Diversity and Cultural Competence in Collections Work

[I recently took a course on Cultural Competence through the Library Juice Academy which I found very thought-provoking, especially because of the extensive reading and essaying with which we were tasked. This post is an adaptation of one of these essays.]

Readings being discussed:

Bolduc, A. P. (2010). “Collaborative collection development: a Canadian-Indonesian initiative.” Collection Building, 29(4), 124-130. doi:10.1108/01604951011088844.

Maloney, M. M. (2012). “Cultivating community, promoting inclusivity: collections as fulcrum for targeted outreach.” New Library World, 113(5/6), 281-289. doi:10.1108/03074801211226364.

I chose these readings because I was interested in both the role of collections in diversity programming, and how they can contribute to outreach to a university’s communities. What I also find appealing about the juxtaposition of these two articles is that, while their respective outreach efforts are at such vastly different scales – one on-campus and the other across the entire planet – the principles of cultural competence are no less important for each.

The Maloney article concerns what is often a fairly conventional (and in the words of the author, “passive”) feature of library programming – book displays – but demonstrates how, when combined with outreach efforts and partnerships can have significant benefits for both the library and the campus community. The author has a background in Social Diversity and Social Justice studies, and was hired by the University of the Pacific in Stockton California as their Outreach Librarian – which is commendable given that, of its nearly 5,200 students, 58.7% of whom identify as a racial minority. As well, the U of P boasts a Multicultural Affairs Office, and the author recognized that this would make a natural partner to regularly promote library collections related to diversity.

As a first step in the partnership, the library requested and received from the Office a schedule of diversity-related themed weeks and months (e.g., Native American Heritage Month, Black History Month, Women’s History Month etc.). A high-profile location was chosen for the displays, each of which was accompanied by signage to contextualize the items from the library’s collection chosen for their social justice- and empowerment- related content.

Yet, Maloney didn’t just assume that the displays would be viewed through foot traffic alone; instead she used Library Thing as a means for students and faculty to browse the selected titles or discover them through tagging, and thus be referred to related readings. This permitted the library to more easily track the circulation of the displayed books, by comparing their Library Thing shelf list to circulation records. The library also reached out to faculty through listservs to promote displays and to gather feedback.

As well, the partnership with the Multicultural Affairs Office yielded significant results in terms of the visibility of the Outreach Librarian role, and she has been regularly sought out by students and student groups – one of which was a local chapter of a national organization dedicated to Chicano education, culture, political activism and history — and by the Office itself, which proactively ensures that the Library is part of their own efforts.

Maloney demonstrates in this article how her efforts as Outreach Librarian are consistent with the ACRL Diversity Standard #4, in that it promoted library collections, programs and services that were inclusive of the needs of a very diverse campus community. As well, in working with the Multicultural Affairs Office and using social media effectively, Maloney exhibited knowledge and skill in the provision of information in the library and the broader society, and enabled users to discover and be referred to additional sources information, thereby meeting the requirements of Standard #5. Significantly, Maloney was highly proactive in seeking out this partnership and carrying out the project’s goals.

In the Bolduc article, the initiative is globe-spanning in scope: a collaborative collection development project between McGill University Library in Montreal and two State Islamic Universities (formerly known as the State Institutes of Islamic Studies) located in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Yogyakarta as a part of the Indonesia Social Equity Project. As these institutions (known by their Indonesian-language acronym UIN) were once purely devoted to Islamic studies, the goal of the project (supported by the Indonesian Ministry of National Education) was to augment existing collections with secular interdisciplinary content to support the Social Work program at UIN Yogyakarta and the Humanities and Social Sciences program at UIN Jakarta.

The author’s role was to coordinate collection development efforts in collaboration with Indonesian graduate students who, after completing their degrees at McGill would go back to become teaching faculty at these UINs, alongside faculty from McGill who would also teach as guest lecturers. Funding for the collections – which would focus on English language monographs in sociology, political science, anthropology, philosophy, education and comparative law – came from the Canadian International Development Agency. The newly-minted teaching faculty provided Bolduc with the necessary subject knowledge in these disciplines.

Key to the success of the project was the ability of the author to become culturally competent – to gain knowledge of Indonesian culture and engage in effective cross-cultural communication. In particular, the author realized he needed to account for two aspects of Indonesian culture: Bapakisme (the primacy of respect for status and hierarchy) and Harmoni Kelompok (conflict avoidance) both of which contributed to his Indonesian counterparts’ reluctance to offer their honest opinions for fear of being seen as disrespectful or complaining. For Bolduc, this meant he needed to regularly and actively encourage the graduate students to offer their honest feedback, and to deal with potential conflict within the team with understanding and empathy.

These cultural contexts meant that a great deal more attention would need to be given to effective communication and relationship-building than is generally needed to address the standard challenges of collaborative collection development between librarians and faculty at the same institution. The author met early and regularly with the graduate students in face-to-face meetings and ensured that lines of communication were always open. An awareness of the value Indonesians place on harmony made Bolduc strive to create a friendly, family-like atmosphere and to actively listen to his teammates. This was especially important when selecting materials to address topics otherwise considered taboo in these former Islamic institutions, such as reproductive rights and homosexuality.

The author’s positive experiences in this collaborative international project highlight the importance of developing skills in effective cross-cultural communication. In taking the time to learn about the different cultural context in which he was working and in engaging collaboratively and respectfully in a team environment, Bolduc was able to develop collections that were inclusive of the needs of a diverse community of users – consistent with ACRL Diversity Standard #4 – and demonstrated considerable knowledge and skill in the provision of information within an institutional context and in the broader society, key to the goals of Diversity Standard #5.

(As the initiative was initiated by a Canadian federal agency and involved both the author’s employer McGill University and the State Institutes of Islamic Studies in order to fulfill objectives set by the Indonesian government, Bolduc was but one of many players; it is difficult to tell from the article the extent to which McGill University was proactive or reactive in initiating the collection development aspect of the project).

Both articles offer valuable lessons for any library professional wanting to enhance their services to culturally diverse communities. The efforts of Maloney and Bolduc each required collaboration with institutional partners, albeit at very different scales and extents. They also involved varying degrees of cross-cultural communication: Maloney worked with a variety of constituencies representing different cultures (Native Americans and Latinos), while Bolduc was immersed in a wholly foreign social, cultural and linguistic environment with which he needed to become familiar. However, by gaining knowledge of this culture, and creating a social environment built around mutual respect, dialogue and listening – very much adhering to the notion of planning with, not for, communities (as described in the Allard, Mehra and Qayyum reading in week 3) – he was able to meet the objectives of a very complex project involving many powerful stakeholders.

What is abundantly evident in these articles is that the conventional “meat and potatoes” of librarianship – collections, programs and service delivery – become in the context of ACRL Diversity Standards 4 and 5 the means of addressing a huge range of social needs and inequities affecting multiple user communities — provided that the practitioner is culturally competent, practices effective cross-cultural communication and is deeply collaborative and genuine in their engagements.

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