Jodie Gray: "The library profession attracts people who have a sense of civic pride and duty"
As shown by recent labour market research reports, librarianship remains a “female” biased profession. Although we see a female majority amongst library employees, there isn’t an equal representation in the highest managerial positions. Over the past few years, a positive shift has become more apparent. One of the keynote speakers at the CILIP 2017 conference, Dr. Carla Hayden, was the first woman to be appointed as Librarian of the United States Congress. She happens to be also the first person of colour to head this library. For quite some time, the former President of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), Dr. Claudia Lux, has been managing a Qatar Foundation Qatar National Library (QNL) construction project with the support of Dr. Sohair Wastawy, who began her work as Executive Director of the QNL last fall. It seems that the IFLA President’s post has become more open to female candidates (and the same tendency has started to manifest itself in CILIP’s Presidential team too).
We’ve invited another high-profile female appointee Miss Jody Gray – Director of American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services – to answer some topical questions. For her, political and social engagement is one of librarianship’s core values, and neutrality is rather a difficult position to take.
Dear Jody, looking at your portfolio it seems you could be a perfect example of a professional who had a successful career thanks to your early involvement in the work of professional organizations. One of your most recent affiliations is Vice President and President at the American Indian Library Association. What other organizations have played an important role in your professional life?
My first experience with a professional organization was with the American Library Association (ALA). ALA is the organization that introduced me to the American Indian Library Association (AILA). It was as a first-time attendee at an ALA Midwinter Conference that I first heard about AILA. I think ALA is a common entry for many new librarians. It is where you begin to learn about the complexities of the profession and the difference in the types of libraries and library services that are available. For each area (academic, public, school, or functional specialty), there is a community in ALA. AILA was a great organization for me because I am Lakota and until I went to my first AILA meeting I had never met another American Indian librarian.
AILA is the only place in the profession where I can be surrounded by other American Indians. All the ethnic caucuses fulfill that role of being a space where you don’t have to be the only person of colour or American Indian at the table. I think that it makes sense that the ethnic caucuses are affiliated with ALA, because they can provide a niche that may not happen organically at ALA. And ALA provides a platform for all library workers to address issues, concerns, and education around the field of information science. You need both. I needed both.
You’ve been one of the Resident Librarians of the Diversity Alliance. Could you tell us more from your personal experience about this residency programme for underrepresented groups of librarians? Are there any similar programmes in other types of libraries (rather than academic)?
Resident Library programs are primarily hosted at academic institutions. I was a library resident at the University of Minnesota from 2003-2005. This program is no longer in existence. The residency program would hire two recent graduates of colour or American Indians with a Masters in Library Science (MLIS). The residency lasted two years and introduced the resident to various departments in an academic library.
We had rotations in different departments for the first year (I was in reference and instruction services, cataloguing, and digital reference) and then chose an area we would like to focus on in the second year. I chose to focus on reference services with a focus on digital reference. Myself and the other resident were professionals who had a support system in each other. We also had assigned mentors. It was a good way to get a sense of a career in an academic library and a great way to get experience to add to your résumé. Every residency program is a little different, but I think the idea of providing some practical experience and introducing the academic library field are consistent across the programs.
A question on President Trump’s administration policies is inevitable. The first impression that we get looking at a distance from another continent is that American libraries find themselves in quite unprecedented situations; for example, the controversy surrounding the statement released by the President of ALA, Dr. Julie Todaro, right after the US Presidential election, as well as consecutive statements that were either rescinded or supplemented with more statements and even a FAQ sheet to tackle this controversy. Are librarians in US struggling to find common ground? Would you say that the problems and issues covered by your Office are becoming a priority for ALA and the library profession in general?
Equity, diversity, and inclusion are priorities for ALA and they have been in the spotlight quite a bit, but it’s not solely tied to the Trump administration. I became a member of ALA in 2004 and equity, diversity, and inclusion issues have been in discussion that entire time, in one or another.
I started this job in November 2015 and one of my first major tasks was working with the Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. This was a group that was created to address issues of diversity at conference. They had been working for 3 years to come up with a list of recommendations and a report that was completed in the summer of 2016. This report and list of recommendations has had a profound impact on the way that different parts of the organization are addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion. I imagine that it will continue to be a major influence in the coming years.
I think what has happened since the election in November  is that there has been a shift in the culture in America. Acts of overt racism and xenophobia are more visible. I don’t think anyone was expecting that shift. As a professional, I know that much of my time was focused on systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. and not on overt actions. The work was about dismantling the underlying structures that maintained a culture of oppression. Now, we are moving backwards in terms of talking about teaching tolerance and acceptance.
I think that the political environment unleashed by the Trump administration is unprecedented to many of us. I think, like most of the country, ALA was caught off guard and we had to work through understanding how this shift impacts the expectations of our organization and its members.
Equity, diversity, and inclusion were a priority before, but there is a sense of urgency surrounding this work, that was not there before. And there are new issues, like tracking hate crimes in libraries or providing resources to library workers to help understand how to best serve immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in a more hostile environment, that were not needed before.
Over the past several years, librarians have had to face difficult decisions regarding a number of political issues. It is a general expectation here in the UK that a library employee has to remain neutral and uninvolved. Is it always possible to do so? Or rather, is it the correct thing to do no matter what the issue?
The fact that public libraries are spaces for everyone, in and of itself, means that libraries are taking a stand for ALL community members. That is the issue that I feel gets conflated with neutrality of social issues.
Librarians value access to information and work to level the playing field when it comes to offering information that reflects multiple cultures and viewpoints. All sides of an issue should be accessible to everyone. Library workers value and fight for freedom of speech. We live in a democracy which should provide all of us with the right to freely express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
The profession strives to reflect users’ needs and librarians and library staff work diligently to transform lives through education and lifelong learning. Unfortunately, there are times when standing up for all community members is challenged, or even blocked by local politics. However, to fulfill our role in providing equal opportunity to all, library workers are on the front lines fighting for access to information that mirrors the demands and needs of all community members.
One of ODLOS’s fields of work is providing training on various issues of equality, diversity and inclusion. Cultural competence is a foundation of modern librarianship. Could you give a rating on how librarians perform in this area? What effective methodologies and tools would you recommend when addressing low cultural awareness among both librarians and library patrons?
That is a hard question to answer, because we don’t really measure that in anyway. What I can say, anecdotally, is that the library profession seems to attract people who have a sense of civic pride and duty. Since most of the work of librarianship is about building a space for communities, it means that there is a strong interest in being equitable, diverse, and inclusive. I think that librarianship, as a profession, values these tenets higher than many other professions.
Some libraries have been doing this work for a long time and have made it a priority; others are just starting. It’s important to begin this work where a library is at. In terms of tools, there are many ways you can begin. In our office, we use a social justice framework. This means that we focus on talking about power and privilege. Beginning to identify and understand these concepts is the first step in dismantling the systems that exist to perpetuate oppression.
What are the most important events and projects on the ODLOS agenda for year 2017? Any new materials or publications we should be looking out for?
We have been working hard on our ‘Libraries Respond’ pages which we are using as a resource for library workers to use when issues arise quickly that impact their communities. We also have a blog called ‘Intersections’ that was developed for library workers to share their best practices with each other. We are continuing to grow our professional development and educational resources by offering more in person workshops on cultural competence and bringing in more speakers to provide webinars on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. I encourage folks to visit our web page to keep abreast of our projects and resources.
on behalf of Community, Diversity and Equality Group Committee,
Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, United Kingdom