanding of the study, the same library was sent the same race, and the type of email changed rather than the race of the sender? Could it be that rural libraries are not in fact racist, but less polite? Wouldn't more rural libraries encounter emails less often, and be more likely to recognize that one person sent a second email? Are workers in white rural areas unsure, culturally, of an appropriate way to formally address a name from a different race? Do urban libraries encounter emails more often and therefore have a more generic, polite-sounding response but which is less genuine? It seems less likely you can conclude racial discrimination from this and more likely you can conclude email etiquette and cultural address of peoples based on education (degree vs. non-degree) and location (rural vs. urban).

Posted : Jan 10, 2018 02:43


This is one of my main concerns about this study as well. By sending only one email to each library in the first round you are only seeing their response to that email. To truly see if there is inherent bias you would need to multiple similar emails to the same library. This would allow you to compare responses and see if that particular library is just less polite in answering, or if they truly do have a racial bias against names. Further, as another person mentioned, some of the lack of response could be related to the study's choice of contact method. By choosing an email associated with the library or library system rather than a contact form or similar method the email could be lost, which would produce a lack of response. While I don't doubt that there is bias and racism in the US, and in libraries, I don't think that this study in particular does an adequate job of researching and addressing it. (apologies for this late response, I was brought here by the Feedback: Letters to LJ article)

Posted : Jan 10, 2018 02:43


This is depressing. I would also like to see a follow up study done of academic libraries that are open for public use, though since not all such libraries offer library cards to public patrons, one might need to come up with another question. Perhaps one might ask something along the lines of "Do you allow the general public to use your books and databases in the library?" I'd like to see if the pattern holds in academe. Also, I do think that it's worth examining the possibility that some of the emails might have been filtered out as spam, as another commenter noted.

Posted : Jan 10, 2018 02:00

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