Libraries aim for more diverse staff

Tom Weaver began visiting his local library before he could read.

“I grew up in a small town, and the library was within walking distance — and if my sister went to the library to get books, I had to get books,” said Weaver, director of the Brandywine Hundred public library.

So, it was no surprise to find him on a recent afternoon in the children’s section. What may be a surprise in a Delaware library, however, is finding someone who looks like Weaver, a black man, working there.

As Weaver well knows, his profession has little diversity. According to a 2007 report from the American Library Association, of the nation’s almost 110,000 credentialed librarians — that is, librarians with master’s degrees — 19 percent are men, 4.5 percent are black, and 0.5 percent are black men. The number of Latino men is just slightly higher — 25 more nationwide.

By comparison, black women make up 4.2 percent of credentialed librarians, with Latina women at 1.4 percent.

Increasing the number of black male librarians has become a hot topic. At a recent conference in California, library association leaders dedicated a diversity program to finding ways to attract more black men to the profession.

Compared to other states, Delaware rates better than the national average. State Librarian Annie Norman estimated that of Delaware’s 200 credentialed librarians, seven — 3.5 percent — are black men. Black males make up 9.1 percent of the state population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

“I knew I was in the minority, but I didn’t realize it was that small,” said P.J. Grier, director of library and information services at the Delaware Academy of Medicine in Stanton. Grier, who earned his master’s degree in library science from Drexel University in 2000, said he was the only black man in his class.

Besides Weaver and Grier, three black male librarians work at the University of Delaware, one at Brandywine School District’s Mount Pleasant Elementary School and one at Delaware State University.

“I’m not really surprised at that [statistic],” said Asher Jackson, one of the three UD librarians. “Librarianship has a low proportion of males overall anyway.”

Jackson spent a lot of time in libraries during his childhood, something he says few children do these days.

“That was where I was taught to start my work,” he said. “Lack of exposure in general is what keeps African-American males from considering librarianship.”

The problem, and solution, could be cyclical. If libraries are able to attract a more diverse work force, that in turn could make a more diverse clientele comfortable there. And that in turn, could attract more students of color to enter the profession.

“It goes to any profession that if the folks that are serving the population reflect the general demographics of the population, there will be more community interest and involvement,” Grier said.

Even though it’s a challenge, Weaver said libraries need to have a diverse staff.

“I’d like to see more men brought in just so that the curriculum is more reflective of society as a whole,” he said. “One of the things I found very attractive here in Delaware was the diversity and cultures that you would see.”

Like in teaching and nursing, women traditionally have dominated the profession, and men only recently have begun to consider it as a career or take it up later in life, Jackson said.

Weaver left his job as a writer at a financial magazine when his boss offered him the chance to run a library, which he did after earning his master’s degree in 1986 at the University of Maryland. He headed several other libraries before becoming Brandywine Hundred’s director in 1999.

Grier left a 20-year job at a communications firm after he burned out, saying he chose to work in a library because he was looking for a challenge.

“Librarians today do many more things than is traditionally associated with the profession,” he said. “Our skills are being expanded or parlayed into various other types of opportunities.”

Grier said the traditional librarian stereotype — an older, white woman with glasses — is not helping the cause. The image is unappealing to young black men and that may be one reason they may not view it as a possibility.

“We certainly have an image issue about the field in general, and I think that just has a trickle-down effect on people of color,” he said.

Jackson said another deterrent may be not having an understanding of what a librarian does.

“I don’t think that a lot of people overall are aware of librarianship as an option,” he said. “I think that if you don’t go to the library, if you’re not that engaged in school, if your high school or college professors are not pushing you so far as your academic quality, they’re not going to point you in the direction of the library.”

Although Weaver, Grier and Jackson agreed more black men need to be presented with the option of working at libraries, they said it’s a tough task.

“I’m really not sure what we can do as a profession to accomplish that other than visiting high school students and talking with them and letting them know this is another career choice that’s out there for them,” Weaver said. “I think you have to have people that are first of all motivated and interested in doing the work.”

Jackson’s solution is to work more closely with young black men and introduce them to the profession.

“I think mentorship and exposure are really important,” he said.

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