Guest post by Michelle Demeter, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Services at Florida State University Libraries
This weekend the release of Black Panther smashed a number of records for attendance and revenue. Considering the film’s impactful story and characters, many people in the media and across social media hailed its introduction as the beginning of a much-needed cultural and social sea change. There are numerous studies documenting the importance of films offering characters that people can identify with and how they can impact how people think and act.
Walt Hickey, a writer for fivethirtyeight, offers a unique look at one character, Shuri, who especially redefines what representation in film can accomplish. Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is a strong black woman who is not only a princess but a technological phenom who develops tech that outclasses anything the West has even dared to imagine let alone actually create. Hickey cites several other films that positively impacted the STEM fields, noting the rise in archeologists, paleontologists, and engineers following the release of Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and Star Trek. Perhaps the only thing more astonishing than the success of Black Panther and its resoundingly positive reception is the fact it has taken the film industry this long to get it right. Similar criticism was levied when Wonder Woman hit theaters in Summer 2017.
So what does this all have to do with libraries? As it turns out, quite a lot.
While libraries position themselves as neutral and inclusive, there are several reports that would contradict this narrative. Library staffing is still predominantly white, and several initiatives have been launched by the American Library Association (ALA) and recently the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) to address the discrepancies in our own profession. At 2018 Midwinter, ACRL Leadership Council spent about half of its meeting discussing the current landscape of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in academic libraries.
Key in these discussions was a worksheet that included the following questions:
- What are the EDI initiatives being implemented at your libraries (e.g., policies, collection development, teaching approaches, etc.)
- What campus-level EDI initiatives are in place at your institutions, and how have they affected your libraries?
- What are any library or campus-level incidents of EDI-related intimidation or harassment that have occurred at your institutions, and how have these incidents affected the library?
These three questions allowed for some very intense and honest discussions at my table. We all talked about how gender, age, race, religion, and sexual orientation have been issues at our libraries and the campuses at large. Many of us, all women but only two women of color, discussed personal experiences with outright contradictions of EDI or microaggressions in one or more of the above categories, and it became obvious we have problems despite our best efforts.
During the course of our discussion, honesty, trust, and safety emerged as common concerns. We all felt it was important to be honest with one another and our administrators, but most of us felt that was impossible as we did not feel it was safe to do so. Several woman at my table voiced concerns about how to best help coworkers understand how some well-intentioned actions or words may have prevented women and people of color from speaking their minds. Many feared being labeled as “touchy,” or “angry,” or “motivated by emotions.” Others worried they would be seen as less able to be a leader. While I listened to my peers, I became conflicted because I have felt the same way many times and I was both glad I was not alone in the experience but saddened because it was such a prevalent occurrence and seems to be continuing despite our best efforts.
However, at one point while discussing age-related microaggressions, one woman recognized something she said to a coworker and was astonished to hear that it may have offended her coworker. She expressed genuine regret and vowed to be more careful, even if making what she thought was a joke. Because we established a safe environment of honesty and trust earlier in the meeting, we all felt empowered to say things we may have otherwise shied from. This is the type of open dialogue we need to help foster and promote in our libraries, both among our coworkers and the patrons we serve.
Despite this misleadingly simple answer, the main question that remains is how do we continue to affect real change and try to address the issues at our institutions? Certainly libraries are moving in the right direction by offering changes in hiring practices where we make statements on diversity, equity, and inclusion part of the application, and ask applicants to provide their own statements in addition to answering EDI questions during the interviews. HR-led trainings were another lauded option.
Two of the most-cited initiatives were the creation of library-led diversity teams and diversity residency positions, two directives my institution of Florida State University recently began. We recently opened three librarian positions and are expecting to have them filled and running by this summer. And not to be contrarian because these initiatives are all helpful in their own way, but what would it take to get the profession to the point where these sorts of actions are unnecessary because they are a natural part of our professional lives?
It is heartening that ACRL is interested in what it can do to help move the needle on the conversation and actual change. Many suggestions were given including ACRL-led trainings, web tools, and documents to help librarians learn and grow as individuals. It is encouraging that ACRL led this discussion, and it was evident that each table was equally interested in actionable outcomes as they listed further ways to improve hiring practices, collection building, and coworker/patron interactions. Once the ideas are worked out, I am optimistic that we will see the changes in equity, diversity, and inclusion that many in the library profession have been waiting so long to experience.
 Scott Mendelson, “‘Black Panther’: All the Box Office Records It broke and Almost broke in its $235 million Debut,” Forbes, accessed 2/20/18 at https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2018/02/19/black-panther-all-the-box-office-records-it-broke-and-almost-broke-in-its-235m-debut/#7b458e021ba4
 Walt Hickey, “‘Black Panther’ Is Groundbreaking but Its Shuri Who Could Change the World” accessed 2/20/2018 at https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/black-panther-is-groundbreaking-but-its-shuri-who-could-change-the-world/
 ALA, “Recruiting for Diversity” accessed 2/20/2018 at http://www.ala.org/advocacy/diversity/workforcedevelopment/recruitmentfordiversity. ALA, “Diversity Counts,” accessed 2/20/2018 at http://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/diversity/diversitycounts/divcounts and its main page regarding Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at http://www.ala.org/advocacy/diversity