March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Diversity in Librarianship | Consider the Source

pile of bkFor the past several weeks the Cooperative Center for Books for Children Listserv (CCBC-NET) has been a very lively place. Periodically, the Center (CCBC) surveys the 3,000 or so K-12 books that arrive at its doors each year to find out how many have been created by authors and illustrators from underrepresented populations, and how many of them are about such individuals, groups, or in some way thematically related. The numbers they release are, on the surface, shocking. Of the 3200 books they received in 2013, 63 were by African Americans, and a total of 93 were directly about African Americans; comparable numbers for American Indians were 18 and 34; for Hispanic Americans 48 and 57; and for Asian Americans 90 and 69 (in other words, self-described Asian Americans wrote more books in general than they did books about being Asian–for example, I would guess, books such as Greg Tang’s math titles).

In full disclosure, I responded with skepticism about what those numbers mean exactly. I would love to see those figures parsed–how many of those books were series titles, how many were nonfiction, how many were crafted to match popular culture–movie or TV tie-ins, or the such? There is no reason an author from one of these groups might not write a movie tie-in, but those kinds of books, I would argue, are not commensurate with an individual novel, folktale, or nonfiction book, and should be accounted for separately. I think looking by genre would be far more meaningful than merely compiling aggregate numbers based on self-description.

I am, however, not using this column to have my say–I did that through exchanges on the Listserv. Rather, I wanted to address another issue. Today, at a faculty meeting at Rutgers University, we were discussing a related problem: the lack of diversity in librarianship, and what we can do about that.

As I see it there are two distinct aspects of that issue in librarianship. On the one hand, there are many populations underrepresented in the profession. Part of the solution to that is outreach. There are positions in information management that offer attractive starting salaries and career paths; attractive enough that those finding it a real financial challenge to reach a master’s level can see a clear path to a rewarding career. Another is mentoring–making sure that students, identified as early as high school, who could do well in this profession are given the encouragement, support, funding, and access to networking that they need. We at Rutgers are focusing attention on the mentoring path. But then there is the other diversity issue: gender.

genderLibrarianship, especially in K-12, is almost too overwhelmingly female for me to contemplate. As all of you surely know better than I do, it is the precise definition of pink-collar work–work that women do for lower pay and less status than the comparable work by men. Which women? Significantly, they are middle-class women, or women who have a second family income, or who have family support. Of course, they are also people who also love books, young people, learning, and enjoy collegiality and sharing. But, who can afford–psychically, emotionally, financially–to make less than their intelligence, training, and skill could potentially earn in another career.

I suspect–and said on the CCBC discussion–that the distortion in the pool of K-12 librarians matches the distortion in K-12 authors. The same factors that limit the group that can afford to be a librarian limits the authors who can afford the lower advances, lower sales, lower attention that all but a tiny few K-12 authors can expect. So what can we do?

I am not sure that the gender imbalance in librarianship is discussed as often as it should be. Yes, there have been endless conferences on boys and reading, and the emphasis on nonfiction that has come with the Common Core is sometimes framed as an effort to bring more books boys like into the curriculum. Yet, I wonder what would happen if, say, if the American Library Association approached a group that was as male as librarianship is female–in sports, business, military, business (I realize that women are rising in all of these fields)–and conducted focus groups on what K-12 libraries are, can be, and should be. The meetings would be private and have no determinative role–so there would be no danger that libraries would suddenly need to change the books they buy, or drop printed books–but there would be an influx of new ideas from a different perspective. In turn, adult males–who often have least contact with a school or public library, yet frequently vote in local elections, might see more reason to support existing or increased funding for libraries. While this would not address the gender gap in librarianship, it would bring a new set of ideas and actors to the field while it remains primarily female.

What do you think? How do we address all of the diversity issues, including gender diversity, in K-12 librarianship?

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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  1. I, for one, can’t wait for men to fix librarianship.
    After your article about why authors who are POC don’t write more books about white people, I just want to say you’re doing a heck of a job promoting the white, male voice. It’s about time.

    • marc aronson says:

      I am afraid you have misread both of my columns. I did not suggest that people from under-represented groups (some of whom object to the term POC) write more about white people, I suggested that they write more about everything — people and events related to other under-represented groups, to dominant groups, to subjects that are not related to one group or another, such as math. And I did not say men should fix librarianship. I said that any group that is too homogeneous suffers from that fact — whether that be male electricians or female K-12 librarians.

      • I think you don’t know the difference between career diversity and statistical diversity.

        • marc aronson says:

          I am not sure what you mean by that. I think homogeneity in a profession is not a good thing — whether by race, ethnicity, faith, sexual-orientation, or gender. I think K-12 librarianship is hurt by being so white and so female. I think that part of the reason for the skew in numbers is economic and will not change quickly, so I began to map out some ways to enhance diversity in librarianship, and in the ideas discussed by librarians. What are you saying I am not getting?

  2. I believe that most women librarians hope that our work can come to be recognized as valuable based on its inherent worth as opposed to our ability to reproduce paternalistic structures that prioritize the needs of wealthy men. Legitimizing librarianship by seeking the approval of these groups replicates the societal conditions that cause “pink-collar” jobs to be undervalued. Our institutions were designed by educated, moneyed men specifically to serve their needs. Tying our worth to making sure that they remain our top priority will do very little to address the problem of diversity in libraries and librarianship and will continue to exacerbate the societal issues that cause the problem itself.

    • marc aronson says:

      I am not suggesting that female librarians “seek approval” from wealthy, paternalistic, males. Rather I suggested that engaging in dialog with men — and I suggested some fields that might be as male as K-12 librarianship is female, while recognizing the advances women are making in those fields — would bring useful new perspectives to librarianship. I do think making more men aware of the importance and value of K-12 libraries can help when budgets are voted in towns, not because I suggest focusing on, or seeming approval from, wealthy men. But because all-too-many males, of all strata, are disconnected from K-12 libraries.

      • Mr. Aronson, do you really believe that women haven’t tried to speak with men about these issues? That’s it’s women who shut down these conversations? Women who end them before they begin? Or are you going to tell us that you know more than we do about our own lived experiences, personal or professional? Because I could totally see you being willing to do that. Oh yeah.

  3. Nancy Everhart says:

    How do we address diversity? How about by starting out with informed data and not just opinions? Where did you get your information that there are more females in K-12 than any other type of library setting? (overall there probably are but percentage wise?) And as for your assertion, “As all of you surely know better than I do, it is the precise definition of pink-collar work–work that women do for lower pay and less status than the comparable work by men.” Actually K-12 is one are of librarianship where men and women are paid exactly the same for the same qualifications and experience.

    • marc aronson says:

      The Pink Collar term in that sentence was not comparing librarian to librarian, but a person with similar skill and level of graduate training. It is true that my reference to female dominance in K-12 is anecdotal, but I feel confident about it. This column is certainly more riff than detailed study, but I would be the happiest person to have someone find specific #s that challenge, shade, or confirm the views I expressed.

  4. marc aronson says:

    I should add that my goal is not to promote white, male, dominance. My POV is fundamentally anti-nationalist. I am against any group forming boundaries around itself, rather than seeking the widest possible contacts and connections. That is what I said about Israeli nationalism in my book Unsettled: The Problem of Loving Israel; that is what I said about race in my book Race: A History Beyond Black and White. That is how I treated US History as World History in The Real Revolution and Sugar Changed the World (which I wrote with my wife). That is why, many years ago, I created EDGE, the first fully multicultural and international YA imprint — books on and/or by African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, LGBT authors. I seek expansion and connection in my work, in teaching, in my writing. The need for more male voices in K-12 librarianship is not to denigrate women but part and parcel of my interest in expanding the speaking voices in schools, in print, everywhere.

    • marc aronson says:


      One last thought — I suggested my groups of men speaking to the K-12 women for two reasons — to bring new perspectives to the field, and to engage men with K-12 libraries. I would ask you, how would you suggest we move towards those two goals?

  5. That’s such a coincidence! I just heard that as part of a new initiative, the Pentagon has started consulting with groups of librarians (who are still predominantly female, but where white men have been making real advances– like up the glass escalator) about what the military is, can be, and should be.

    They said it was a particularly good match, because with so many in the military making relatively low salaries despite their intelligence, training, and skill, everyone knows servicemembers must be middle-class or else supported by their spouses. Though they still love learning, congeniality, and sharing– and it does give them a chance to get out of the house.

    Oh, wait. Were we talking about diversity?

    • marc aronson says:

      I really do not understand your need for sarcasm. I think the military would do well to seek more external perspectives as reflected in the various sexual assault cases that have begun to emerge as women in the military speak out. But more to the point, why does suggesting that the gender homogeneity of K-12 librarianship is problematic inspire scorn, sarcasm, ridicule and not discussion? Are you saying that because the world is so white male dominated the only diversity issue in K-12 librarianship is bringing more people from under-represented groups into the field? That is a point of view, but one we can weigh and debate. Are you saying that gender homogeneity is not a concern?

      • The point of the satire was to call attention to the underlying tone and assumptions of the original piece– which are remarkably paternalistic. And also change the conversation from being one about lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the library profession to being one about the lack of men in the library profession, all without ever mentioning the notion of power. The piece ignores the systems of power that are at work both in fields where women have traditionally been excluded and in fields traditionally considered to be women’s work. That is, the systems of power that have created those divisions and which still work within them, leading to the still-present reality of the glass ceiling and the glass elevator. Similarly, it ignores the connections between these same institutionalized power structures and those that lead to the lack of racial diversity which was the original focus. It can be easy to ignore power when one is its beneficiary, and as you say the military or traditional board rooms might be good places to see some of those power structures at play– but if the intent is to change the balance of power itself so as to open the door to real diversity, one might wish to start elsewhere.

        • Sorry, I meant glass escalator. Though Charlie did do pretty well for himself in that Chocolate Factory.

          • marc aronson says:

            I am happy to discuss questions of power in society and their both obvious and underlying influences on the structures we experience. I may not agree with your analysis but am perfectly open to that view. Where we disagree — at least apparently, and I am glad that we are now pinpointing and addressing the specific disagreement — is that I believe homogeneity in any field is not only less than optimal but actually destructive. I do think a field that is so dominantly female — even if that is the result of other power structures — suffers from its imbalance. Not, I hasten to add, because it is female — homogeneous male fields similarly suffer — witness the Miami Dolphins locker room — but because we need the influx, indeed the friction (as in our exchanges) of differing views to advance. To say that is not to denigrate women, but it is to open the doors to crosscurrents that are not aired frequently enough. If you would like a chance to outline your views here, I would be happy to give you the space. My goal is debate, discussion, dialog, conflict perhaps, but in the pursuit of greater insight and understanding.

          • (The program won’t let me reply directly to your comment below, so I’m responding here.)

            I’m still not exactly sure if the intention of this piece was provocation, but since I’ve already bitten:

            There is honestly so much I find problematic in this article– both in the fact that it comes as a response to a deeper conversation about access and inclusion, and in its assumptions about women and work– that I’m not sure there’s space here for a true response.

            I will say this: the idea that the demographics of the library profession skew heavily towards women (and that there is a benefit to a more equal representation of men in the profession) is neither new, revolutionary, nor controversial. This view does not represent an outspoken thorn in the library profession’s side: in fact, it is an old, well-discussed topic. See:

            This is equally true when it comes to the subject of women in the field of children’s literature.

            One might also note in the abstract for that 1992 study, and in others like it, that the problem of gender disparity in the library profession is not– unlike in many other areas where there is a lack of diversity– one of access or inclusion. White men face little discrimination, and on the contrary tend to advance to positions of power ahead of their female colleagues.

            Rather, the lack of gender parity stems from the stigma attached to professions traditionally associated with women. Your article’s proposed solution does not seek to change *this* culture– to help efforts to bolster the prestige of the profession and the women working in it, or to counter a culture that discourages men from anything seen as ‘feminine’– but rather aims its focus at the perceived detriment of a culture where women predominate. (Not because of the specific gender in question. I understand.) Further, the article reveals what it sees as the negative characteristics of that culture when it looks to certain traditionally male professions (ones where that tradition has its roots in a hostility towards women) for an ameliorating influence.

            A predominance does not automatically equate to dominance nor does it always imply the dynamics of nationalism. One essential ingredient in the latter is a definition of “us” that relies on an active *exclusion* of “them”. There are many occupations in the US where few white people are working. I’m not sure the best solution (or a meaningful illumination of the issues) would be found by canvassing white members of formally-exclusive country clubs for their take on the content of those jobs.

            This does not even touch on the article’s implicit assumptions about women and work when it comes to economic class. Or, more importantly, on what it means to shift the conversation away from questions regarding professional diversity that *are* about access and inclusion.

            To my mind, those questions are where the real conversation lies.

  6. Marc,
    I enjoyed your article. I am the outlier. I have been an elementary educator for the past 22 years; the last four have been as a library media specialist. I have almost always been the ‘one’ or possibly ‘two’ men in my programs. In my early years as a teacher, the gender skew really bothered me. Now, in my middle age, I think this is an exciting time to be a man in this field. The explosion of social media has ‘connected’ ‘guybrarians’ around the world. I now feel more closely ‘connected’ to guybrarians around the country than I do to some educators in my own building. While I fully understand the intent of your article, I agree. We need more diversity of all sorts in the library. In the meantime, those of us who are in the field are having a great time pushing the boundaries! Thanks for the article!

  7. Aաesome article.

  8. Manley Chesterson says:
  9. marc aronson says:


    Thank you for taking the time to more fully explain your views and for the link. I suggested the fields I did only because they came quickly to mind as areas that might be as male as K-12 librarianship is female — other fields with less questionable histories would have been fine. I do not think seek to keep librarianship female — though some of the comments in the ALA Think Tank did lean that way. But I also think economics, not just attitudes, played a role in why few men, traditionally, sought work as K-12 librarians. I also did not “shift the conversation away” — as if to diminish or avoid the first set of diversity issues. However that was not the focus of this column. Another column might indeed concentrate on bringing more under-represented groups into K-12 librarianship. In turn I would ask you to think about what harms, what problems, what flaws, may arise from the gender homogeneity of K-12 librarianship? And then, what steps might the profession, as presently constituted, take to address them?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Not only are librarians overwhelmingly female, but they are also overwhelmingly liberal. David Brooks’ column in the New York Times shows the data: