Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Do They See Us? Librarians, Students, and Diversity Work, By Fatemeh Khavaninzadeh (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Doing Diversity Work.”

As I explain my idea to her, the middle-aged librarian’s eyebrows slowly rise up, a thoughtful look quietly crawling on her face. When I finish, she takes a pause, massaging her face with her hand, looking up as if an answer would come to her from the heavens. And then she takes a deep breath and replies “I don’t know… I have never thought about it… I need to think about it… but I don’t really have an answer…”

This is one of the many similar responses I have gotten from the librarians when I have brought up a question regarding the role the library is playing in diversity work. The library does a great job when it comes to handling issues of diversity in regard to its staff members or when planning for the future of the collection, but I had slowly realized that something is missing from all the plans: the students.

All the librarians that I talked to were really dedicated to handling diversity in their own departments, be it changing problematic metadata terms or changing the examples used in a workshops pamphlet to include examples that could expose students to issues about diversity. The librarians were trying their best with the resources and time they had but whenever I asked whether there were any specific plans to make students conscious of diversity issues I was faced with responses that showed this aspect had not been brought up before.

The library prides itself as being the place in the university that ignites “academic curiosity, encour­age[s] dialogue and provide[s] essential context for critical engagement”, but when we students step into the library, do we really walk out more curious about diversity issues, more ready to hold conversations about diversity or better prepared to critically reflect on it? The library seems to have viewed diversity, up to this point, as a one-sided thing that the library is responsible to do for us. The library appears to not see us, the students, as the other end of this reciprocal interaction. 

For two reasons, I believe this to be important. Firstly, no matter how much the library tries to act on principles of diversity, we students can render their efforts ineffectual if we still continue to use the collection and the library space without paying attention to our own biases about diversity. And secondly, compared to diversity work being done in many other places in the university that my classmates worked on, the library is really ahead and as one of the librarians puts himself, they are not doing it “to just check off a box”. I have been repeatedly humbled by all the creative ways librarians have found to address diversity issues, and I slowly realized that as students, we are losing a great opportunity to become well-versed in diversity practices by learning from the library. This means that when we become the people who provide the service instead of receiving it, we need to start from scratch, while we could’ve gotten a head start if the library was to share with us the path they have walked and all its ups and downs which would’ve enabled us to do more about diversity when our chance comes. 

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