How to talk about diversity in the academic library University of Surrey
How to talk about diversity in the academic library – our journey at the University of Surrey Library and Learning Services
By Katie Winter and Paulina Czyz
What was the issue?
With equality, diversity and inclusion becoming an ever-greater focus in HE, many institutions have been working to address issues related to BAME students, such as the awarding gap, in recent years. SCONUL’s (2019) report on BAME staff experiences in HE libraries added to our understanding that our BAME friends, colleagues and students do not share the same experiences as their white counterparts. Racism, not always in its most ugly and visible form, affects BAME communities in the UK in all sorts of ways, with SCONUL’s study finding for example that BAME staff felt they had fewer development opportunities. In our own institution, advocacy work by SU VP Voice Ajay Ajimobi (2019) heightened our understanding of the awarding gap among Surrey BAME students. Moreover, as the graph below clearly indicates, our Library staff population is not representative of the ethnic diversity of our student population, mirroring the whiteness of the Library profession in general (CILIP and ARA, 2015). Taking that into consideration and following on from the already proposed M25 Diversity Task & Finish Group strands of work we decided to focus on two main things: highlighting the library’s commitment to diversity to make it more attractive to BAME employees; and ways to improve library user-friendliness for, staff relationships with, and an enhanced sense of belonging among BAME students (all key determinants of student outcomes (UUK and NUS, 2019)).
Who did you engage with?
Library and Learning Services was no stranger to working on inclusivity projects, for example work undertaken collaboratively with other colleagues across the University on curriculum-centred recommendations for inclusivity. Nevertheless, we wanted to build further momentum within the Library and this took the form of a series of formal and informal conversations with several of our library colleagues and managers, some of whom had already worked on diversity projects like Decolonising the Library project. We also reached out to the University People, Culture and Inclusion team and the Students Union. We acknowledge the support of the M25 Consortium Diversity Task and Finish Group which had spurred us into action initially. Joining the group in 2019 and consequent meetings laid the foundation and lent weight to the proposals we created.
What did you do?
At the very beginning we didn’t even know what questions to ask, but as we progressed from unknown unknowns to known unknowns we realised there was a huge amount of learning to engage with before we could begin to suggest solutions. Our central aim was challenge our preconceived ideas, increase our own cultural awareness and better understand concepts developed in the literature such as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge and How to Be an Antiracist by American author and historian Ibram X. Kendi, for example the need to embody ‘anti-racist’ thinking (active positioning, in contrast with ‘not being racist’, a more passive positioning). We personally found the above texts particularly inspiring but there is more suggested reading in the bibliography.
It is, however, Social Media that has proven to be such a galvanising influence on our investigation. After the traumatic murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests around the world, we witnessed not only a widespread outpouring of emotions on SM but also the incredible generosity of the SM community in the sharing of anti-racist resources. These conversations and resources helped to further build our understandings.
Based on everything we had read, heard, seen and discussed we came up with six proposals that we hoped would address issues of equality and diversity in the library. These were:
- More comprehensive and specific training on unconscious bias and bystander intervention for library staff;
- Ongoing promotion of anti-racist literature and resources by the library, with the intention of fostering awareness among students and staff;
- Working with the University’s HR department and/or senior library managers to review job descriptions, shortlisting criteria and where posts are advertised, to ensure inclusivity;
- Be a positive voice in support of the University’s consideration of a BAME member of staff at all interview panels to increase representation and possible implementing of the ‘Rooney rule’ (Eddo-Lodge, 2018) for interviews for all posts;
- Creating a protected apprenticeship for BAME students to diversify the talent pipeline;
- Incorporating inclusivity and diversity into our social media strategy to foster a sense of belonging for students and staff.
What barriers, challenges or points of learning did you identify?
The biggest challenges we encountered were our own relative lack of understanding of some of the issues initially and the difficulty in discussing ideas to address such complex issues when exploring possibilities for change. Too often we heard comments such as ‘this will not work’; ‘it’s too difficult’; ‘we’ve already tried this, but it didn’t work’. Although these comments seemed negative at first, they have helped us to better understand the challenge of true cultural change at an institutional level and talking to others helped us to appreciate the work that has already been undertaken. We continued to educate ourselves, listen to people’s stories and look for inspiration in the private sector until we had a proposal that was accepted and deemed achievable and realistic.
What was the impact?
We are under no illusion that we can provide all the solutions, nor that even by implementing the proposals the work will be finished. We hope that our proposals have renewed important conversations about both staff and student diversity and inclusion in the Library at a time when the University is considering an action plan regarding the BAME awarding gap. We were invited to present the case to every department in the Library to help people to understand the context of the proposals and it was even shared with the University Leadership Board and received encouraging feedback. We’ve already noticed small changes in the library’s social media policy, including posts about a wide variety of cultural and religious celebrations. However, we realise diversity and inclusion issues are rarely instantly resolvable but, more often than not, are a continuous journey, whether tackling diversity in the workplace, awarding gaps in HE or actioning anti-racism.
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CILIP and ARA (2015) A study of the UK information workforce. Available at: https://www.cilip.org.uk/general/custom.asp?page=Workforcesurvey (Accessed: 06 January 2021).
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Libraries Connected (2020) Black Stories Matter: Promoting Diverse Content. 1 Sept 2020. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiW9qpd7ECM (Accessed: 06 January 2021).
Libraries Connected (2020) Black Stories Matter: Talking About Race. 25 Sept 2020. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPRctQ-avlY (Accessed: 06 January 2021).
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Pang, K. (2018) ‘96.7 shades of white’, UKSG eNews, 03 August. Available at: https://www.uksg.org/sites/default/files/upload/2018-09/Editorial427_0.pdf (Accessed 06 January 2021).
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