Theorizing Diversity Services in Academic Libraries

Library services to diverse populations — and in particular, Indigenous students — should recognize the nature and impacts of status relations; be guided by principles of cultural competence; and oriented to Transformative Learning within the context of indigenizing and diversifying the academy.

Status Relations

Confirming the identity of a person within a particular social classification (e.g., Aboriginal) must account for the relational dimensions of these classifications. In other words, library services should recognize the extent to which structural barriers and negative cultural patterns can affect a person or group of people based on potential social classifications. Determining if users are restricted in their freedom to use the library based on status relations is much more important than merely affirming social identities (Fincher and Iveson).

Cultural Competence:

The National Association of Social Workers(U.S.) describes cultural competence as:

“A congruent set of behaviors, attitudes, and policies that enable a person or group to work effectively in cross-cultural situations; the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each” (National Association of Social Workers, p. 13).

Within the library context, the Association of College and Research Libraries has elaborated on this concept to set out some specific guidelines for developing cultural competence, emphasizing self-awareness on the part of library staff, and how “membership in various social groups influences worldview, what privileges one is afforded, and the potential to be a target of discriminatory attitudes and behaviors”.

Transformative Learning:

Consistent with the “postmodern turn” in other knowledge-intensive professions premised on status and professional expertise , librarianship oriented to working with diverse worldviews should be situated as “learning with” in a process of mutual discovery. This is also known as transformative learning, or “[a philosophy of teaching in which the librarian] moves from being an expert and manager to an advocate, co-learner, provocateur, challenger, and facilitator”.

Indigenizing the Academy:

The wider philosophical context of efforts to integrate other knowledges and ways of knowing into the academic context is discussed in the literature as ”indigenizing the academy,” which may be defined as the process whereby a university seeks:

[t]o carve a space where Indigenous values and knowledge are respected; to create an environment that supports research and methodologies useful to Indigenous nation building; to support one another as institutional foundations are shaken; and to compel institutional responsiveness to Indigenous issues, concerns, and communities” (Mihesuah and Wilson 2004, p. 2).

Replacing the word “Indigenous” in the above with the broader term “diverse” and “communities” would also represent an appropriate approach to meeting the needs of other relevant constituencies:

[t]o carve a space where [diverse] values and knowledge are respected; to create an environment that supports research and methodologies useful to [diverse communities]; to support one another as institutional foundations are shaken; and to compel institutional responsiveness to [diverse] issues, concerns, and communities” (adapted from Mihesuah and Wilson 2004, p.2).

In brief, the outreach efforts aren’t just about delivering existing services to diverse user groups, but also in transforming and diversifying the library to make it more relevant, appropriate, welcoming and representative. Supporting such an ambitious and important agenda requires a thoughtful attention to matters of power relations, social justice, history and multicultural literacy; which is to say that it needs a solid conceptual basis.

Theoretical Foundations

Progressive librarians such as Sanford Berman have been arguing for decades that the highly Eurocentric, hierarchical and Enlightenment-based epistemology represented by Western library and information science have given short shrift to — and at times outright misrepresented — a host of cultural groups and non-European populations. He famously wrote in his classic Prejudices and Antipathies that:

“…In the realm of headings that deal with people and cultures — in short, with humanity — the [Library of Congress Classifications and subject headings] list can only ‘satisfy’ parochial, jingoistic Europeans and North Americans, white-hued, at least nominally Christian (and preferably Protestant) in faith, comfortably situated in the middle and higher-income brackets, largely domiciled in suburbia, fundamentally loyal to the established order, and heavily imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of western civilization.” (Berman 1971, p. 15);

Efforts to ameliorate the impacts of exclusionary practices and processes should be conducted with a view not only to multiculturalism but to the distinct but mutually supportive processes of indigenization and decolonization.

Multiculturalism: Encouraging a recognition of the value of ethnic and cultural diversity and a promotion of universal human rights (see Xanthopoulos).

Indigenization: the process of acknowledging and incorporating Aboriginal values, world views and practices into an otherwise Eurocentric and hegemonic institutional context. This process may be facilitated – but may not be led – by a non-Indigenous staff person.

Decolonization: The process of acknowledging and deconstructing white privilege and colonial assumptions, and reversing traditionally Eurocentric power structures within an institution. This may be led by a non-Indigenous staff member. Includes: Resurrecting Indigenous histories and their contributions to global history; replacing historical narratives of colonialism with those that demonstrate its contributions to poverty and oppression, not just “progress”; and challenging the “internalization of [a] structurally imposed reality” by acknowledging other world views (Blaut 1993; Graveline 1996, p. 84).

Furthermore, services, policies and the language used to describe them should avoid reference (or appeals) to concepts of normativity concerning social categories; that is, that some student types constitute a “normal’ student while others do not. In the case of students experiencing disabilities it is especially important for library staff to resist ”ableist” assumptions, and instead recognize that in many cases, “disability” may be the result of “ableism”, or the social construction of “physical and social environments hostile to persons different from the majority or “abled” culture” (Levi 2006).

Instead of assuming essentialist beliefs about those we perceive to belong to particular social categories, it is important that we recognize the extent to which such categories are socially constructed, and that there is a plurality of beliefs, needs and aspirations within user groups. For example, not all Aboriginal students are going to be interested in Indigenous studies courses. “International student” as a generalizable category is particularly problematic, given the numerous nationalities and cultures represented on campus. Finally, it is also essential to recognize the intersectionality of race, class, gender and sexuality; that students are not merely affected by the social construction of one of these categories but all of them – to varying degrees – simultaneously (Falcon).

The academic library’s processes in approaching issues of inclusivity and diversity should be seen as transactional, ongoing and essentially permanent. There will not, in other words, be a time when it will be possible to state that the library is now sufficiently indigenized, decolonized, “anti-ableized” and multi-enculturated, so now we can stop. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that there may be institutional, physical, pedagogical and financial limitations to such efforts, beyond which it may be impractical and unrealistic to transform the University’s library services. An appropriate balance will need to be sought, and created through partnerships with campus stakeholders and engagement with library staff.


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