The MLS and the Race Line | Editorial

Many efforts to diversify the ranks of librarians focus on well-intentioned but expensive projects to recruit a small number of aspiring students who may, or may not, become long-term members of the profession. For example, in April the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) gave a grant of $487,652 to support a joint diversity recruitment program of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) that targets 15 students. It’s a laudable program; it deserves support, as do other similar programs. But that averages about $33,000 a student (if the matching non-IMLS money is included, it comes to $56,000 a head). These are students who, despite the expenditure, may decide librarianship and/or archival work isn’t for them, or they may work at it for a while and then leave the field. If the library world wants to create more quickly a persistently diverse workforce of librarians, it should devote more of such grant money to minorities who already are committed library workers but who remain at a lower level because they may lack the wherewithal to attend graduate school. These are the 32,775 library assistants [PDF] who either are African American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, Native American, or biracial. These workers, 27 percent of the 122,768 assistants overall according to the American Library Association (ALA), have duties and abilities that can overlap and even surpass those of MLS staff in key service areas (including speaking Spanish and other languages). More effort should be made to promote these library assistants to librarians, where the ranks are now overwhelmingly credentialed, white, monolingual females. When merited, these assistants should receive expanded responsibilities, training, and higher salaries without requiring a master’s degree. In such deserving cases, the MLS credential is a hindrance to diversity. Face it, the degree is sometimes unnecessary for the work at hand (or the work to be learned), and it costs too much money. Fully 84 percent of the participants in the ARL’s Initiative To Recruit a Diverse Workforce said that the most attractive feature of the program by far was the $10,000 stipend. No other program elements—such as mentoring or career resources—ranked close to the stipend, which addressed a crying need and a major obstacle. Diversity is one of ALA’s “five key action areas to ensure high-quality library services to all constituents.” But there is a tension between the desire to accredit the profession and the wish to diversify it. Exceptions to the costly MLS can be made without a dilution of librarianship, and these exceptions should be made in fairness to groups already disproportionately burdened by financial inequities. In fact, promoting more qualified library assistants would invigorate the ranks of librarians by more tightly embracing many competencies already on the ground. So what if one year, to change the debate and better acknowledge these competencies, the IMLS made a radical declaration that it is a crisis that only 563 black males are credentialed librarians (out of a totaled credentialed population of 118,666)? What if the IMLS took the full annual appropriation of the Laura Bush 21st Century Library Program ($6.1 million in FY13) and divided it into three-year, $10,000 microgrants to increase the salaries of 600 newly promoted minority library assistants? What if the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation did the same? Recruit students and bet on their future at $56,000 a head? OK. But such programs really are not having an impact on overall numbers. Let’s also bet on the nonwhite, possibly bilingual person already in the library, whose dedication deserves more credit and whose talents could bolster the relevance of libraries.

Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief

LJ121002mikesig008 Can We Talk About the MLS? | Editorial
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You can throw all the money you like at recruiting initiatives for LIS programs-after graduation then what? As someone in a management position in a library (and yes, I am a member of a minority group) I've seen numerous qualified minority applicants not get hired because of nebulous, non objective reasons, such as "organizational fit" "he/she wasn't enthusiastic" and "we just like her better." While I can't dispute the importance of organizational and cultural fit, let's not pretend that many hiring managers aren't short sighted, and only want to hire someone that thinks like they think, and had has similar experiences. Add that to the fact that many hiring managers only want to hire "known" candidates-meaning the person worked in the library during undergraduate, grad school (especially if they had an LIS program at the school) and did an internship at the library. A candidate fresh off the street has very little chance of getting hired. How many minority candidates have these experiences? I didn't and it took me years after graduation to find a full time job.

Posted : May 31, 2013 06:49

Cyndee L.

While I do not fully agree with Mr. Kelly assertion regarding library assistants, I think that his editorial touches on a key area that has been woefully neglected in our efforts to diversify the profession…Retention. Our singular focus on recruitment for the past two or more decades has done very little to help us make any significant inroads in this area. The ethnic composition of the profession remains largely unchanged (in some cases we have lost ground), yet no one asks whatever happened to all of those new librarians of color? Why did we leave? Why do we stay? What can we learn from their professional experiences to help us not only bring them in, but keep them. Until we place as much effort into retention as we do recruitment, the diversity question is merely rhetorical.

Posted : May 30, 2013 06:08


The lack of substance in this editorial is a bit surprising for LJ. It is exactly this type of rhetoric by often well intentioned non minority librarians that undermines diversity initiatives in information agencies. While I am sure Mr. Kelly is well intentioned, what he offers is a little laughable. Not only does it undermine the profession and the actual minority staff, but it would be sure to create a work environment were the MLS exempt minority librarians are unofficially inferior to the credentialed librarians, and attitude of "you're there to fill a quota not because of merit." Mr.Kelly responds in the comments by saying that he is not suggesting eliminating the diversity programs--then why throw out big numbers and suggest that it is excessive. Surely I am not the only one who thought 56k was a lot of money (in a negative way), but that should have been put into context of current tuition demands.

Posted : May 30, 2013 12:01

Michael Kelley

Are the many non-MLS staff who run rural libraries all over this country undermining the profession? Yes they may not get the respect they deserve, but is that a reason to not advocate for a greater recognition and appreciation of their skills? That is the logic I am applying here, particularly for a profession that makes so much noise about diversity but in fact has little progress to show in overall numbers. And I applaud the ARL work and want it to continue, but I also do believe that it is possible to imagine additional ways to target grant money that could possibly have a broader impact. Why is that so outrageous a suggestion?

Posted : May 30, 2013 12:01


I wonder how your plan would work in states that have laws requiring public librarians to have an MLS? Is it really realistic to overturn state statues and laws? My point is that minority librarians should be encouraged to pursue higher education not be subject to a victim mentality by being given a exception to the standard. I am a minority librarian that came from low means and still managed to get through a public undergraduate and graduate program with the help of diversity initiatives. Our library has programs to help clerk through library school and maybe 10% of them have taken advantage of it. It is the individual's responsibility to seek better opportunities. Would your plan of giving exemptions from the MLS apply to white library clerks too? If not then its a form of affirmative action that in our current political environment is very unpopular. (supreme court case pending)

Posted : May 30, 2013 12:01

Michael Kelley

Yes, I believe in affirmative action, anachronistic as that may seem in this day and age. Yes, everyone should be encouraged to educate themselves and work to the best of their abilities. But can we please acknowledge that not everyone has the time and the money to afford an expensive graduate degree whose relevancy does not apply to every circumstance and may not always be a necessity. And if we are less rigid about insisting upon it at all times it may do some good? And can we also acknowledge that, regardless of all the programs and talk, diversity is not happening in the library profession in a meaningful way. And I am not just talking about research libraries. I find the fact that there are only 563 black males who are credentialed librarians a shocking number. As far as state laws go, good point. but fight to change them if it's a good thing to do.

Posted : May 30, 2013 04:05


I am confused about the point of this editorial. You write that many minority librarians lack the "wherewithal" to pursue the MLS. Isn't that exactly what these programs provide? You offer that you are not advocating eliminating these programs. As the editorial is currently written, it seems to suggests that money is basically going down the drain "But that averages about $33,000 a student (if the matching non-IMLS money is included, it comes to $56,000 a head). These are students who, despite the expenditure, may decide librarianship and/or archival work isn’t for them, or they may work at it for a while and then leave the field." So what was the point of this editorial but to suggest that these programs are excessive? because some students "may" not stay in the profession seems like a weak argument. I do agree that there should be other programs and they should be adequately funded, but to suggest that there should be some sort of promoting or exemption for minorities from the MLS is unrealistic at best.

Posted : May 29, 2013 11:24

Rolando Milian

I cannot find a single interesting or provocative argument in this editorial. I agree with Myrna, there is no need to use the library assistants’ argument against the ARL’s Initiative To Recruit a Diverse Workforce program. This editorial is a frontal attack “from a position of strength” to the ARL’s program. Mr. Kelly’s tactics consist of using the most valuable resource of the program (the stipend funding) to criticize it. In this regard he is not only sloppy in terms of the data presented to support his weak argument – it is 84% not 89% for the stipend . Anyone can see that the stipend percentage is indeed higher than the other variables but unless we perform a statistical analysis we cannot exaggerate the difference as Mr. Kelly does. Anyone could say that th 67% scored by the leadership institute could be considered almost 70% (which is closer to 84%). Another variable with high score (63%) is the research library visit. In summary, anyone could write: Eighty four percent of the participants in the ARL IRDW said that the most attractive feature of the program was the $10,000 stipend followed by the also valuables leadership institute (67%), and the visit to a research library (63%). It is also misleading the way Mr. Kelly presents his argument as if the ARL diversity program were only recruiting individuals from outside the library (excluding library assistants), however, I was precisely one of those library assistants benefited from the ARL diversity program and I am pretty sure I am not the exception. If the intention of this editorial was to create controversy, there are better ways to do this without attacking this ARL successful program - over 75% of program participants, currently hold library positions in ARL or academic libraries.

Posted : May 29, 2013 09:04

Michael Kelley

Thanks for pointing out the number error. My mistake. I corrected it in the text. It also may be worthwhile, rather than dealing in percentages, to point out that since "2000 almost 200 diverse students have been supported through this recruitment program [IRDW] with retention rates within the LIS profession at well over 90%." I'm not saying stop these recruiting efforts; I am asking are a dozen or so new recruits each year really enough to make an overall difference (i.e., not just ARL)? If not, can we think bigger.

Posted : May 29, 2013 09:04

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