Ithaka Library Director Survey on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Antiracism Reveals Disconnects

On March 17, Ithaka S+R released results from its most recent survey of more than 600 academic library deans and directors across the United States. The report, “National Movements for Racial Justice and Academic Library Leadership,” looks at how their perspectives and strategies around diversity, equity, inclusion (EDI), and antiracism have changed over the last year, as well as their perceptions of COVID-19’s financial impacts on staff and faculty of color.

Ithaka S+R logoOn March 17, Ithaka S+R released results from its most recent survey of more than 600 academic library deans and directors across the United States. The report, “National Movements for Racial Justice and Academic Library Leadership,” looks at how their perspectives and strategies around diversity, equity, inclusion (EDI), and antiracism have changed over the last year, as well as their perceptions of COVID-19’s financial impacts on staff and faculty of color.

While these issues have been discussed among academic library leadership for years, the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for social justice in 2020 reinforced the immediacy of the need to address systemic racial inequities in institutions across the country. Ithaka’s survey, disseminated in late 2020, shows that library deans and directors are thinking about equity issues, but a significant disconnect still exists between their intentions and the realities of their staff and faculty of color—particularly when it comes to the precarity of jobs during the pandemic for those who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Ithaka S+R customarily surveys library directors on a three-year cycle. But the world had changed significantly since the previous U.S. Library Survey closed in December 2019. “When we realized that COVID-19 and the movements for racial justice that happened last summer were really impacting academic libraries, we decided to field this off-cycle survey, asking some of the same questions that we typically ask in our standard cycle of surveys but also adding some questions about the COVID-19 pandemic and movements for racial justice,” Ithaka Senior Surveys Analyst and report coauthor Jennifer K. Frederick told LJ.

“We also wanted to contextualize the findings in the history of [EDI] in libraries,” said Frederick. “The 2020 movements for racial justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement in particular, led to higher education leaders putting out antiracism statements, and library leaders talking through [EDI]. We wanted to see how that impacted them in late 2020.”

The survey was disseminated to all deans and directors in four-year academic institutions across the United States. Some 83 percent of the respondents self-identified as white, pointing up the lack of diversity among library leadership (directors of color, and Black directors specifically, are more likely to be found at doctoral universities).

Beyond the low numbers of library leaders of color—consistent with the lack of diversity in librarianship as a whole—the survey indicates that actionable EDI strategies have yet to catch up with the national conversation. “We know equity, diversity, and inclusion have long been values held by academic libraries,” Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, Ithaka manager of surveys and research and report coauthor, told LJ. “The results that we see in the national survey reinforce how these values are increasingly seen as important. They also serve to document a recognition of how little has been done to date to operationalize and act on these key values.”



Library leaders value the idea of equity work; responding directors were three times more likely to consider leadership capacities that fostered EDI as a top skill this year—from 7 percent in 2019 to 25 percent in 2020. That skill set, however, still only ranked seventh among a list led by the ability to manage change, communication skills, and financial skills, among others. Nearly a third of directors at public colleges and universities noted equity work as highly important—31 percent, compared to 20 percent of leaders at private colleges and universities. The report’s authors noted that in an analysis of academic library strategic plans conducted in May 2020, few showed defined plans for advancing equity objectives.

Perhaps reflecting the realities they were confronted with during the past academic year, fewer directors in 2020 believe their libraries have well-developed personnel strategies related to EDI; on average, slightly more directors expressed confidence in their library’s antiracism-based strategies for recruiting and retaining employees, as opposed to broader EDI approaches—35 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Numbers were similar, although slightly lower, about their institution’s work overall: 31 percent felt their antiracist strategies were well-developed, and 26 expressed the same about EDI. Confidence in all areas of equity and antiracist work was higher among library directors of color, with 41 percent of Black directors strongly agreeing that their libraries’ EDI strategies were well-developed; only 29 percent of white directors said the same.

In addition, the language used in hiring library leaders did not change notably from 2019 to 2020 when it came to including skills relating to EDI or antiracism. “So even though it seems like [directors are] valuing those skills more, those haven’t quite showed up in job descriptions yet,” noted Frederick.

Contradicting much of what we have seen throughout the library world, the majority of library directors did not expect that employees of color would be disproportionately affected by cuts resulting from COVID-19 budget constrictions. Yet of the job types most impacted by furloughs and the elimination of currently filled and vacant positions at Association of Research Library institutions, four of the top five map onto job categories with more employees of color—technical services, metadata and cataloging, access services, finance and business operations, and facilities/operations and security—as per a 2017 Ithaka survey.

Black directors at doctoral universities and public institutions expressed greater concerns about their employees of color. But overall, the lack of awareness of COVID-19’s impact on staff at the library’s higher levels was “disappointing to see,” said Frederick. “There’s a bit of a mismatch between those presumptions and what actually happens.”

Collection strategies have also not kept pace with calls for re-examination in the past year, and less than 20 percent of responding directors stated that they had well-developed strategies to recenter their collections around authors of color and/or antiracist content. The development of criteria for evaluating and making decisions about the diversity of library collections was essentially unchanged from the previous year.



While Ithaka surveys have looked at representational diversity in the museum and library sectors, this is the first stand-alone report focusing on library director perspectives on such issues. In many ways, it complements Ithaka’s “Academic Library Strategy and Budgeting During the COVID-19 Pandemic“ survey, the results of which were published in December 2020, which included questions focusing on EDI and antiracism as well as the impact of COVID-19 and social justice movements on employees of color.

Ithaka has announced plans to develop and launch a pilot antiracism talent management audit in partnership with the University of Delaware and the State University of New York at Binghamton. Policies, practices, and outcomes related to recruitment, employment, promotion, and retention patterns at will be inventoried at the partner libraries, gathering data from leadership and employees, examining policy documentation, and analyzing representational diversity. At the end of the project, Ithaka will assess and consider bringing in more institutions for similar work.

Wolff-Eisenberg hopes that this ongoing research will help libraries in regard to “setting goals related to [EDI] and antiracism strategies, whether it’s about collections or personnel or services,” she told LJ. “These have been stated values for a long time, but moving from those values to action will require folks to really evaluate whether they have achieved a desired outcome, and there will also need to be mechanisms in place for holding people—or groups of people—accountable for that change. Those are some of the things it would take for change to take hold.”

In addition, on April 13, Ithaka will host a webinar on national movements for racial justice and academic library leadership. Trevor A. Dawes, vice provost for libraries and museums and May Morris University Librarian at the University of Delaware; Patricia Hswe, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation program officer for public knowledge; and Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, dean of Ida Jane Dacus Library and Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections at Winthrop University, SC, will discuss the survey results and, Wolff-Eisenberg said, “help shed some light on where we go from here.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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