Wanted: Latino Librarians

Imagine walking into a library time and time again and never seeing anyone who remotely looks like you. Imagine finding no one who speaks your language. Imagine knowing that there's a great collection of resources there that your tax dollars have paid for, but you don't know how it's organized or how to find what you need. Or imagine that you do speak a little English, but when you ask a question, the librarian appears not to understand what you're saying. This is the sad reality for many of the Spanish-dominant Latinos living in the United States. Just how the Spanish-speaking community gains access to American libraries has been a problem for years. The recruitment of Latino librarians is one of its most important remedies. Unfortunately, at every level of staffing and administration, Latino professionals are simply missing from libraries all over the country. For every 9,177 Latinos, there is one Latino librarian, as opposed to one white, non-Latino librarian for every 1,830 white non-Latinos (see below). That means Latinos are far less likely to find someone of their own culture to serve them. Statistics like these illustrate why so many Latino librarians are actively recruiting, even when they're not paid for the effort. Although all librarians should be skilled at serving a wide range of cultures, Sonia Ramírez Wohlmuth, SLIS at the University of South Florida, believes that bilingual librarians are necessary for basic interaction with the public. "People want information and services in their own language," she says. "Otherwise, they may walk into a library and conclude that 'there is no one like me here,' and leave." The lack of Latino librarians is a problem for the library profession, as well as for publishing in general. It affects book culture and the health of the industry. Latino librarians are just better equipped to identify a collection's needs and order the books to fill these needs.

The Trouble With Tokens

Latinos are missing, but are they missed? As Sandra Ríos Balderrama, former director of the American Library Association's (ALA) Office for Diversity, states, "Libraries and librarians need to care about recruitment. Libraries and organizations need systemic policies, procedures, and budgets to recruit. We as librarians need to care that the people at ALA and other professional conferences, at the reference desks, in cataloging meetings, are so homogenous. We have to be bothered by that." It's not enough to hire just one Latino librarian. Many professionals told Críticas that in numbers and diversity, librarianship is not evolving with the Latino population, which is multiracial and multilingual, and speaks many dialects. Ríos Balderrama and others argue that tokenism in the hiring of Latinos does a disservice to Latino communities and patrons, and also to the Latino librarians. In many parts of the United States, the Latino population has grown so much that a complex set of skills and knowledge is required to serve it. Ninfa Trejo, director of the Community College Library in Pima, AZ, agrees. "It is important to recruit and retain Latino librarians because of the demographics, and also to preserve our cultural heritage," says Trejo. "Spanish-speaking librarians can build and improve Spanish-language collections." Latino librarians can communicate effectively with Spanish speakers, and direct them to materials designed for them. "Imagine the difference between the resources an English speaker receives from a librarian compared with those received by a [native] Spanish speaker," says Elizabeth Martínez, a library science educator and former executive director of the ALA. "I am still amazed at the belief that a smile will suffice when communicating with Spanish-speaking Latinos. Doesn't every library user get a smile? We need equitable service for Spanish speakers."

A Profession in Transition

Despite the dissatisfaction currently expressed by so many library professionals in the United States, there have been small changes over the past decades in Latino recruitment. John Ayala, who has been in the profession since the 1960s, takes the issue personally. "We're doing many things that weren't being done before," says Ayala. "The REFORMA conferences bring together hundreds of Latino librarians. Such gatherings were just a dream 30 years ago. We used to feel overburdened. Whenever they needed a Latino librarian at the national level, it seemed like I was always being called upon." As is now well known, the big demographic shift is the continued growth of the Latino population, and it's reaching a new historic landmark: At 38.8 million, Latinos are now the largest minority group in the United States, accounting for 13% of the population. Although the number of Latino librarians has increased from the handful there were 30 years ago, the numbers are still quite low, according to Denice Adkins, a professor at the University of Missouri Library School. She points to a 1998 ALA survey that found that 3.5% of librarians are Hispanic/Latino. "It would be great to have more recent data than this, but ALA doesn't collect it regularly," says Adkins. (Recent inquiries have revealed that there's currently a push from the ALA's Office of Diversity to collect ethnicity and racial data.) If we look at only the most recent MLS graduates, we see that the situation is not much better: Between 1995 and 2000, only 3.1% were Hispanic. The number seems to have dipped. According to the most recent report available, in 2001 only 2.6% of MLS degree recipients were Hispanic. In comparison, blacks were the most represented nonwhite ethnic group (5.2% ). Asian and Pacific Islanders represented 3.1% of graduates in 2000-2001, while Native Americans constituted .5% of all graduates. These figures suggest that Latinos are the most underrepresented of all the groups.

The Birth of Awareness

The earliest effort in the recruitment of Latino librarians dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the civil rights movement. Kathleen de la Peña McCook, a professor at the University of South Florida and a prolific writer on recruitment, library education, and Latino librarianship, says, "During the 1960s there was the war on poverty, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the development of affirmative action. The attention paid to recruiting people of color in libraries was a natural spin-off." The Committee to Recruit Mexican Americans, a California-based librarian group from the 1960s, may have been the earliest program. Martínez was a notable leader in that effort. In 1971, REFORMA, the only national library association with recruitment of Latina/Latino librarians as one of its primary goals, was founded. In the 1970s, two major library education programs came on the scene. The Mexican American Library Training Institute at California State University at Fullerton, also known as the Fullerton program, ran from 1972-1975. In Arizona, Arnulfo Trejo created and ran the Graduate Library Institute for Spanish-speaking Librarians (GLISA) from 1976-1980. Combined, these two programs, with curriculums that focused on serving Latino communities, graduated 104 Latino librarians. Many library leaders, such as Martín Gómez, Luis Herrera, Salvador Güereña, Liz Rodríguez Miller, José Aponte, Margo Gutiérrez, Rolando Romo, and Amanda Castillo, came out of GLISA. While the 1980s proved to be a dead decade for recruitment, in 1997, an exciting new national program called the Spectrum Initiative took hold. The initiative was the brainchild of Martínez, but it was also the product of the work of many librarians of color, especially Ríos Balderrama, who headed the program for five years. Spectrum is an ALA program with a mandate to recruit applicants and award scholarships to Native American, Asian, African American, Latino, or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students for graduate programs in library and information science. It's the number and size of the scholarships--50 scholarships of $5,000 in each of its first three years, 25 in the following years, that has given the Spectrum Initiative teeth. Yet its success is also due to the mentoring, networking, and the environment it has created for professional development, such as its intensive leadership institute for library scholars. Spectrum has enrolled 62 Latino library students since it began, but even though it provides the largest number of diversity scholarships of any library organization, 25 a year for all underrepresented people of color is really not enough.

Knowledge River

The most recent major efforts for Latino recruitment are the Knowledge River program at the University at Arizona, and the PRAXIS program at UCLA. Founded in 2001, Knowledge River, which focuses on Latino and Native American librarianship, has already enrolled 31 Latinos in its short existence. Library Journal hailed it as "the most promising recruiting initiative in library education" and "a program to watch and support. From it we may finally understand what it takes to attract the ethnic diversity we sorely need in our field." PRAXIS, a "predoctoral and recruitment program for tomorrow's culturally diverse information studies faculty and leaders," takes the recruitment question one step further by addressing the need for faculty of color in library schools and the need for research in multicultural librarianship. Participants in this nine-month, post-MLIS certificate program receive a scholarship covering tuition and fees, and a stipend and monetary support to present their research at a national conference. Although these initiatives are working to build new talent, they depend on grants and, excellent as they are, are thus short-lived. "The special programs of the 1970s disappeared," says Knowledge River program director Pat Tarín. "There was the expectation that they would be kept going but that didn't happen." In addition to the major initiatives there have been many individual and regional recruitment activities. Indeed, the personal approach is necessary even for institutional efforts to succeed. De la Peña McCook adds, "In the 1970s, we developed a motto, Each One, Reach One. We looked at the numbers and saw that it made a difference. Maybe it's time to bring that program back."

The Pipeline Problem

Several factors contribute to the persistent lack of Latino librarians. Many library leaders point to the unspoken standards among librarians, in which Latinos are seen as less capable than native English speakers. There is also a linguistic double standard that affects the way many Latinos are perceived: Native Spanish speakers who speak English with an accent are viewed as lacking linguistic ability, whereas native English speakers who speak Spanish with an accent are considered to have linguistic breadth or diversity. Sometimes the bias against Latinos (which also extends to other people of color) is so strong that it affects how the white librarian majority interprets so-called objective standards. For example, one recruitment expert who chose not to be identified recalls how some librarians responded to her successful recruitment of librarians of color in a major urban library system. "I got a call from one who was so upset that we had 'lowered our standards to get these people in.' But these particular librarians had scored in the top four in the city civil service exam! It seemed he didn't want to believe it. He and others just assumed they had done worse." Related is the question of standardized testing. The GREs, or Graduate Record Examinations, pose another barrier to recruitment. Adkins has found that the very notion that GREs are required for entrance to library school can be daunting, not just for Latino students but for other minority students as well. "The problem is that these standardized tests are built for a certain demographic and may not capture what it takes to connect Latinos with books and information." Ríos Balderrama says, "Some potential students want to know which library schools don't use the GRE as an entrance requirement." At the University of South Florida, Ramírez Wohlmuth has proposed that her school eliminate the GRE requirement in some cases and substitute in its place the PAEG (Prueba Académica para Estudios Graduados), which tests academic and analytical skills in a person's native language, as well as English-language competency. This seems a much more realistic approach for many, especially those born in Latin America. Without role models or mentors, the whole process of applying to a graduate program in library science can be quite overwhelming, confusing, and even surprising to many Latinos. Héctor Escobar, Latino studies librarian at the University of Notre Dame and former Spectrum scholar, instructs Latino students on what to expect once they apply. "It's not only sending in a few papers," says Escobar. "I try to tell them that taking the GREs and getting into library school is the first barrier. But once you become a librarian, a lot of networking opportunities open up, like REFORMA, and it gets easier." There are other serious academic barriers as well. The rate of college graduation among Latinos is proportionally lower than the rate for non-Latino whites, so that any effort to improve the numbers of Latinos in the profession needs to include ways to get better education for Latinos at all levels, and to reduce the drop out rate at the high school and college levels. Experts call this "the pipeline problem." The low salaries in librarianship, averaging about $35,000 to start, definitely play a part too. "For many Latinos, getting through college is a great hurdle," says De la Peña McCook. "You're highly in debt by the time you finish, and there is great pressure from your family to get into the workforce. Then to have to get another degree? That's basically six years of college. And the average salary is--what?" Prejudice and bias against lower-level library workers affect recruitment at various stages. If Latino paraprofessionals are only noticed by their employers when they make mistakes and not when they do great work connecting Latino communities with books, there is less of a chance they'll be encouraged to pursue their studies and attend library school. "To be an effective recruiter, you have to see the potential in people," says Ríos Balderrama. "You have to see them for how much they can contribute. This means that I have to see my co-worker--whether she is a library shelver, a custodian, a techie--as a future librarian, a future viable manager of a cultural institution." If potential recruits see that Latino librarians are not treated well in the profession, they may decide to pursue another career. Ríos Balderrama adds, "I have heard more than once from Latino librarians that they were told they were being 'too Latino' on the job. The frustration lies in the fact that they are hired because they are bilingual or because they can relate to the community. But the managers are of a mentality that says it is okay to be 'Latino' with the patron, but when you come to the management table--restrict yourself." Lastly, if members of Latino communities are not recognized and respected by libraries as potential patrons, they won't be attracted to librarianship as a career. It's all interconnected.

Recruitment That Works

Substantial financial assistance is critical for recruitment. Both GLISA and the Fullerton program offer this, as does the Knowledge River program, which pays full tuition and awards a living stipend. Another prime ingredient is the ability of library schools and public libraries to partner with academic librarians to spot Latino talent. Colleges are a great place to recruit, since patrons of academic libraries are well on their way to getting a bachelor's degree and may be unsure of what career path to follow. The personal approach, Latinos keeping their eyes open for potential recruits, works too. But it requires follow-through, staying with them the whole way, from the application through library school and into their first job. Demonstrating the positive aspects of librarianship, especially how it is a community-focused profession, is very effective. Many Latino students are looking for a way to give back to their communities and use their Spanish-language skills. Having Latino library administrators and Latino faculty at schools with library science programs is essential. Administrators like Ninfa Trejo, Camila Alire, Elizabeth Martínez, and Martín Gómez have been cited again and again for the difference they have made in recruiting individuals. Likewise, the Library School at the University of South Florida has won an award from REFORMA for its recruitment of Latinos; it has also consistently had more than one Latina on its faculty. Additionally, building a coterie of Latino students, so that they don't feel they are alone, has been crucial to success. The best programs, such as GLISA, Fullerton, Knowledge River, Spectrum, and Praxis, have all been founded on the cohort principle.

Big Steps Needed Now

Martínez sees a need for all major players, library schools, libraries, and library associations, to participate. "We need to take big steps, not baby steps, to make progress soon," says Martínez. She challenges library institutions across the country and asks, "What if every state library committed a certain percentage of its budget for recruitment of Latino librarians?" Tracie Hall, the new director of diversity at the ALA, echoes this sentiment. "I'm skeptical when I hear librarians bemoan that it's so hard to diversify the field. We have to rethink the center, shift the paradigm that says this is a white middle class occupation. We can't wait for people to come to the profession." Martínez proposes a Latino recruitment summit as a way to sustain a coordinated effort in which five major library schools, five library systems, and five library associations across the country would work to devise a model program that others could follow. Ben Ocón, outgoing REFORMA president, agrees. "The recruitment of Latinos as a goal is coming into focus," he says. "But more needs to be done. We need a collective effort to promote librarianship as a viable career option." REFORMA's current president, Linda Chávez-Doyle, is ready to take up the challenge with her platform "Casting the Net: To Grow in Strength and Numbers." She is considering establishing a recruitment committee that would provide the formal structure in which to develop an effective recruitment plan that could include the following: (1) developing formal partnerships with established programs; (2) grant writing; (3) a speakers bureau; (4) the preparation of a recruitment packet that includes ideas, resources, success stories. Martínez and others note that library professionals need to keep recruitment in view and make constant efforts toward that goal. There must be quantitative and qualitative research to document the barriers and successful approaches, and to track changes in the numbers. The first step, of course, is making sure Latinos feel wanted in the profession and that they want to succeed. Remember the Spanish phrase the early reformistas recited in the 1970s: "Querer es Poder?" Wanting it is being able to do it.
Isabel Espinal is the humanities and anthropology librarian at the University of Massachusetts.

"Can I Speak to a Latino Librarian?"

Latinos are Underrepresented in the Profession

Librarians U.S. Population Population per Librarian
Latinos 4,228 38,800,000 9,177
White, non-Latinos 107,516 196,800,000 1,830
SOURCES: U.S. Census "Hispanic Population Reaches All-Time High of 38.8 Million, New Census Bureau Estimates Show", www.census.gov American Library Association Office for Research and Statistics, "Number Employed in Libraries. ALA Library Fact Sheet 2", www.ala.org Mary Jo Lynch, "What We Now Know About Librarians," American Libraries, February 2000, pp.8-9.

What Library Professionals Can Do

  • Be on the lookout for Latino talent
  • Talk to Latinos about librarianship
  • Organize a librarian recruitment dinner or reception
  • Put up recruitment posters and brochures in libraries, community centers, bookstores, student advising offices, and other locations
  • Get involved at institutional and organizational levels. Forge collaborative recruitment efforts between local academic and public libraries, library schools, and library organizations such as the local chapter of REFORMA and the local state library association
  • Support with funding, whether it means making a contribution to a scholarship fund or, if you are an administrator, setting aside part of your budget for recruitment
  • Embrace change and realize that Latino librarian recruitment is in everyone's interest
  • Show love of your work and profession. Enjoy your job as a librarian and let others know how you feel
  • Work to improve librarian salaries
  • Work to improve the educational attainment of Latinos in the K-12 levels to help solve "the pipeline problem"
  • Read the recruitment tips on the ALA Spectrum website (www.ala.org/spectrum); click on "recruitment for diversity"
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