Filling in the gaps to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at libraries

Filling in the gaps to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at libraries

Here's what library teams around the world are doing to make their institutions more inclusive

Around the world, libraries exist to facilitate equitable access to reading materials and valuable information. They function as a portal that lowers the barrier of entry to reading and learning, making it easier for everyone — regardless of their economic status, ability or cultural experiences — to access books, journals, research materials and other resources in a welcoming environment.

However, while libraries are driven by this equitable mandate, there are still gaps when it comes to driving diversity, equity and inclusion efforts internally. For instance, teams across North America suffer from a lack of diversity, showing a pressing need to revisit hiring and recruitment practices. Plus, library leaders have acknowledged ongoing threats to inclusion within their work environment, including tokenism, microaggressions and a resistance to change.

In this article, we explore what needs to change in libraries in order to encourage more diversity, equity and inclusion within their teams — and how teams around the world are doing just that. Plus, we’re sharing some practical advice for leaders to take with them as they continue to pursue these efforts.

The ongoing need for change

In the last decade, there has been a growing push for companies and organizations to do more to ensure that employees are treated fairly and equitably regardless of race, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity. Leaders have had to take a close look at representation in their teams, pay equity and a number of other areas to a) acknowledge where they’ve been lacking and b) set a clear plan for doing better.

In the last two years, these conversations became even more prevalent with the rise of Black Lives Matter and other social-justice movements, imbalanced layoffs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and various other shifts. As businesses in the private sector navigate these changes, libraries needs to be doing the same critical thinking.

Let’s take a look at team diversity in North American libraries, for instance. In the US, almost 88% of librarians are white — and in Canada that number is 89%. These workforces are far away from representing the diversity of the communities they serve.

According to recent research on the topic, four of the primary barriers limiting progress in this area include: the token hiring of Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) to showcase a modicum of diversity; racial microaggressions that librarians of color face on an ongoing basis; exclusionary attitudes to hiring people who look or act differently; and a robust resistance to change.

 In academic libraries, meanwhile, leaders have indicated that while there is strong support for implementing anti-racist policies, they don’t feel they have the right systems in place to make that happen. From the perspective of BIPOC library staff, when change does happen, it doesn’t happen fast enough. To move forward and better serve people of diverse backgrounds, experiences and abilities, university libraries need to do more to recruit (and retain) employees that break the mold. Not doing so risks making library services an inaccessible career path for most individuals — and could make the space irrelevant and unapproachable to evolving and diverse communities.

Libraries that are setting the example in equity, diversity and inclusion

Here’s a look at libraries and organizations that are already doing the work of making the space more inclusive and equitable.

Xwi7xwa Library at the University of British Columbia (UBC)

The Xwi7xwa Library at UBC is the only Indigenous-focused academic library in Canada. Indigenous Programs and Services Librarian Kayla Lar-Son is doing important work to decolonize libraries. This includes listening to the Indigenous peoples in the community and giving them a voice is deciding what the library offers and how — as well as who provides those offerings. It also accounts for Indigenous data sovereignty, which requires careful consideration around who has the privilege to hold and access information about certain communities.

These important efforts can’t happen without diverse teams that are prepared to honor these different perspectives and approaches to libraries, which is what Lar-Son is doing.


The Ohio Library and Information Network (OhioLINK) is Ohio’s statewide academic library consortium, serving 89 institutions. As part of its DEI efforts, the organization launched the OhioLINK Luminaries Program, an annual mentorship program that serves undergraduate college students from underrepresented communities. As part of the program, students get the opportunity to gain paid, rotational work experience in certain libraries in the network, with support from a dedicated mentor.

Other libraries

Some other efforts being made in the library space include:

  • The Lafayette College library works with other academic libraries in the region to host a week-long event that introduces students from underrepresented communities to the library sciences.

  • Duke University Libraries set up a Task Force for Diversity in Recruitment that was mandated to make recommendations on how to improve hiring practices.

  • At Iowa State University Libraries, department heads and administrators participate in structured DEI book discussion series facilitated by the libraries' AD for Inclusion & Equity as part of their own DEI learning and professional development.

Diversity and inclusion in libraries

Tangential organizations that are also making a difference

External to the libraries themselves, there are also organizations that have been established to lead the charge on improving DEI within library sciences. This includes WOC + Lib, a group founded by two women of color who are committed to creating a digital safe space for formerly silenced voices to share their experiences in libraries, galleries, museums and archives. They feature articles from various writers who share their perspectives, innovative projects and more, with a clear focus on encouraging diversity in libraries.

The National Network for Equitable Library Service is another important body in the space. Focused on ensuring equitable access to services, they provide training and support to library staff helping patrons with NNELS services. As staff are exposed to these services and are empowered to support individuals with various needs, they can be better equipped to create work environments that cater to various individuals as well.

What libraries can do

Below is a list of steps libraries can take to support the ongoing development of equity, diversity and inclusion within the space.

Start with education

It’s important to remember in all of these conversations that the barriers to inclusion that impact professionals also exist at the educational level. If we want to ensure that teams are reflective of the diverse communities they serve, then we need to also ensure that library sciences programs are drawing in individuals of various experiences and skill sets.

Leaders have a role to play here. They can start by actively engaging with local programs to see if they have a plan for building more diversity into their student groups. What schools are they reaching out to? What messaging are they using? Remember, representation matters here. Even changing who appears on the brochure or program website can help change perspectives and encourage people to apply who might not have otherwise.

Focus on targeted recruitment

Take a look at your team. Could it do with more diversity and representation? If so, even if you don’t have a vacant position yet, it’s time to think about how you can change your hiring practices. Consider your local library sciences programs and see if you can build or expand your relationship with the leaders there to build a targeted recruitment plan. 

Consider taking a page from how other professions do this. The nursing sector, for instance, has seen targeted recruitment initiatives that included ads played on specific regional radio stations, as well as the use of outreach coordinators who set up recruitment workshops.


Add diversity as a consideration of succession planning

As libraries continue to evolve, succession planning becomes a key point of opportunity for hiring librarians with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Proactively building a succession strategy that accounts for this can make it much easier to infuse this mission into hiring practices when the time comes to replace an exiting member of staff.

More specifically, this can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Create a clear diversity mission and set measurable objectives

  • Assess library employees to identify underrepresentation in any key areas

  • Analyze and rewrite employment policies, job postings, and any other policies or systems that are barriers for underrepresented groups

  • Take a proactive approach towards finding minority candidates and encouraging them to apply, leveraging relationships with university programs and mentorships

  • Create a work plan that projects future vacancies and identifies potential candidates

  • Evaluate, monitor and revise succession planning as needed

Design programming that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion

Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion are important topics, regardless of what industry you work in or where you’re studying. Library leaders can bring in diverse voices to talk about these subjects, serving the needs of the community, but also leveraging that same learning for their staff.

Adopt tools and technologies that empower staff with different abilities

Ensuring the tools and software your team uses are designed to be as accessible as possible is important. It helps level the playing field, allowing everyone to be able to show up and do their job effectively. PressReader Accessibility, for instance, was designed with patrons in mind, but also allows librarians with visual or other disabilities to support patrons in getting the content they need. 

Is your library implementing a strategy that we didn't feature here? Send us an email and let us know what you're doing to create a more inclusive environment. We’d love to spotlight it in our blog. Plus, learn more about how we support libraries in their various initiatives.

Featured Libraries library trends contactless Reading Insights

Related Articles