- Academic libraries are uniquely situated to help colleges reach their diversity, equity and inclusion goals based on how they curate their collections, according to a new report from Ithaka S+R, an educational research nonprofit.
- While colleges typically focus their library's DEI goals on staffing, the materials available also reflect institutional priorities, the report said. Librarians' work to share them helps preserve a broader cultural legacy.
- College leaders should decide early on what groups will be represented by their libraries' new collections plans, the report suggested. While open-ended focuses can initially seem inclusive, a dearth of well-defined DEI goals fosters ambiguity and makes it harder to achieve results, the report said.
The new report comes at a time when political culture wars have fueled intense scrutiny of what is taught on campus. State lawmakers this year introduced more bills seeking to restrict what colleges can teach than they did in 2021, according to an August tally from PEN America. Such bills often focus on race, diversity, equity and inclusion.
In some political environments, the topic of diversity can be a flashpoint, Ithaka S+R's report said. In such cases, libraries must ensure their allies and key stakeholders are on the same page.
Any meaningful change in library collection strategy will require strong support from all levels of staff, guided by collection managers and directors, according to Ithaka S+R. Its report warns that senior college officials may face opposition from both inside and outside of their institutions, and they should be prepared to defend their plans.
"As part of this work it will be essential to determine how 'diversity' will be defined in the context of collections and to what end the work is being done," the report said. "Developing this definition is not 'values free' work and is ultimately reflective of how no library is neutral."
It also suggests library leaders can start incrementally.
"Rather than seeking perfection in terms of comprehensiveness, many library leaders and their partners on this work may instead wish to find a tangible place to begin to address and improve the diversity of their collections by focusing on a specific group(s) that has been historically marginalized and is a priority for their institution," the report said.
Diversifying academic libraries is not solely about expanding collections, according to the report. Librarians should also reframe and improve access to existing materials.
For example, the University of Arizona improved access to special materials it already owned, a collection of manuscripts related to the state's Indigenous population. After auditing the collection's catalog and search options, university workers flagged descriptive terminology to be reviewed and possibly incorporated into the cataloging process. They also prioritized engaging with related local communities and flagged content to be digitized and shared virtually.
Colleges can turn toward peer institutions for insight and guidance, the report said. Many colleges have preestablished interlibrary loan programs that allow students to borrow materials from outside their home institutions. The members of library consortia can pool their expertise and resources together to diversify the materials they share.
Donors also play a key role in diversifying library materials, the report said. Existing donors and other funders should be brought up to speed on new strategic priorities so their interests can be aligned with institutional goals. Libraries can also identify new donors that share an interest in their collection strategies. Additional funding from supportive sources can give libraries the resources needed to access specialty materials that are difficult to acquire.