Librarians have long been portrayed as the little old White lady with her hair in a bun and glasses on a chain around her neck, “shushing” noisy people, but Deborah Lilton represents a more modern image.
In a profession that in fact has been largely White, Lilton is a Black student at the University of Alabama who is pursuing a degree to become an academic librarian. She is one of a disproportionately small number of minorities entering a field that is trying to get past stereotypical images of the “bun lady.”
“Until this perception is changed, people who would make fine librarians will undoubtedly choose another career choice,” says Lilton, who decided to pursue her degree after teaching English as an adjunct faculty member.
In a 2004 study called “Diversity Counts,” the American Library Association found that Blacks are difficult to among the most difficult group to recruit. According to the study, there were 190,255 professional librarians in 2000, 90 percent of whom were White. Only 8 percent of the librarians that year were Black.
“We need to do more work to attract individuals to the profession that actually look like the U.S. population, because we want our profession to look like the people we serve,” says Denise Davis, director of ALA’s office for research and statistics.
ALA President Leslie Burger agrees that it is important to let young people know that the profession isn’t just for middle-aged White women.
“There may be some perceptions that this isn’t a field that welcomes or encourages diversity,” she says.
But efforts are being made by ALA and colleges to encourage minorities to pursue a library degree. ALA’s Spectrum project provides scholarships, fundraising, recruitment, mentoring, leadership and professional development for future minority librarians. It provides a one-year, $5,000 scholarship and more than $1,500 in professional development opportunities to students planning to attend an ALA-accredited graduate program in library and information studies.
“Since the public library is the people’s university, it needs to be not only physically accessible to everyone but culturally accessible as well,” says Lilton, one of two Spectrum scholars at UA. “That means having professional people of color on staff.”
She says librarianship as a career option should be introduced early in a child’s educational experience and that old stereotypes should be dispelled, with librarians of all races making an effort to become more visible in society.
One barrier to minority recruitment, Lilton says, is the lack of library and information science programs at historically Black colleges and universities.
She says Clark-Atlanta University in Georgia had to shut down its program because of funding problems and decreased enrollment. Currently, North Carolina Central University is the only HBCU with an ALA-accredited library program.
“If Black students don’t encounter librarians as a career choice in undergraduate school, it is highly unlikely that they will consider it when choosing a course of study for graduate school,” Lilton says.
Hispanic librarians are increasing their numbers, however, with 6,164 in 2000, an increase of 206 from 1990. Still, they represent only about 3.2 percent of all librarians.
Meiyolet Mendez, a Hispanic student in her last semester at UA, is one of two UA students with a scholarship from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, which targets minority students to become librarians.
When Mendez needed help learning English after arriving in the United States 12 years ago, she went to her high school library and immersed herself in works by authors like Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare.
She says she decided to become an academic librarian — one who works for a college or university — because she wants to connect people with the campus resources that are available to them. She believes that advertising library school through Black and Hispanic student associations on campus will help spark interest.
“I think we’ll see an increase in people applying to library school if we do these things,” she says. “I think that we as minorities for the most part have different cultural backgrounds that may allow for different points of view.”
She says opportunities for minority librarians are growing.
“Our school has a good distance education program where you can take online courses,” Mendez says. “There are almost no barriers. There are scholarships for minorities all over the place.”
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