Experience Success | Diversity 2016

As higher education grows increasingly more aware of the need to diversify its workforce, academic libraries are developing new strategies to lower barriers in hiring and retain librarians from a wide range of ­backgrounds.

ACRL Diversity Alliance

ACRL helps ethnically diverse new librarians explore the field

ljx161201webdiversityslugbig2As higher education grows increasingly more aware of the need to diversify its workforce, academic libraries are developing new strategies to lower barriers in hiring and retain librarians from a wide range of ­backgrounds.

A recent membership survey of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) revealed that 83 percent of respondents identified as Caucasian. In response, the organization is developing the ACRL Diversity Alliance, an initiative uniting academic libraries that share “a commitment to increase the hiring pipeline of qualified, talented individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.”

Participating institutions commit to creating one or more diverse residency positions within the library, as well as to agree to serve as a resource to other participating institutions, offer professional development support, and provide a salary commensurate with that of equivalent entry-level professionals. The alliance also enables a cohort network that helps residents share ideas, resources, and experiences.

A matter of experience

Jon E. Cawthorne, dean of libraries at West Virginia University (WVU), Morgantown, knows firsthand about the opportunities offered by this kind of initiative. He began his professional career some 25 years ago with a two-year minority librarian residency program at Ohio State University (OSU). The program moved new librarians around to different areas within the OSU library system during their first year, and “that really helped me see the…entire work of the library,” says Cawthorne. “I got experience that prepared me for academic and research libraries in a way that I think a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to [have].”

When he arrived at WVU in 2014, Cawthorne wanted to put a similar program in motion. At the same time, he says, he was hearing more and more discussion from all corners about the need to improve diversity in academic libraries.

The challenge, he says, involved ensuring that people in underrepresented groups have the experience to compete for positions that generally require an additional degree plus three to five years of academic practice. Often they don’t meet initial hiring thresholds and get left out of the job searches.

Changing the hiring culture of academic libraries from within was impractical, he says. Instead, Cawthorne proposed that a group of like-minded institutions join forces to give new librarians the needed experience, helping support people from diverse backgrounds and providing a framework for other libraries to do the same. After getting approval to initiate three residencies at WVU and discussing the idea with colleagues at other schools, Cawthorne enlisted three more universities: American University in Washington, DC, the University of Iowa, and Virginia Tech.

Other institutions have since signed on, including Emory University, GA; Ohio State University; Pennsylvania State University; Temple University, Philadelphia; Towson University, MD; the University of Delaware; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and the University of Utah.

Aligning initiativeS

The work being done by the Diversity Alliance is not necessarily new to its members. Aligning with ACRL’s program, however, will help provide guidelines as well as interinstitutional support.

For example, Penn State’s dean of university libraries, Barbara Dewey, had already initiated inclusive residencies at the library. Joseph A. Salem Jr. stepped into his role as Penn’s associate dean for learning, undergraduate services, and Commonwealth Campus libraries in May 2015, as the first cohort of residents was winding up their terms.

ljx161201webdiversitypeet2Salem proposed that Penn should join the Diversity Alliance and stepped up to help lead the project. Alignment with the ACRL group involved some changes to Penn’s program, including expanding the residencies’ length to three years from two; the extra year offers time for extended professional development opportunities and conducting a job search. He also hopes that the expanded model will offer a larger cohort for the new librarians. “That’s the part...that I really like,” Salem notes, “the institute model that they use where residents are able to go to the different institutions and meet each other, create a network, see how things work.... There’s great value in that.”

During the first few weeks of its residencies, WVU held an institute for residents across the alliance, where they could meet, find out one another’s interests, and begin to collaborate.

The gathering, says Chanelle Pickens, a former library assistant at Henderson Technical College, near Las Vegas, NV, “kind of set the stage.” A second was held last spring in Iowa. “We were all far more established with what our goals were, and we knew each other a little better, too, so we were able to dig in deeper.” Pickens has been working with Alonso Avila at the University of Iowa; both focus on first-year experience.

A chance to explore

Each of the initial participating schools has created at least one two- or three-year entry-level residency. While WVU already had funding in place for new library positions, other library leaders had to approach presidents or provosts in order to secure the needed funding. But buy-in has been good overall, says Cawthorne.

The residencies were advertised on job boards and in library schools, public libraries, and the American Library Association (ALA) Spectrum Scholarship Program, sponsored by ProQuest, which recruits and provides scholarships to students of color. More than 300 people applied for eight spots.

For the first year, residents rotated through different roles and locations. The opportunity to discover new, and often unexpected, strengths has proved valuable. Pickens had initially assumed she would end up working in archives. But as she completed her first rotation, in teaching, she discovered that not only was she interested in instruction, she was good at it. Currently in her second year, Pickens is working in WVU’s Evansville Library focusing on first-year experience, teaching a freshman seminar, and developing her own curriculum.

WVU resident Ashleigh Coren also discovered new strengths during her rotation. Coren was a 2014 graduate of Simmons College, working in Boston as a part-time reference librarian at Emerson College and a full-time Americorps volunteer for Steps to Success, an academic enrichment program. In her first year, Coren realized that she was interested in leadership and organizational development as well as student retention and now works in the dean’s office at the Downtown Campus Library. “I think it’s helped me better articulate the kind of librarian I want to be,” says Coren. She also serves on the Diversity Alliance task force.

Catch and release

The residencies are not about retaining the residents, stresses Cawthorne, but giving them the knowledge and experience they need to move onward. “This shouldn’t be about the institution,” he notes. “If you want to go out and hire a metadata librarian, then do that. This position is about helping people learn about the work of the library.”

It can be common for institutions to see the departure of someone in whom they’ve invested time and money as a failure, he says, but by following this model, “we’ll get more diversity. If we all increase the pipeline, everybody will benefit.”

Partner institutions comprise another cohort, supporting one another in developing the framework for diversity work and encouraging other participants. Says Salem, “If the leadership also gets to know each other well we can create a nice community of practice around these particular programs.”

Valuable partners

Partnering with ACRL serves a number of purposes as well. The organization has a wide reach, both to potential member schools and the pool from which they recruit residents. It also offers credentials: participating institutions will be able to exhibit a badge identifying them as Diversity Alliance members on their websites and promotional materials.

In addition, the Diversity Alliance’s title and mission statement make the purpose of the residencies explicit. This means that schools do not need to specify particular groups when advertising for the resident positions. Educational institutions are often legally prohibited by school or state statutes from specifying gender, racial, or ethnic qualifications for applicants.

As the Diversity Alliance grows, it also opens a space for people in academia to talk more broadly about the need for inclusion and to begin to define some strategies to ensure a workforce that mirrors the populations today’s institutions serve.

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