A New Chapter for Librarians

Studying to be a librarian, former teacher Deborah Lilton wants to join a profession that has been largely white.
Studying to be a librarian, former teacher Deborah Lilton wants to join a profession that has been largely white. (By Michelle Williams -- Associated Press)
By Amanda Thomas
Associated Press
Sunday, January 7, 2007

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Librarians have long been portrayed as the little old white lady with her hair in a bun and glasses on a chain around her neck, "shushing" noisy people, but Deborah Lilton represents a more modern image.

In a profession that has been predominantly white, Lilton is a black student at the University of Alabama who is pursuing a degree to become an academic librarian. She is one of a disproportionately small number of minorities entering a field that is trying to get past the stereotypical image of the "bun lady."

"Until this perception is changed, people who would make fine librarians will undoubtedly choose another career choice," said Lilton, who used to teach English as an adjunct faculty member.

According to a 2004 American Library Association study called "Diversity Counts," minorities are the hardest to recruit. The study said that in 2000, there were 190,255 professional librarians; 171,470, or 90 percent, were white, and 15,500, or 8 percent, were black. Census figures show that whites made up about 70 percent of the population in 2000 and blacks about 13 percent.

"We need to do more work to attract individuals to the profession that actually look like the U.S. population because we want our profession to look like the people we serve," said Denise Davis, director of the ALA's office for research and statistics.

ALA President Leslie Burger agrees that it is important to let young people know that the profession is not just for middle-aged white women.

"There may be some perceptions this isn't a field that welcomes or encourages diversity," Burger said.

The ALA and colleges are trying to encourage minorities to pursue a library degree. The ALA's Spectrum project provides scholarships, fundraising, recruitment, mentoring, leadership and professional development for future minority librarians. It offers a one-year $5,000 scholarship and $1,500 to students planning to attend an ALA-accredited graduate program in library and information studies.

"Since the public library is the people's university, it needs to be not only physically accessible to everyone but culturally accessible as well," said Lilton, one of two Spectrum scholars at the University of Alabama. "That means having professional people of color on staff."

She said that librarianship as a career option should be introduced early in a child's educational experience and that old stereotypes should be dispelled, with librarians of all races making an effort to become more visible in society.

Lilton said one barrier to minority recruitment is the lack of library and information science programs at historically black colleges and universities.

She said Clark-Atlanta University in Georgia had to shut down its Master of Library and Information Studies program because of funding problems and low enrollment. North Carolina Central University at Durham is the only historically black college with an ALA-accredited library program.

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