From the Top: Library Leaders Talk EDI | Equity

Library leaders share the strides they’re making to shift strategic plans and policies to center equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Library leaders share the strides they’re making to shift strategic plans and policies to center equity, diversity, and inclusion

In the last few years, libraries and library organizations across the United States have made equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI)—particularly anti-racism—a growing part of their mission. Often, these changes come about in overdue response to hate-fueled violence. Sometimes it is a matter of staff at all levels raising their voices to say that the microaggressions and systemic racism they routinely face will no longer be tolerated—something the pandemic has accelerated. Sometimes a leader with conviction and lived experience becomes well-placed to drive these initiatives. And sometimes the growing consensus that this is core library work—as exemplified by the American Library Association adopting EDI as a fourth strategic direction—is enough. Much of this deeper engagement focuses on transforming internal culture and pairs it with external-facing work that convenes communities to grapple with bigotry past and present.

LJ touched base with a handful of library leaders to hear about their progress, challenges, and next steps.



Under the leadership of Skye Patrick, LA County Library was an early exemplar of such work with its iCount initiative, launched in 2017 with town halls with stakeholders and customers from all communities the library serves, as well as equity and implicit bias training. Each branch annually created a Library Equity Action Plan, empowering staff to use an equity lens to determine who was not being fully served and reallocate resources to make it happen.

Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, 40 percent of LA County Library’s staff was reassigned to disaster services. While that meant library workers made major contributions to COVID mitigation, it basically put iCount work on pause, Debbie Anderson, assistant director for education and engagement, tells LJ. “Let’s just all admit that the pandemic changed everything.” LA County had been in the process of determining next steps for the iCount committee when COVID hit. The library had geared up to launch a new iCount Ambassadors program; the committee had built presentations on 10 EDI topics, including food insecurity and pronouns, and anyone who convened meetings could book an ambassador to speak. “And then bam! Most of our ambassadors were not available, people were not meeting in person,” says Anderson. Her own attention was claimed by the need to jump-start virtual programming.

By now, most staff have returned to library duties. But in the meantime, the context has changed. In July 2020, Los Angeles County launched a holistic Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion Initiative (ARDI), and tasked all departments to be part of it and assign an executive representative, a role Anderson took on. “All departments have been mandated that we have to work together to make a greater impact,” she explains, with emphasis on partnerships, leveraging resources, and collecting and disseminating data.

A few months ago, Anderson sent out a call to reconvene a new version of iCount, and 30 people responded. “We’re not starting over because we don’t want to let go the work we did before,” she says, instead focusing specifically on racism in a new virtual format. The reconfigured committee, mostly frontline staff, serves as a feedback mechanism that helps with the library’s ARDI assignments, such as applying an assessment tool to at least two policies and procedures to see if there’s an opportunity to break down barriers. The library is also recruiting a diversity administrator and got a grant through the California State Library to implement cultural teen advisory boards for its four cultural resource centers on Black, Native American, Chicano, and Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures. The teens will receive stipends, as do the My Brother’s Keeper peer advocates, young people of color who are hired to work in communities with disproportionate numbers of marginalized youth to develop programming, build relationships with young people, and bring them into the library. The peer advocates, whose role came out of the library’s original iCount work about three years ago, “were so critical to helping us keep youth engaged virtually during the pandemic,” says Anderson. “They continue to be an important part of iCount 2.0.”

LIVED EXPERIENCE LEADERS My Brother’s Keeper peer advocates, part of LA County Library’s iCount initiative, connect with youth and bring them into the library. Photo courtesy of LA County Library


In August 2021, Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL) CEO Jackie Nytes stepped down in response to accusations that library leadership perpetuated systemic racism. Chief Public Services Officer John Helling initially became interim CEO, before leaving in April to become deputy director of Indiana’s Hamilton East Public Library. Now Nichelle Hayes, who’s led IndyPL’s Center for Black Literature and Culture since it opened in 2017, has taken over as interim CEO (see LJ's Q&A with Hayes).

The library’s climate study just came out, says Hayes, and leadership is examining recommendations from the law firm that conducted it, assessing short term and long term goals. Hayes is looking at “compensation, capacity, and wellness.” IndyPL’s pay is below market, she tells LJ, compared with other libraries in the area. “When you combine that with inflation, you get a double whammy,” she adds, “so that is something we are looking to focus on quickly.” A 2019 compensation plan was only able to be partially implemented, so Hayes is looking to enact more of those suggestions.

When it comes to capacity, Hayes says, “we have staff members who are overwhelmed because our staffing model is very thin,” with fewer full-time employees compared to similar systems. She is looking to adjust workload through prioritization. As far as wellness goes, “everyone on the planet has had a lot of stress in the past two years, and we are no exception,” says Hayes. She encourages staff to use the employee assistance program, and offers wellness activities in the workplace, such as meditation lunch and learn sessions.

At least as important as these initiatives is her emphasis on listening. The survey, a crucial first step, is only the beginning. “I want to bring, as much as I am able, a supportive environment for healing for our staff,” she says. “There are many staff members that are still wounded from the things that happened in the past, and we have to address that before we can move forward.” In a continuation of Helling’s work, Hayes is going out to the branches and talking to staff about what they have experienced and need, then—working closely with EDI Officer Keesha Hughes—implementing changes where possible, as well as putting together a new group focused on EDI issues.

Hayes feels she is well-positioned to do this work. “Because I am a librarian and was on the desk for many years, I have a different experience than someone who has been an administrator for the past 10 or 15 years,” she says. “If you add that to my lived experience as a Black woman in America, I have experience that is probably somewhat closer to the common working person.”

One challenge, she notes, is to get the word out in the community that progress is happening. “Bad news travels very fast, and good news travels very slowly,” she says. “We have great staffers doing great work, and we’re trying to make IndyPL the best library system possible.”



When Michelle Hamiel came to Maryland’s Prince George’s County Memorial Library System as COO for public services, leadership at the time was mostly white. She joined the executive team as one of only two people of color; the problem persisted below the executive level as well. “We had a diverse middle management,” she tells LJ, “but the people in charge of the branches were not. They were predominantly white, and very oppressive to the circulation staff,” who were predominantly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color). While she could see the classism in action, she says, “this was really about race,” as evidenced by the fact that the one white circulation manager got opportunities not offered to BIPOC colleagues. “Going back to 2014, that was the beginning of me saying we’ve got to do some diversity training,” says Hamiel.

First, the library began hiring Spanish speakers, but placed them only in a single area. Then training was added. “It included all the isms, because we were seeing it all,” says Hamiel. The library changed hiring practices and began making community contacts, “recruiting from the communities we were trying to serve.”

But “when George Floyd was murdered, we started having some open and honest conversations, and it became obvious that we needed to do a deeper dive,” says Hamiel. “All of this started at the executive level, having open and honest conversations with the CEO and the COOs. I was very concerned about what this training was going to look like, because too many times I had been shown that my Black life didn’t matter. There were a lot of microaggressions at the executive level.”

“It is not going to be cute; it is not going to be easy. If it is going to happen it is going to be all in,” Hamiel told her fellow leaders. “You are going to have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” This work, says Hamiel, is “not going to be successful if you don’t have buy in from the top. They may not be the ones leading it but they have to support it and they have to learn to be good allies.”

The library brought in a consultant to present the history of racism in libraries in systemwide mandatory training. Part-time staff were paid for extra hours to attend. “People [said] they never knew that libraries were segregated, that Melville Dewey was racist. It was an eye opener,” she says. Leadership gave staff time to come to terms with this information before holding the second training, a deeper dive into staff’s role in making sure libraries are equitable.

To define and fulfill that role, Hamiel convened a race and social equity team. “I was adamant that it be a cross-functional team,” she says. She started with volunteers—a mix of departments and races—“but we didn’t have any white people.” So Hamiel recruited some, countering their beliefs that this wasn’t for them and telling them they had something to offer.

When the team was assembled, “they were ready to dive in,” recalls Hamiel. “I said we need to have a vision, a mission, a definition, so we are all speaking the same language. This work is going to take a while.” Once the foundations were in place, the team conducted a staff survey. Among the findings were that many staff still experience bias, much of it coming from leadership.

To reduce those impacts, the library is adopting benchmarks that Hamiel helped develop as part of the Urban Libraries Council’s race and social equity team. The library team also started looking at policies and procedures, such as eliminating a requirement that staff use legal names on email, which is problematic for transgender employees, among others. The union and management worked together to develop a career path for people without an MLIS to be promoted, and Hamiel says they are doing a fabulous job.

Despite this, it is still very much a work in progress. “We are almost two years in, and we are still working internally, because that’s where we have to make that change first,” says Hamiel. “It’s been exciting. There are staff members—very few—who don’t believe in this work, but there are other staff members who have found that the work we’ve done made a difference for them.

CONVERSATION CHAMPIONS The Let’s Talk Race Team from Richland Library, Columbia, SC, is shown here at the Edgewood branch. Top row, l.–r.: Taelor Johnson, Randy Dantrell Heath, Heather McCue; Middle row, l.–r.: Michael Tran, Jocelyn Tran (holding Ethan Tran), Dee Robinson, Sarah Schroeder, Tamara King, Morgan Ryan, Diane Artemus; Front row, l.–r.: Sarah Sawicki, Cearra Harris, Ashley Silvera (not pictured: Kaitlin Tang, Jessica Blizzard). Photo ©2022 Joshua Aaron Photography


When Melanie Huggins arrived to take the helm of Richland Library, SC, in 2009, the staff was close to 75 percent white. The 25 percent of staff that were BIPOC tended to be in entry level, non-librarian jobs. “Early on I was focused on those numbers and how we could diversify the staff to make it look more like the community that we served,” says Huggins. “That’s always where I recommend that people start, because it’s hard to have these conversations if you don’t have diverse lived experience on your team.”

“Some of the things we did early on, some people might say have nothing to do with diversity, but they have everything to do with inclusivity,” says Huggins. That includes adding flextime, tuition reimbursement, and paid family leave, and increasing the library’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

These changes helped move the needle. “We started getting a more diverse workforce, but not at the leadership levels, so [in 2014] we made the decision not to require the MLIS for management positions,” says Huggins. “That’s really where we started to get more diversity in management and leadership.” Now 50 percent of the branch managers are people of color.

Huggins didn’t stop with paid staff—she helped diversify her board. “My board is appointed by elected officials, so I don’t really get a lot of say, but you stack the bench—you go out and talk to people who you think you would be good board members and ask them to apply.” Of the 10-member board, today six are BIPOC, up from two when she started.

“Those changes led to us having a more robust conversation about racial equity both on our staff and in the community,” says Huggins.

Leadership built a framework, based on one used by Bank of America, so staff members can create employee resource groups to meet on work time and support one another. An EDI council advises Huggins, and an annual staff engagement survey provides an opportunity for anonymous feedback.

Then in 2015, a white supremacist killed nine Black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Tamara King, then Richland’s community engagement director and now chief equity and engagement officer, came to Huggins and said, “This is really bad for your Black and brown staff. We are devastated, and we are scared. You’ve got to have a conversation.”

That, says Huggins, is when the library got serious about talking about race, internally and externally. “It took a tragedy for me,” she says. “It shouldn’t take a tragedy for library leaders to know that the lived experience of their brown and Black staff can be a daily challenge.”

To have that conversation, she says, “you’ve got to have a culture of trust where people can be their authentic selves and say what is on their mind. We’ve come a long way, but we still have work to do so that people feel they can say what is on their mind and they will be heard.”

When King came to Huggins, the local science museum was hosting an exhibit about race as a social construct. The library sent a dozen staff to talk to the museum’s facilitator to find out how to hold its own conversations. Richland started with a cohort of 10–12 staffers who were trained to lead these conversations in small dialogue circles “and give people the opportunity to have these really candid conversations with total strangers,” says Huggins.

Originally a public-facing project, “we had been doing that for a couple of years when George Floyd’s murder shook us all. That’s when we turned that model to the inside and started having Let’s Talk Race conversations with staff. It doesn’t have to be an either/or, first do this and then do that,” situation, says Huggins. “You can have these conversations with the community and the staff at the same time.”

Running those conversations effectively is labor-intensive. It takes a lot of prep work, including emotional preparation; someone to focus on tech, separately from content; and time to decompress afterward. “It’s a lot of heavy stuff, and taking care of [the facilitators] is really important,” says Huggins. For that reason, staff cycle off the active roster after a couple of years, championing the program in other ways. The team is designing a curriculum for other libraries.

In tandem with these conversations, the EDI team has made concrete changes, reviewing the dress code for bias, and recommending that Juneteenth be a paid holiday. Further recommendations based on the engagement survey results are still in progress. King is working on an annual equity plan. Richland held an all-day staff training focused on race in 2019. The EDI team helped develop a series of equity lens questions to be applied when developing a program, service, or initiative. Each job description is re-examined before posting, and a compensation study designed to make sure no library employee lives in poverty will be implemented over the next three years.

Huggins advises her peers to keep in mind that “you can have the best of intentions and really be committed to this work, and you need to be prepared for ongoing criticism and ongoing expression of concerns. You just need to be open to this being an ongoing dialogue.” For those coming late to the work, she urges, “Tell them what you don’t know. Tell them how you feel, and be real about the fact that the conversation is overdue and it’s going to be bumpy and uncomfortable. As library leaders we need to be comfortable with our own discomfort.”

Getting comfortable with that work can start with talking to staff, to community members, and to other library leaders who have been there. There is no single playbook for EDI work, and every community is different, with its own challenges, but looking at the work launched by resourceful leaders is a useful place to start. 

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Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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