Diversity by Degrees: Brooklyn Public Library’s Pathways to Leadership Program Builds Equity One MLS at a Time

There are many barriers to earning a Master of Library Science degree, particularly for those in minoritized populations, and moving the needle for would-be librarians has proved to be a challenge. Initiatives to increase diversity in librarianship have been slowly increasing. Among these, the Pathways to Leadership program at Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), launched in 2021, is a particularly strong example of how wraparound support can look—and succeed.

Brooklyn Public Library’s Pathways to Leadership program builds equity through wraparound support for BIPOC staff pursuing their MLS

For nearly three decades, the persistent lack of diversity in librarianship has been recognized as an issue that urgently needs to be addressed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 158,000 librarians and media specialists surveyed in 2022, 86 percent were white, 4.3 percent Black or African American, 5.1 percent Asian, and 8 percent Hispanic or Latine. These numbers have not changed significantly since the American Library Association (ALA) launched its Diversity Counts study in 2006, using 2000 census data, to look at racial demographics in the profession.

The understanding that representation is a critical part of library service has resulted in an increasing number of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) hires among non-degreed staff. Yet credentialed roles remain overwhelmingly white. The many barriers to earning a Master of Library Science degree (MLS), particularly for those in minoritized populations, include a lack of time, money, standard American English proficiency, academic experience, family support, or access to technology—and moving the needle for would-be librarians has proved to be a challenge.

Toward that end, ALA introduced its Spectrum Scholarships in 1998, and initiatives to increase diversity in librarianship have been slowly increasing. Among these, the Pathways to Leadership program at Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), launched in 2021, is a particularly strong example of how wraparound support can look—and succeed.

LINKED PATHS Pathways to Leadership scholars have formed a tight support network. (l.-r.) Ann Joseph, Jackson Gomes, Shamima Sharmin, Jessica Jules, and Ashley Torres. Photo by Gregg Richards

THE PATH TO PATHWAYS

BPL is one of the largest public library systems in the country, with 61 neighborhood branches serving 2.7 million residents. As of 2020, just over half of Brooklyn residents aged five or older spoke English at home as a primary language; other languages include Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Yiddish, French Creole, Italian, Hebrew, Polish, French, Arabic, and Urdu; multiple African and Indic languages are also represented.

When they walk into the library, people want to interact with someone they can relate to, says BPL Circulation Manager Maxine Wynter, a Pathways to Leadership scholar. “Our mission is customer service, and diversity is customer service.”

In summer 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, BPL held four virtual Real Talk forums where employees could share how race and racism affected them at work. More than 450 staff members showed up to each. Those conversations led to a series of equity-centered action steps, and—out of discussions about the divide at the credentialed librarian level and a lack of access to professional advancement—the creation of Pathways to Leadership, which offers assistance for employees with bachelor’s degrees who want to earn their MLS, with the eventual goal of helping staff of color move up within the organization.

The design was intentional from the start, soliciting input from staff about the barriers they experienced. “The pressures, the time constraints, other elements like that, can make life really challenging and stressful when you’re trying to do something to make your life better,” says BPL Manager of Learning and Development Sophie McGrath.

She and Scholarship Program Coordinator Caroline Kravitz spoke with leaders who had participated in past BPL programs such as Librarian Trainees and the PULSE (Public Urban Library System Education) program launched in 2004, an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)–funded grant in partnership with Pratt Institute’s Library and Information Science program. PULSE offered scholarship money and the chance for Pratt students to work at BPL, with an emphasis on recruiting racially, economically, and linguistically diverse students. Current leaders cited that support as formative, so McGrath and Kravitz incorporated the most effective components of those earlier trainings.

Fortunately, not only was buy-in from leadership and the library board immediate, but the board chair at the time, Susan Marcinek, and her husband David, fully funded the first five scholarships. A sixth was added thanks to additional funding from BPL board chair Nina Collins. An IMLS grant and further funding secured by BPL’s development team have helped keep the program viable into its fourth cohort.

 

DESIGNED FOR SUCCESS

Pathways has been built to provide the resources participants need to succeed. They are given a scholarship equivalent to full tuition and fees for an MLS degree offered at a public New York State institution—

currently Queens College and the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo and at Albany. Additional costs are covered, such as transportation to in-person classes, events, or conferences; laptops or hotspots; and even childcare. Kravitz works with supervisors to negotiate the flexibility needed to attend class and finish coursework. Scholars receive support applying to the master’s programs, and writing assistance and tutoring once enrolled. They participate in monthly one-on-one meetings with Kravitz, attend quarterly workshops, and are sent a weekly newsletter. BPL librarians and leaders provide mentorship, shadowing opportunities, and individual academic and career coaching. The library also stays in close contact with the universities, both to receive feedback and—because the scholars are already working in the field and have opinions on what they’re being taught—to provide it.

The Pathways application process has also been designed for success, even for those who aren’t accepted. FAQs and information sessions are provided ahead of time, and applicants who may not have experience interviewing, or need to update their résumés, are connected to BPL’s business and career center. Every eligible candidate is then invited to an interview with a panel of three local managers. If necessary, BPL provides the technology or private space for a remote interview.

Afterward, all receive feedback even if they’re not accepted into the program. “They put themselves out there,” says McGrath. “We want to make sure that it feels like this is a space that they can keep exploring, even if it’s not this immediate opportunity.”

 

ON THE PATH

Bookmobile operator Freddie Rivera is a member of the first cohort, which was selected in summer 2021 and began classes in January 2022. Rivera, who has been at BPL since 2003, planned to get an MLS after earning his undergraduate degree, but family issues intervened, and he abandoned the idea. A manager suggested Pathways to Leadership, wrote him a recommendation, and introduced him to McGrath.

Rivera has been focusing on YA services, hoping that with the degree he can serve as a role model. “If I can allow a lot of them that look like me to see that I look like them, it’s an opportunity for them to know they can do it too,” he says.

HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING Pathways scholars Freddie Rivera (l.) and Jenica Holder. Photo by Caroline Kravitz

Before entering the program, Rivera had planned on retiring in a couple of years; instead, he will graduate with his degree from SUNY Buffalo this summer. “It’s a new lease on life, a whole brand new career,” he says. “I want to hit the ground running.”

Jackson Gomes, another long-timer, has been working at BPL since he was 15, when his mother decided he had too much time on his hands and found him a part-time library job. Twenty-five years later, he’s the young adult internship coordinator, and recently received national accolades as part of BPL’s Books Unbanned team (LJ’s 2023 Librarians of the Year). Yet even with those professional successes, he jumped at the chance to earn his MLS and is currently in his first semester at SUNY Albany.

His work with teens is the reason Gomes decided to pursue the degree. “I run a teen internship focused on motivating young adults, during high school, to think of a career path in librarianship and help with this idea of diversity in librarianship,” he says. “That initiative made me realize that young adults need to see more representation, more people who look like themselves.” Gomes credits Kravitz and McGrath’s coaching with helping him balance work and school. Having a strong cohort has been beneficial too, he adds—not only does he welcome the camaraderie, but he regularly taps fellow Pathways scholars to mentor his teens.

One of those former teens, Shamima Sharmin—a graduate of Gomes’s Librarians of Tomorrow internship program when she was 17—is also a Pathways scholar. After earning a computer science and information security degree and working as a technology aide at BPL’s Park Slope branch, she saw that she enjoyed programming for patrons, and realized that an MLS would allow her to do more of what she liked.

Sharmin is in her second semester at SUNY Albany, and the program—including the opportunity to connect with librarians in other disciplines—is already inspiring her. “There’s a big emphasis on including our own experiences and sharing them by putting on programs that the public can resonate with,” she says. “I did an Eid celebration program that was quite unique to the community and the teens here—they were really excited about it. Moments like that keep me going and make me want to stay in the program and continue doing well in school.”

It may not come as a surprise that the scholars LJ spoke with are uniformly enthusiastic about the financial and logistical help the program provides, but they reserve some of their highest praise for the encouragement that their cohorts, and Kravitz and McGrath, offer. “We have to learn that we can’t do things by ourselves,” says Rivera. “To be really good at anything, you’ve got to care about somebody else. I’m doing this as much for them as I am for myself.”

 

GROWING SUPPORT

Pathways to Leadership has been fortunate to have the backing of a large, well-resourced system, but similar work to create career opportunities for a diverse pool of students—and support them in an increasingly holistic way—can be found in many corners.

Close in both name and mission to BPL’s initiative, Pathways to Librarianship is a collaboration between the New York Library Association (NYLA) and Syracuse University School of Information Studies to investigate the barriers that BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people, and those with disabilities or who are neurodivergent, face in the library profession. The project, funded by a three-year IMLS research grant, has assembled a cross-sector task force to explore the question of why these inequities persist, and what can be done to help library workers move forward in the profession. They are currently working with a range of partners from the New York Black Librarians’ Caucus to REFORMA, collecting data and organizing workshops to help generate solutions.

“In economics there’s a principle called mechanism design, where you’re trying to design policy levers in order to influence the behavior of folks,” says task force founder Timothy Furgal. “So if we know what the outcome that we would like to see is, and we know what the barriers are, maybe we can all start to work together in order to create on-ramps.”

STAYING CONNECTED Circulation Manager Maxine Wynter, a Pathways scholar, at an enrichment workshop. Photo by Gregg Richards 

ALA’s Spectrum Scholarships program—which provides MLS scholarships to BIPOC students—celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Some 1,700 librarians are Spectrum Scholars, including seven recently added doctoral fellows. With a quarter century of work amplifying diverse voices in the library world, the program has both numbers and reputation on its side. “Individuals who step into the field, who wouldn’t be called into leadership roles necessarily, are given the opportunities to sit in certain rooms because they are tied to Spectrum,” says Kevin Strowder, director of ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services. Employers “believe that folks are equipped to enter those spaces sooner than they would have had they not had this experience.”

One of those 1,700, Cindy Hohl—the 2024–25 ALA president and past president of the American Indian Library Association (AILA)—serves as project manager of the Bridging Knowledge Scholarship Program, an IMLS-funded grant awarded to the Alaska Library Network in partnership with AILA, the Alaska State Library, and San José State University (SJSU). Bridging Knowledge provides financial and mentorship support to 15 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian graduate students to earn an online MLS degree or an advanced certificate in strategic management of digital assets and services through SJSU’s School of Information.

As a Spectrum Scholar, says Hohl, “When I joined the field, I was very welcomed. I had a lot of library leaders reach out to me and support me.” In turn, she sees it as her responsibility to help extend a hand. “Indigenous librarians—we’re the one-percenters of the field,” she notes. “It’ll be nice to see Indigenous colleagues get a hold on research and librarianship and be able to join this field.”

Many initiatives working to bring under-resourced populations to librarianship have grown through partnerships with local organizations focused on education, community capital, or social justice. Allen County Public Library (ACPL), IN, joined forces with Questa Education Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people access higher education, to create the ACPL Scholars Program. The five-year program will award fully forgivable loans each year to two staff members pursuing their MLS, provided they stay with the library for three years after graduation. Students pay nothing out of pocket.

The goal, says ACPL Director of Human Resources LaRae Bane, is to increase opportunities for those who have reached a cap on their careers because an MLS was not a possibility, with an eye toward the library’s commitment to diversity. The equity lens has also extended to the removal of MLS requirements for assistant branch manager positions. “It opened up a career path for a lot of our staff that was not an option to them before,” says Bane. “I’m a big believer that a lot of little changes add up to really big change.”

 

“GIVING BACK EVERY DAY”

Pathways to Leadership’s first graduates received their degrees this summer. “What we’re hearing is the sort of individualized support that folks are receiving has been very, very helpful,” says Kravitz. The many reinforcements BPL offers are generous and built on principles of care.

At the request of the funder, there are no constraints about how long a graduate of the program needs to stay at BPL—plus, McGrath notes, the library can’t necessarily guarantee them a leadership job right away, so it would be wrong to tell them they can’t go elsewhere. Still, the library will get its return on investment, the scholars say.

The program is “a dream come true,” says Circulation Manager Fatima Fatih, a member of the second cohort. “But we’re building communities and serving the people [BPL] most needs to help. We’re giving back every day.”

Gomes sees his future MLS as a way of enlarging his abilities to advocate for libraries—a critical factor, he says, given the country’s political divide right now. “What better way to fight that than go back and do my librarian degree and really make a difference, and motivate more young people to say, ‘Hey, this could be me in eight years.’”

 

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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