Why we need more BAME representation in academic libraries
In my teens, during long, hot summers in Philly, I sought refuge in the black literature section of my local library, devouring stories from writers from the Harlem Renaissance through to the Black Power movement.
It was The Big Sea by Langston Hughes that dared me to dream of escaping my ’hood to travel the world. In the book, Hughes recounts his adventures as a merchant seaman to Africa and hanging out in the nightclubs of Europe − I wanted that freedom.
A job at an international company got me to London, and I have been saying “yes” to opportunities ever since. While teaching in Africa, I ran a small library at a university, sowing the seed for what would become a career.
I am now one of a few black/brown directors of academic libraries in the UK. When I started in my post a couple of years ago, I was, I’m pretty sure, the only one.
Oh, the (self-imposed) pressure! If I did not make a success of the role, I would fail the entire African diaspora!
Ridiculous, I know, but when you are the only black/brown person in the room, you feel that you are representing that group.
In 2015, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) and the Archives and Records Association (ARA) of library and information professionals in the UK found that 97 per cent of respondents identified as white (the survey estimated the the workforce at about 86,000). That statistic is unlikely to have improved much in the past five years and is extremely problematic, particularly for the UK higher education sector.
According to a 2019 AdvanceHE report, 23.9 per cent of UK HE students and only 9.8 per cent of staff identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME). So, black/brown students have few role models within their institutions, particularly in leadership roles, which sends a message that careers in the academy are not really an option.
The report also shows a degree-awarding gap of 23.4 per cent between white and black students (80.9 per cent of white students receiving 2:1 compared to 57.5 per cent of black students). Something is happening (or not happening) within our institutions that is impeding the success of black/brown students.
Each of us working in HE has a responsibility to better support and advocate for these students. Libraries play a key role in providing resources that represent a breadth of critical thought beyond the Eurocentric prism, spaces that imbue a sense of belonging (for example, imagery, language), skills sessions with content that speaks to the lives of the students and a staffing profile that represents the population that we serve.
In 2019, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (Sconul) commissioned research about the lived experiences of BAME staff members in academic and research libraries. The report enabled senior leaders to hear the experiences of the black/brown staff members in their services and to take action to improve representation, particularly in leadership roles.
The experiences shared in the report were unsurprising. Staff members spoke of feelings of isolation and being monitored as they were often the sole black/brown person in the service. They also spoke of feeling as if they were representing all black/brown people and were often called on to lead on issues around race and diversity on top of their day jobs.
A particularly worrying statistic was that 44 per cent of the 273 respondents experienced racism in their services. Of those who reported the abuse, 80 per cent said they were not satisfied with the resolution. As a senior leader who investigates complaints and chairs formal panels, I agree that our HR processes and procedures sometimes miss the mark.
I am often asked what we need to do to increase representation of black/brown people in senior leadership roles in libraries. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here’s a start:
Acknowledge that systemic racism exists and understand its impacts on our institution cultures: There are people who don’t believe that it exists and that the lack of representation of black/brown people in HE is because we are just not good enough. This culture also has a corrosive impact on black/brown students who are likely to have been branded by this deficit model throughout their education.
Capture and monitor demographic data about our services: The Sconul report highlighted that the demography of staff in member institutions is unknown. Baseline data must be captured so that any initiatives and targets can be monitored over time.
Widen the recruitment net: We trawl the same waters for staff. I, too, am guilty of this when I seek to recruit into a post quickly. We then see the same candidates for roles, fuelling the myth that black/brown people don’t apply for roles (hard to believe in London, especially). And Russell Group can only hire Russell Group. Really?
Take positive action: That is, if there are two candidates of equal suitability, take the opportunity to increase representation within our services. I have seen this done to shift the profile of predominantly female services. Why is it such a stretch for racial diversity?
Develop the pipeline of staff: Last year, I hosted an event called Talent Untapped, a knowledge exchange for BAME staff in academic libraries. There is a wealth of potential within our services that can be developed into senior roles through targeted leadership programmes, sponsorship or traineeships.
Libraries are about enabling access to knowledge and information that can spur a kid from Philly to travel the world. As with academic staff, we need more black/brown leaders in academic libraries to show our students that there is a place for them in the academy − and the world.
Regina Everitt is director of library, archives and learning services at the University of East London.