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Flagging Economy Spurs Increase in Library Use

When the going gets tough, the tough go to the library where the books, movies and internet are free and the information empowers.

During these tumultuous economic times, libraries are experiencing an influx in use, according to local news reports. In urban and rural enclaves alike, people are turning to their local public libraries for support.

“When the public’s buying power shrinks and household expenses grow, people tend to rely more on their public libraries for free reading materials and services like literacy programs and computer training,” says Michael Borges, executive director of the New York Library Association.

“The other day, one of our members from a Capital Region public library e-mailed me a story about two young women in their twenties who renewed their library cards because money was too tight to go to a book store. We see people flocking back to our libraries,” Borges adds.

Indeed, the library is the Ellis Island of ideas and research. Information on everything from an abacus, an antiquated calculator, to Zoroastrianism, an ancient Iranian religion, is cataloged between its four walls.

In fact, most libraries are so endowed with information, the only thing one might not find while visiting their local library is a librarian from an underrepresented minority group.

In a 2006 study, titled “Diversity Counts,” the American Library Association (ALA) found that 90 percent of professional librarians in 2000 were White. Only 8 percent of librarians that year were Black. Hispanics composed 3.2 percent of librarians.

The issue of underrepresentation is particularly acute for Black males. Black men compose less 1 percent of credentialed librarians.

“What was showed [in this report] was that this [the librarianship] is mostly a White profession, mostly a female profession and aging profession,” says Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association. “A lot of retirements are on the horizon. As society becomes much more diverse, it becomes that much more important to recruit a more diverse work force. We’re in stiff competition with a lot of other profession, and we don’t pay as well as some of those other professions.”

The starting salary for a credentialed librarian — an individual with master’s degree — in library information studies is about $40,000 a year.

As people continue to “flock” to libraries, inevitably, they will seek individuals who look like them, experts say.

“Your read story after story about people who went to libraries and didn’t feel comfortable [or] didn’t feel they got the service that they deserve,” says Dr. Irene Owens, dean of the School of Library and Information Science at North Carolina Central University.

Familiarity creates comfortable environments, Owens insists.

“It’s important to see people at your local library who look like you,” says Jennifer McClune, a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park, who received a master’s in library science, noting that the same holds true in academia.

In her program at UMD, McClune found no support in the form of mentorship and encountered no Black faculty. Most appalling to McClure was the absence of diversity in conversation.

“No one talked about race. No one talked about issues of information access for people of color or immigrants. No one talked about how lily White this profession really is,” says McClure who is Black. “Everyone I tell that I am a librarian is shocked. People have this perceptions of libraries be old and White.”

Today, McClune is a reference assistant at a law firm library in Washington, D.C.

To increase the number of minority students pursuing careers as credentialed librarians, ALA established its Spectrum Scholars award in 1997. The ALA Spectrum Scholarship provides a one-year, $5,000 scholarship and over $1,500 in professional development opportunities to a number of eligible recipients each year.

To date, the Spectrum scholarship program has helped more than 400 students of color finance their education in library studies.

Stylizing the librarianship into a profession worthy of the 21st century and partnering with minority-serving institutions are among the biggest challenges for the ALA. While there are more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities, only one, North Carolina Central University, offers a master’s of library science program.

“We were awarded from the Institute of Museum and Library Service in 2007 for $750, 000,” Owens says. In a relatively short period of time, Owens has recruited three cohorts of minority students totaling 27 students.

The problem of recruiting and retaining minority students is an intricate one, Owens admits. “Almost all service professions are having challenges. It seems that people want to go into professions where they can make a lot of money. But we are in a digital age … an information age. There is no discipline that can operate without library and information science,” Owens says.

This summer, the ALA will host more than 50 college students from underrepresenteg groups at its national conference in Chicago.

“We will have the students in small group. A team of librarians will be with these students all day, hopefully Spectrum alumni. At the ALA exhibit [hall], these students will see the full array of possibilities that this profession has to offer,” Rettig says. 

Owens contends that visibility of libraries must be raised. Public libraries must continue to publicize the services that they offer, she insists.  

“People think that we have the internet, and it has everything. It, [the internet], does not.

Owens recommends that more HBCUs apply for more grants and fight for the resources to fund this expensive program. She also urges traditionally White institutions with library science programs to work closely with local HBCUs to produce librarians of color.

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