Friday, April 12, 2013

That Old Black Dude at the Reference Desk

I work at an excellent suburban university that has a very diverse student and faculty population. I serve the information needs of Hispanic-Americans, African Americans, Arab-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans,  and many others from around the world.

I am surrounded by diversity, and yet I am the only African American male librarian at my institution. I am not surprised. According to ALA statistics, Black men are less than one-half of one percent of all credentialed librarians in the United States We total about 563 out of 118,00 credentialed librarians (Diversity counts, Table A-1).  There are not enough (good) Black men to go around in librarianship.

I am surprised, however, that my unique status in the library isn't discussed more often among my colleagues, who seem very liberal and progressive. It's like the pink elephant that no one wants to acknowledge in the middle of the room. Don't talk about it, and it will never be a problem. We didn't even discuss it during Black History Month, although I did hint at it when I participated in an unrelated panel discussion in the library. And I recently discussed it at a writing center event held in the library. I often discuss it in my blog.

I am the old Black dude at the reference desk. I'm the only Black dude at the reference desk. And I often innovate and initiate to show that Black dudes at the reference desk and in the classroom can be very good for librarianship. But none of my contributions to the library and how my gender and racial status may inform these contributions are discussed by my colleagues.

I understand.

Talking about race, racism, gender bias, and other social issues can be very uncomfortable for librarians. We prefer to focus on the technical aspects of our profession. We discuss cataloging standards, information literacy assessments, metadata, etc.

I am the old Black dude at the reference. I'm the only Black dude at the reference desk. I think that unique situation partially reflects years of racial and gender discrimination that informed hiring decisions at my institution and in librarianship as a whole. Of course, discriminatory practices are not the only reasons for my being the sole Black man at the reference desk. As I mentioned above, there are not enough good black men in librarianship. And librarianship isn't perceived as the most lucrative profession on the planet. Some may argue that talented, Black men with advanced degrees can do much better than entering librarianship. I don't disagree with that.

But if librarianship recruited very talented Black men like the NBA or the NFL recruited very talented Black men, I wouldn't be the only Black dude at my library's reference desk. And my colleagues wouldn't be in a position of ignoring any pink elephants, right?


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