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Cultural diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Welcome to culture@work, brought to you by the OLA Cultural Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. This column showcases diversity in library work in Ontario by introducing Open Shelf readers to library staff from around the province. By highlighting the experiences of library workers, we hope readers will get to know more of their OLA colleagues and perhaps be inspired by, if not more informed about, issues of diversity in librarianship in Ontario, and perhaps beyond.

Photo of Rhea Smith.

Name: Rhea Smith
Title: Chair, OLA Cultural Diversity and Inclusion Task Force

1. Where do you work?

I’m in transition at the moment. Over the past two years I’ve worked at a special library, a public library and a law library. I have also worked at an academic library before that. When I am job searching, I look for openings in these areas. As a parent, I am attracted to the stability of working hours that special libraries offer, plus the opportunity to specialize in specific subject areas but I love the diversity of topics, locations and people that I can get exposed to in public libraries.

2. Tell me a little about yourself. Why have you chosen to work in Libraries?/How did you end up working in libraries?

I believe in life-long learning. I was out of school for eight years when I went back for a Master of Library and Information Science. I have been thinking about becoming a librarian since spending my Saturdays at the Kingston Public Library in Jamaica doing research for school during the pre-computer days of the 1990s. Joining my local Public Library Board in 2014 and volunteering with the OLA, reignited my passion for all things library. Going back to school was not an easy decision or process, I had a young child, I felt old for the university crowd, plus there were financial obstacles to overcome but I am glad I did. 

3. Tell us about cultural diversity and inclusion, what do you think libraries can do to be more inclusive? Have you faced any barriers? Why do you think diversity is important for our library communities?

Diversity is important to libraries because the communities that they serve are diverse.  It is the goal of libraries to help meet their members’ needs therefore it is in the best interest of library management to include options in location, layout, collection and staff that their members can identify with. Yes, I have faced barriers related to race, gender, socio-economic status, and more. However, I choose to focus on the positives and keep trying to be the best person I can be. My grandmother taught me that it is not enough to win in life, it matters how we play the game. Libraries should care about diversity because it impacts the quality of their customer service and libraries will only continue to exist if they have users who feel that their needs are being included in the strategic plan of their library.

4. What continues to inspire you on your job/in your career?

I love visiting libraries to see how they use the space and treat the clientele.  I am always looking for better ways of doing things personally and professionally so I am inspired by the success of others, the challenges they overcome and the footprints they leave behind.  In my search for employment, I look for work that I know I will love. I figure that I will be spending a significant amount of my life at work, therefore, it needs to be at a place that I love, doing things that I love. 

5. What piece of advice would you give a diverse librarian beginning their career as well as those librarians in their mid career?

Get yourself a mentor, formally or informally. Network, find a way to do it even if you are not very sociable. You don’t need to be perfect at everything, just be willing to learn and try again if you need to. Take some risks but be prepared for all possible outcomes.  Start saving for your retirement even with precarious employment. Be compassionate to others and take care of yourself. Focus your time and energy on what you want to accomplish.

6. What work do you think librarians in Ontario need to do to work towards positive social change?

Ontario is such a big place, it is hard to pinpoint just one thing that all librarians across the province can do in unison to help achieve social change but we are all living on the traditional lands of a Native band so I think if there is one thing we can all work at is improved programs and services for library users who identify as First Nations.

The OLA Cultural Diversity & Inclusion Task Force mandate is to initiate, advise and mobilize support for appropriate action plans related to issues of cultural diversity in libraries within Ontario including recruitment, advancement and retention of underrepresented groups in libraries.

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