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Canada 150: Diversity & library schools

In 1867, library schools as we know them had not yet been founded. Diversity was not formally defined as race, ethnicity or access challenges, and the Indian Act would not be passed for another 11 years. Fast forward to 2017: We think of the concept of diversity differently but perhaps not that of hierarchy.

Dr. Toni Samek, a professor and the chair of the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta, thinks, teaches and advocates for diversity in many library arenas, including at her own institution.  She shares her thinking on diversity in library schools with us, in this year of Canada 150.

How do you define diversity, generally and in the context of library and information studies and praxis? 

Language is culture and culture is language. There are of course many definitions of diversity. Arguably, some individuals or groups might appropriate the word. A philosophical articulation of diversity will look different from a legal, competency-based or labour usage. For accessible grounding in teaching and learning in an MLIS setting, a professional graduate program, I find it helpful to think of diversity in the way it is presented in the below scholarship.

Paul T. Jaeger, Mega M Subramaniam, Cassandra B. Jones and John Carlo Bertot. (2011). “Diversity and LIS education: Inclusion and the age of information.” Journal of Education for Library & Information Science, 52(3), 166-183.

Borrowing from my own writing [Samek, T. (2013), You can’t hurry love”: slow library education in culturally diverse society.” Paper presented at: IFLA World Library and Information Congress, 17 – 23 August 2013, Singapore.], Jaeger et al. (2011) note within library and information discourse “there has been tension about whether the field should focus on diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, in terms of legally protected populations, or in broader terms” (p. 167). They argue our field cannot limit itself to focusing on increasing inclusion based on race and ethnicity or even based on populations protected from legal discrimination.

Library and information education should further move its focus from diversity in terms of simple demographics to an emphasis on reflecting diverse populations that are underrepresented, disadvantaged, and underserved in terms of information. This definition of diversity involves populations that have traditionally been missing, mistreated and marginalized in relation to information needs and information behaviour, as well as populations that are traditionally underrepresented in the profession. Such a definition would be hefty enough to include legally protected populations based on race, ethnicity, gender, and disability, as well as populations with access challenges related to literacy, poverty, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, and age, among others. (Jaeger et al., 2010)

You developed one of the first courses on diversity offered by a Canadian library school. Why do you think that this kind of education/training is important for those who will be working in, if not leading, libraries in Canada? What do you want library school students to learn and why?

University of Alberta logoAt our school, we have a stated vision, mission, values, and MLIS program learning outcomes consistent with our parent institution and culture. These align with our university’s institutional strategic plan, For the Public Good, and takes into account the social justice ethos of our home faculty (the Faculty of Education). Diversity is inherent to this layered endeavour. Of course, the American Library Association’s Committee on Accreditation, our program’s accrediting body, emphasizes commitments to diversity too. It is a clear expectation that MLIS students understand how diversity is conditional to their education, both as a right and responsibility in their field and in ways that transcend their field.  

Through MLIS education it is important to consider:

  • how intellectual freedom might bump up against freedom from discrimination; to what extent intellectual freedom can be mainstreamed in ways that discourage, diminish, or silence questions about equity and diversity;
  • and, if intellectual freedom is sometimes used as a pretext to encourage or ‘justify’ the reading of difference as grounds for exclusion.

These challenging explorations carry through education into practice and policy development. Students deserve the experience of rigorous footing that is not reductive or defensive, but rather grounded in an appreciation for a common human task. The need for our current debates about cultural appropriation serves this point.

Is diversity an issue for students and faculty in the School for Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta? For example, recently students in the library school at the University of Chicago Urbana-Champagne publicly raised the issue of diversity, arguing that the student and faculty bodies were not as diverse as they should be. Do Canadian library schools face similar challenges?

In my personal-professional experience teaching in MLIS context going back over two decades, I have seen first-hand how teaching and learning has reinforced the notion that hierarchy is ordinary. That default alone is a signal we should be surprised if anyone still believes diversity (and social justice more broadly) is good and done. There is always room and need for improvement at SLIS and at all levels and aspects of institutional, organizational and professional life and labour and in the communities we serve. Despite law, law reform, rhetoric and human rights assertions, multiple forms of systemic discrimination persist in society. The need for reconciliation is an obvious example of the need to correct.

It is my firm belief that funding and recruiting diverse professional teacher librarians and funding and stewarding well stocked multi-lingual and multi-format school library collectionsand enhancing who has access to themis a critical step forward. We can only get so far without these circumstances. It is not a radical argument, but it sure seems it will take radical action to get it done!

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Committee released its report and calls to action in 2015. As a follow-up, the CFLA-FCAB released a report and set of recommendations in early 2017 in response to the TRC calls to action. How do you think these reports should be integrated into library school curricula?

The TRC calls to action must inform the MLIS curriculum and broader educational experience from the start through to the end and out the other side. Attention to this in foundations courses on into electives is not sufficient. Responsiveness must also be evidenced in broader educational experiences (e.g., inclusive spaces, resources and services; language; shared governance; protocols, and so on). We have the benefit of the University of Alberta Libraries’ Indigenous Student Internship, which has in great part, helped us recruit and retain Indigenous students.

Our online teaching and learning stream has fostered diversification of our student and instructor populations too. We have welcomed students from every province and territory in Canada—and some beyond. And we have a strong advisory network with multiple stakeholders. The TRC calls to action demands both individual and collective commitments. The curriculum must drive that understanding too. If education does not ultimately foster peace and spiritual wellbeing, something is missing.

Diversity is an enduring concept that continues to be defined, redefined and confined. Quality education transcends the particular degree, serves the student as citizen, and lasts a lifetime. In the process of learning inevitably comes unlearning and relearning. We need to recruit students who are open to reflective knowledges.  So the work actually begins long before anyone applies to and enters an MLIS program.

Jaeger, P. T.. Bertot, J. C, & Franklin, R. E. (2010). Diversity, inclusion, and underrepresented populations LIS research. Library Quarterly, 80, 175-181.

Martha Attridge Bufton, BBA (Hons), MA, MLIS, is the Open Shelf editor-in-chief and the Teaching and learning librarian in Research Support Services at the Carleton University Library. She can be reached at martha.attridgebufton [at]

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