• Renovation as a Catalyst for Change

    November 18, 2015
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    Throwback Thursday for November 18, 2015: Take a look at Renovation as a Catalyst for Change by Erin Dorney and Eric Frierson. We may be coming to the end of 2015, but it’s never too late to think about switching things up at your library!

    Photo by Flickr user drp (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


    This Lead Pipe post is about two libraries attempting to reinvent services, collections, and spaces as the walls of their buildings come crashing down. Rather than embarking on phased construction projects, the library buildings at both St. Edward’s University and Millersville University will be completely shut down for a period of one and two years, respectively. Co-authors Eric Frierson, Library Digital Services Manager at St. Edward’s and Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Milersville discuss renovations as catalysts for change, experimentation and flexibility, and distributed/embedded librarianship. These facets contribute to the identity crisis librarianship has struggled with since the Information Age began – only exacerbated by unique circumstances. The conversation below is one example of the kinds of real questions being proffered to librarians at both institutions:

    “I don’t mean to sound disrespectful,” began the biology professor, “but if we can do without a library for a whole year, what does that say about the library?” An awkward silence settled over the science faculty meeting before the librarian was able to pull together a response.

    “You’re right. The library as it exists now – the print collections, the reference desk – these may not be required elements of a thriving university library. This renovation project gives us the opportunity to re-examine what a library does on campus, what things we don’t need to do, and what things we could start doing that we haven’t done before.”

    This post will not cover the new, technologically-situated, collaborative learning spaces which will exist following the renovations, but rather discuss how renovations can bring organizational change that has the potential to shape the library of the future. It is our belief that the pace of change our libraries have adopted should become the norm at all libraries.

    St. Edward’s University

    St. Edward’s University is a private, Catholic institution in Austin, Texas. It is home to over 5,000 students and is situated on a hill overlooking the lower Colorado River, boasting gorgeous views of the Austin skyline. Enrollment has nearly doubled in the past ten years, and the campus master plan has made the grounds and buildings cohesive, beautiful, and a delight to explore. The library, however, has been a 30-year anomaly with its white stucco, rounded-edge shell.

    St. Edward's University Library

    St. Edward's University Library - Inside
    (Current St. Edward’s University Library Building)

    During the summer of 2011, the university received a gift of $13 million from Austin-area philanthropists Pat and Bill Munday for the creation of a new library and learning commons. The only catch is that construction must be complete within a period of two years. This aggressive timeline demanded the selection of an architect almost immediately, and the library, along with its partners in the new commons, needed to have the plan for the new space completed within a few short months.

    Because the project involves renovating existing square-footage and building a new addition, almost all physical resources – including collections – will be need be removed from the building for one year. The print collection of 170,000 books will need to be aggressively weeded and stored off-campus, inaccessible during the project. Only a few hundred high circulation items and the media collection will remain on campus. Seventeen staff members will find a new home in Mang House, a three bedroom residence with kitchen and a laundry room. The 100 computers and public use furniture from the old library will be dispersed throughout existing campus locations.

    Mang House
    (Mang House – The temporary location for St. Edward’s University’s library.)

    The librarians are not sure what Mang House will be like. For so long, they have identified public services with the desk that sits near the front door of the old building. There is no space for a robust reference desk in the temporary location; instead, staff will have a smallish living room with a fireplace. For an entire year, the library will exist without a reference desk, a print collection, or dedicated computing and study spaces. “If we don’t have those things… who are we, exactly?” asks Frierson and countless others.

    Millersville University

    Millersville University is a regional comprehensive Pennsylvania state school with a 2010 FTE of approximately 6,970 undergrads and 583 graduate students. As a state institution, campus buildings are only eligible for renovations on a strict schedule. Originally allocated $7 million from the state for basic infrastructure updates, the library and university administrators have successfully increased that amount to $25 million based on additional state allocations, university support, and private donations.

    (Millersville University Library – Under construction for two years)

    This intense renovation project will take 2 years to complete, gutting the interior of the 11-story building to replace all major systems (including heating, cooling, lighting, fire protection, vapor barriers and elevators). The library had to be emptied of all people, books, microfilms, computers, shelving, and furniture, down to the last piece of signage and window shades in order to allow construction to move at a quicker pace and ensure the safety of staff, visitors, and physical materials. Over 300,000 print items have been placed in storage off-site, where, similarly to St. Edwards, the books will be inaccessible to students and faculty members.

    (Millersville University – The temporary library @ Gerhart Hall)

    For the next two years, the campus will rely on a temporary library in Gerhart Hall containing approximately 10,000 items and less than a quarter of the study and computing space that the old library provided. There is no traditional reference desk and most of the librarians are distributed across campus, embedded in offices within academic buildings that align with their liaison areas. Similarly to the situation at St. Edwards, this period of massive change calls into question everything an academic library has traditionally been known to provide and represent.

    Renovation as a Catalyst

    From a librarian’s point of view, temporarily disconnecting from the building provides an opportunity for a clean slate. Many legacy processes are tied to institutional history and specific circumstances. To put it another way, buildings come with baggage. Libraries make exceptions, create lengthy policies, even determine resources and services based on prior experiences. Concern has been voiced by librarians (particularly those new to the profession) over the “way we’ve always done it” mantra that sometimes infiltrates institutions, marking this steadfastness as resistance to change that will leave libraries irrelevant to their constituencies. Ross and Sennyey (2008) describe some library services as holdovers from an era that has disappeared, “making our professional assumptions seem as foreign as a medieval manuscript in chains” (146). Included in these assumptions are services that are tethered to user needs that no longer exist.

    The situations at St. Edward’s and Millersville are unique in that the renovations are not incremental. At both institutions, the scale of construction will shut down the entire space – not just one floor at a time. There are no branch or specialized libraries to absorb collections, services, or personnel. Business simply cannot proceed as usual – the status quo has become impossible to maintain. The libraries at St. Edward’s and Millersville have an opportunity to let go of legacies in order to better meet the needs of their respective campus communities.

    Warehouse for Books

    One assumption under interrogation is the idea of a library as a warehouse for print books. Neither institution is a research library attempting to collect and preserve all of the world’s knowledge. Millersville has a collection development policy stating that theirs is a “teaching collection” which directly supports the university curriculum. With limited physical space and budget, items not used are transitioned out of the collection and replaced by more accessible materials relevant to institutional learning goals. The renovation at Millersville has prompted the library to increase its number of electronic books and databases in order to support campus research needs.

    At St. Edwards, the massive renovation project has provided the library with an “excuse” to look holistically at the print collection. One year ago, the library owned 170,000 volumes. Through the first weeding project in the library’s long history, staff managed to reduce that number to 130,000. In the new building, space allocated for stacks can house approximately 90,000 books, meaning staff have some ways to go before boxing up the collection. Because librarians can’t guarantee that the library will hold the same number of print volumes in the future, the space needs to have a flexible infrastructure in order to be used differently.

    It is possible that after two years of adjusting to primarily electronic scholarship, faculty and students may shed some of the traditional stereotypes held about libraries as warehouses for books. Although collection assessment and strategic reallocation initiatives at both St. Edward’s and Millersville were primarily designed to help students and faculty survive the lengthy renovation periods, this may in fact become the de-facto standard for content development for the foreseeable future. Preliminary findings of ebrary®’s 2011 Global Student E-book Survey  revealed that while E-book usage and awareness have not increased significantly in 2011 compared to 2008, the vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered. Reflecting global trends like this, libraries are moving towards an increase in electronic holdings and are reorganizing space within their buildings to emphasize engagement with content, not simply storage.

    Rethinking Reference

    In addition to addressing changes in content and collections, the renovations at St. Edwards and Millersville provide opportunities to experiment with (or without) certain longstanding library services. At Millersville, the two years without a building have been internally referred to as “a big experiment” in order to test out new ideas and determine which existing or new services are brought back into the new library.

    Traditional reference is one service currently being investigated for transformation. Staff at Millersville decided not to install a reference desk inside of the temporary library in Gerhart Hall. In fact, there are no librarians located within Gerhart Hall, only staff and student employees. For just-in-case research questions, the library has developed a stand up, self-help kiosk where users can walk up to a dedicated computer and instantly chat/IM/email a librarian or pick up the phone and call. To assist, student employees working at the circulation desk are being trained on a referral system where they can lead students to the kiosk or direct them to specific subject librarian.

    Staff at Millersville have expanded their suite of virtual research help options for just-in-time questions. Librarians take shifts providing assistance through phone, text, email and chat/IM (11-8 Monday through Thursday, 11-4 Fridays, and 2-8 Sundays). Another facet has been initiating at least three consistent office hours during which subject librarians will be available in their office for research consultations or appointments.

    Inspired by Austin’s Coolhaus Ice Cream Truck use of Twitter to notify customers of their current location, St. Edward’s is considering heavier use of social media to inform students and faculty where reference assistance can be found. While still in the planning stages, the general idea is for librarians to check in using Foursquare or Gowalla at various campus locations with a note about how long they will be there.  This check in will automatically propagate to the library’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and show up on the website in a rolling feed of library news and updates. In this scenario, even users who do not connect with the library through social media services will still benefit from the check in.

    Librarians who station themselves around campus will be equipped with a netbook or a tablet computer with a keyboard and have the ability to print to any campus printer. The hope is that fully mobile librarians with high-end technology and the ability to help wherever the student may be will begin to shape expectations of students.

    Traditional reference desks are often immobile and, in some cases, emphasize the power disparity between the knowledge seeker and the knowledge holder (either purposely or inadvertently). In these situations, it may be difficult for libraries to experiment with new methods of interacting with users, either face-to-face or digitally. It is easy to fall back on what is known, what is safe. The removal of these structures for renovation purposes is described by Dorney as an “almost cathartic experience,” providing a sense of freedom to test user and librarian reaction to innovative avenues of service.

    Professional Identity & Relevance

    While impact of these two renovations on their respective campus communities is an area ripe for discussion, the projects have also released the internal floodgates. Both institutions are witnessing discussions relating to professional identity and the library’s relevance/value within higher education. Often, anxiety accompanies these conversations, a natural reaction for any passionate professional.

    At Millersville, staff is distributed on and off campus. There are librarians in academic buildings, staff in Gerhart Hall, librarians and staff at the off-site storage facility, and student employees everywhere in between. The way library work is accomplished is changing dramatically. Employees are beginning to rely more and more on technology to assist in everyday activities. Where resistance to change may have before existed for initiatives like video conferencing or using a wiki to share documentation, individuals have been forced out of their comfort zones to grow as a high-functioning team of professionals.

    In the case of St. Edward’s, questions abound about how group dynamics may change when seventeen staff members are forced to exist within a cozy, three-bedroom house for one year. Without personal offices, librarians there may have a completely different experience in terms of collaboration and it is inevitable that all interactions will reach new levels of intensity, for better or worse.

    Though the St. Edward’s library website already provides a great deal of services and resources, it will become even more apparent that it is the primary means of interacting with the library.  David Lee King writes that “the library’s website IS the library,” and the absence of a robust, physical presence will solidify that perception. It is time for as much – if not more – effort to be placed on our digital assets than our physical spaces.

    On Failure & Flexibility

    It would not be apropos to conclude this article without mentioning the importance of flexibility and freedom to fail. Both authors have found that it is often the best laid plans that have disintegrated while spur-of-the-moment ideas have taken off like wildfire. There is no ultimate road map to ensure success.

    At Millersville, for example, the old library was the tallest, most heavily-trafficked building on campus. Assuming that the next largest building for student gathering was the newly-renovated Student Memorial Center, librarians set up a “Research Blast” table in a high-visibility area. The plan was to have multiple librarians available in shifts with computers and informational handouts to help students with their research questions. Staff promoted the one-week event heavily, using Facebook, QR codes, emails, posters, word-of-mouth. Librarians wore bright green tee shirts saying “Ask me about the library” and were proactive, making eye contact and greeting students as they passed.

    The librarians barely received one research question the entire week. It turned out to be a great opportunity to answer questions about the library – what’s in the temporary library, where can I go to print papers, what is the new library going to look like, when is it the project going to be done? But librarians certainly weren’t helping students locate or evaluate peer-reviewed articles, analyze sources, or brainstorm search strategies. It was a failure in one aspect and a success in another. The freedom to fail and flexibility to adapt accordingly is paramount to initiating change.

    St. Edward’s has the benefit of learning from Millersville’s two-year experiment before knocking down their old building. If students are not using roaming librarians to ask research questions, then where are they asking those kinds of questions?  Studies of student research behavior suggest that faculty members, teaching assistants, the writing center, and course readings and websites are frequently sources students turn to for help (Foster & Gibbons, 2007; Head & Eisenberg, 2009). Though liaison librarians continue to inform faculty and teaching assistants about the services that will be available during construction, reaching students through course websites is another avenue worth exploring.

    Currently, all Blackboard course websites at St. Edward’s University have a link labeled “Ask a Librarian,” which links students to the general reference assistance page. However, most students do not understand how librarians can help. To improve this Blackboard presence, librarians have written a short javascript widget that will link students to course or subject-specific pages designed to be an in-context landing page for library resources and services. In other words, if a student clicks on “Library Resources” from a course in the school of business, he or she will be directed to the research guide for business students, not the generic library homepage.

    Exploring new options takes staff time and creative thinking; some projects will fail, but the spark of innovation provided by challenging circumstances may result in new and improved practices that last well beyond the transition period into these new buildings.


    As economist Paul Romer once said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” (Rosenthal, 2009). In the cases of St. Edward’s and Millersville, the crisis of being without the library as one cohesive place provides librarians with an opportunity to initiate change. Without the baggage of the past, libraries can look holistically at the their portfolio of services, determining which to continue investing time and resources into. Others may have simply run their course, poorly designed from the outset or dated for serving a new generation of scholars.

    Measuring the success of these experiments is often difficult. Due to the magnitude of change (moving from one centralized building to many distributed/embedded locations), neither St. Edward’s nor Millersville can simply compare usage statistics to the those of the old library. Because these libraries are focusing on interacting with users in new ways, measures have to be more comprehensive, taking both qualitative and quantitative aspects into account. In some cases, this will be longitudinal data. Both authors are hopeful that what is learned during these experiments outside of the library will be brought back into the new libraries in order to support the university community at a higher level, showcasing our professional growth and relevancy.

    For each traditional library aspect that is re-envisioned, time and resources are made available to investigate new and innovative ways to interact with information. While keeping the history and mission of the academic library close to heart, librarians need to initiate honest, open, and difficult conversations and take immediate action towards readying academic librarianship for a new era.

    In her fall 2010 convocation address to the university community, Millersville University President Francine McNairy stated: “…Indeed, the Ganser building will close, but the University library will not. You might think that the library is at the intersection of Frederick and George Streets, but it is actually at the intersection of scholarship, innovation, creativity and collaboration. And that’s the road to our future.” It is possible that upon moving back into each of these new libraries, the resources, services and spaces provided to users may look completely different. When individuals inquire about the risk of becoming irrelevant after a year or two without a building, perhaps that is the opportunity for librarians to inform their communities that the library is much more than bricks and mortar, and we are in the midst of fundamental shifts regarding our impact on students and learning.

    Embarking on extensive renovations like those discussed here bring unique opportunities to initiate change within libraries, but they are not the only way to prepare for the future. The authors are issuing a call to action: How would you change your library as if you had a year without the historical baggage of a building? Take those plans and run with them – there is no reason why you have to wait for the bulldozers.

    Many thanks to Melissa Gold for her feedback on this piece. Thanks also to Lead Pipers Hilary Davis, Leigh Anne Vrabel, Ellie Collier, and Emily Ford for edits, comments, and thought provoking questions.

    References and Further Readings

    Association of College and Research Libraries (n.d.). Value of Academic Libraries Report. Retrieved November 8, 2011, from http://www.acrl.ala.org/value/?page_id=21

    booth, c. (2010). Librarians as __________: Shapeshifting at the periphery. Retrieved November 5, 2011, from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2010/librarians-as-__________-shapeshifting-at-the-periphery/

    ebrary® (2011). ebrary Surveys Suggest Students’ Research Needs Unmet, Results to be Presented at Charleston. Retrieved November 8, 2011, from http://www.ebrary.com/corp/newspdf/ebrary_2011_Student_Survey.pdf

    Foster, N. F., & Gibbons, S. (Eds.). (2007). Studying students: The undergraduate research project at the University of Rochester. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries. Retrieved November 8, 2011, from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/publications/digital/Foster-Gibbons_cmpd.pdf

    Frierson, E. (2011, July 8). Course-specific library links in Blackboard, Moodle, or any LMS you can name [blog post]. Retrieved November 8, 2011 from http://thirdpartylibrarian.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/librarylinksinlms/

    Head, A. J., & Eisenberg, M. B. (2009). Lessons learned: How college students seek information in the digital age. Project Information Literacy First Year Report with Student Survey Findings. University of Washington Information School. Retreived November 8, 2011 from http://projectinfolit.org/publications/

    Millersville University Library (n.d.). Millersville Library Renovation Information. Retrieved November 6, 2011, fromhttp://blogs.millersville.edu/newlibrary/

    King, D. L. (2005, September 22). Website as destination [blog post]. Retrieved November 8, 2011 from http://www.davidleeking.com/2005/09/22/website-as-destination/

    Rosenthal, J. (2009). On Language – A Terrible Thing to Waste. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved November 8, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine/02FOB-onlanguage-t.html

    Ross, L., & Sennyey, P. (2008). The library is dead, long live the library! The practice of academic librarianship and the digital revolution. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34(2), 145-152.

    St. Edward’s University (2011). St. Edward’s University Receives $13 Million from Pat and Bill Munday. Retrieved November 5, 2011, from http://think.stedwards.edu/marketing/blog/post/st-edward%E2%80%99s-university-receives-13-million-pat-and-bill-munday

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    This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License. Copyright remains with the author/s.
  • The intersection between cultural competence and whiteness in libraries

    December 1, 2015
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    photo of library at street intersection
    photo from Flickr user gigi_nyc used under CC-BY-ND-2.0

    In brief

    The context for this article is Australian libraries and my experience there with cross-cultural provision. However, this article is not about providing library services for any specific group; it’s about cultural competence and whiteness. I begin with my background, so as to make clear how I participate, as a white librarian, in discussions about libraries and how they might be places where people from any cultural group find themselves reflected and where they find information the more easily for that reflection. I also start at that point because cultural competence requires an awareness of your own culture; for me, as a white person, that means thinking about whiteness. I then link experience with reading about cultural competence, and conversations with librarians who are also interested in cross cultural provision. Whiteness in libraries is introduced via these conversations. A brief comparison is drawn between the usefulness of intersectionality and cultural competence in addressing whiteness. The conclusion is that cultural competence embedded in professional approaches, library operations and the library environment can be the means for addressing whiteness, if the understandings of power and privilege outlined in intersectionality are incorporated.


    I am a 56 year old, tertiary-educated, female Anglo-Australian. I am also a librarian. I fit the demographic profile of the Australian library workforce, which is described as highly feminised, professionally educated, ageing, and predominantly Anglo-Saxon (Hallam 2007); or, ‘a largely English-speaking, culturally homogenous group’ (Partridge et al 2012, p. 26). I have worked in the library industry for eight years, coming to the job after an employment history spanning at least four other industries. In these eight years I have developed a professional interest in cultural competence and whiteness in libraries.

    Three factors motivated me to write this article. The first is  the challenges I experienced in my first library job. One set of challenges helped me find my feet as a librarian; another, outlined below, set a strong direction for future work and further study. The second factor is cultural competence, about which I learned in response to those challenges. Thirdly,  the Australian library and information management industry is beginning to address diversity, often through cultural competence. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), the State Library of New South Wales and the State Library of Victoria all include cultural competence or proficiency in key policies and strategies. Charles Sturt University is committed to cultural competence in the context of Indigenous content in curriculum; RMIT University includes it as a topic in the professional experience course in its Master of Information Management. Most other library schools include in their program aims, development of skills for working in a diverse environment.

    My background

    I began work in the library and information industry as Special Collections Manager at Alice Springs Public Library in Central Australia. The special collections were the Alice Springs Collection, documenting the history, geography, economic development, and cultures of Central Australia; and the Akaltye Antheme Collection, a local Indigenous knowledge collection, developed in partnership with the Traditional Owners. ‘Akaltye Antheme’ translates into English as ‘giving knowledge’, the knowledge being a showcase of local culture for Aboriginal and non-Indigenous users of the library.

    In addition to a Graduate Diploma in Information Management, I also brought the accidents of life to that job. By ‘accidents’ I mean those developments which aren’t the product of any particular decision, which just seem to occur as life itself occurs and which coalesce into fundamental themes or directions. One of those accidents is being born white.

    Other accidents include two books, read when I was twenty: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; An Indian History of the American West, and Living black; Blacks talk to Kevin Gilbert. They were my introduction to Indigenous people’s experience of history and colonisation. I had no idea of that reality until then. The ensuing couple of decades included NAIDOC marches, Sorry Day ceremonies, reconciliation activities, and visits to the Tent Embassy. Friends and I mused about whiteness – what it means to be white when being white is the norm. This participation involved some decision-making but I had drifted into that left wing milieu – yes, an accident.

    Another key accident was work as a personal care attendant in a supported accommodation centre for Koories. The health effects of a colonised life of disadvantage and discrimination were glaringly evident: very high incidence of diabetes and corollary conditions, alcohol-related brain damage, staggering male morbidity. Also clearly evident were the strength and resilience of culture, how hard people worked to maintain it and how they worked within it to maintain themselves and their community. The power of being white struck me for the first time: the residents were far more likely to do something when I asked them than when my largely Sri Lankan co-workers did. I attribute this to two things: the residents’ experience, often from very young, of near-complete control of their lives by white people in positions of power; and how, as a white person, I unwittingly used to the power and privilege that redounds to being white, and was able unknowingly but effectively to convey expectations.

    Without the activist activities described earlier, I wouldn’t have perceived the effect of whiteness in an ordinary working environment for what it was; without that work experience, my understanding of the effects of a colonised life would be weaker. I outline this to indicate that I came to the Special Collections job beginning to understand my privilege as a white person. This privilege is reflected in the quality of my life; it is a product in part of the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, and continuing systemic advantage for white people. Why is this important to this article? As I said in a conference presentation with Sylvia Perrurle Neale, the Indigenous Services Officer at Alice Springs Public Library, being a member of the dominant group is the biggest challenge I face in working in partnership with other, minority groups.

    Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been the main path for my learning about cultural competence and whiteness. However, cultural competence applies far more widely than only working with Indigenous peoples. As Ruby Hamad illustrates, whiteness resounds systemically. I would like to extend Hamad’s sentence, “[if you’re white,] you’re not going to be discriminated against on the basis of the colour of your skin” and suggest that you are also not likely to begin a sentence with the explanatory phrase, “In my/our culture …”, as I have so often heard members of minority groups do. You may never have to think about what your culture is, because as Henry and Tator (2006, cited in Calgary Anti-Racism Educationpoint out, whiteness in social, political and economic arenas is so much the norm, that it represents “neutrality”’. In a system that privileges some and marginalises others, often on the basis of skin colour but also on the basis of group membership, there are many marginalised groups. Jaeger et al. (2011) argue that working with any marginalised group requires cultural competence.

    The challenges in that first job

    In 2006, Alice Springs staff suggested that the Akaltye Antheme Collection be nominated for the Library Stars Award at the Australian Library and Information Association conference. (This happened before I worked there.) It won: delegates judged it the best initiative for its method of establishment, content, popularity with Aboriginal patrons, and the way the library adapted to the changed demand and use of the library that it generated.

    Despite this organisational pride, Akaltye Antheme occupied a kind of limbo. Everything was the Special Collections Manager’s responsibility – to keep it tidy, repair items, endprocess acquisitions, liaise with Aboriginal organisations on a range of library matters, and manage incidents arising among Aboriginal patrons. Similarly focussed collections and target groups weren’t similarly quarantined; for example, the junior fiction and non-fiction collections, and children’s behaviour, weren’t considered the exclusive responsibility of the Children’s Librarian. Akaltye Antheme was considered something for Aboriginal people, not everyone who walked through the door, contrary to the intention of those who established it. Aboriginal people, who could be up to 30% of the library’s patrons, used Akaltye Antheme regardless of this differential staff approach. They would often spend hours every day browsing and reading it. I wondered why Akaltye Antheme retained its special project status long after it was established, particularly when it was such an integral resource to a significant proportion of the library’s clientele and when it was intended for all patrons. I found this frustrating and isolating. I fit the librarian stereotype, I belong to the dominant group; yet the attitude of my (largely white, older, educated, female) colleagues to a collection they didn’t seem to consider core business, affected me. Sylvia Purrurle Neale, an Eastern Arrernte woman, voiced similar frustrations.

    I felt capable of learning to manage the historical collection, partly because my undergraduate degree included an honours in history. I had no idea about how to manage the Indigenous knowledge collection. This lack of educational preparation for working cross-culturally, then the isolation and frustration, echo Mestre’s research into the experience of librarians responsible for services to diverse populations (2010). She reports stress, potential burnout, and isolation of individual professionals. She also identifies opportunity costs to library organisations which rely on individuals for the provision of ‘diversity services’. The costs include loss of experienced staff and of the opportunity for all staff to learn, and benefit from learning, how to work cross-culturally. She argues that embedding culturally competent service within the organisation benefits it and all staff. Other commentators discuss the benefits of cultural competence in all aspects of library operations to organisational performance overall (Kim & Sin 2008, Andrade and Rivera 2011).

    Learning about cultural competence

    My next job was as Community Engagement Librarian with Libraries ACT, focussing on building engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. While in Alice Springs, I had thought that managing Akaltye Antheme could be something on which to build in my career – there probably were not too many librarians in Australia with experience providing services for and with Aboriginal people. I had also thought uneasily about the differential in the benefit that accrues to a white librarian coming to town for a short time and leaving with a marketable skill; and that which accrues to the local community, who would stay in Alice Springs after I had left. I can’t at this point cite any research that verifies this differential. However, if my experience resonates with that of others who have worked with minority groups, research in this area may suggest that greater benefit accrues to those already in a privileged position, in this instance, white librarians.

    I began at Libraries ACT determined that there had to be an organisational approach to community engagement, partly to avoid aspects of my experience in Alice Springs but also to achieve organisational aims. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to want to come to their library, they have to find a place where they are comfortable, where they can see themselves or their culture reflected. Partridge et al. (2012) point out that this applies for any cultural group. That is, any groups whose identity incorporates religion, disability, sexual orientation, age, recreation, employment, political beliefs, socio-economic status, educational attainment, and class (Helton 2010, Jaeger et al 2011). Creating such an environment in a system of nine branches, a heritage library, and a central administration clearly could not be done by one person. Advocating an organisational approach and the support of management led to a decision to implement the ATSILIRN Protocols. The Protocols are a set of guidelines for appropriate library, information, and records services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, developed by Aboriginal and non-Indigenous librarians.

    I document this engagement with the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in a case study (Blackburn, 2014). Findings include that:

    • a small team can achieve a lot with support from colleagues and where the community wants to be engaged;
    • synergy between library objectives and a group’s aims will enhance outcomes;
    • the Protocols are useful in designing and choosing engagement activities; and
    • the community will meet you more than half way in your engagement activities.

    There are still challenges. Where staff responses to Akaltye Antheme included a kind of resistance, a significant proportion of Libraries ACT staff, throughout the staff structure, want to engage with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. The first challenge was to demonstrate that it wasn’t hard; once connections are made and sustained, engagement kind of runs itself. Another challenge relates to staff being able to find the time in a busy service to make connections, including going outside the library, and then maintaining involvement. The next relates to how libraries usually conduct business. Libraries are great on systems and processes; they are essential features of information management. However, if you want to build an engaged community, an insistence on a way of operating that suits internally devised systems is going to bump up rather hard against a community with its own way of organising, which is also given to taking ideas and running with them.

    These are essentially facets of the one challenge. The ‘special project’ status of a resource that should have been embedded in core business; the limitation on time for building and maintaining relationships; and a preference for uniform service delivery rather than flexibility, are each part of the challenge of sustainable cross-cultural provision. This challenge, in the manifestations just outlined, resides in library professionals and in organisations.

    For the first five years of working in libraries, I searched with little success for information about cross-cultural provision, cross-cultural communication, etc. in a library context. Then a speaker who worked in education mentioned ‘cultural competence’ at a Protocols implementation workshop. This was a key moment, albeit another accident. There was nothing in the Australian Library and Information Science (LIS) literature then about cultural competence but there was discussion of it in US library literature.
    Overall (2009) defines cultural competence for library and information professionals as:
    the ability to recognise the significance of culture in one’s own life and in the lives of others; to come to know and respect diverse cultural backgrounds and characteristics through interaction with individuals from diverse linguistic, cultural and socioeconomic groups; and to fully integrate the culture of diverse groups into service work, and institutions in order to enhance the lives of both those being serviced by the library profession and those engaged in service (p. 176).

    Other service industries, like health and education, recognise that care or instruction that does not address the cultural context could have serious negative consequences. Failing to acknowledge the inappropriateness of male clinicians providing some procedures for women from particular groups, for example, could result in those women choosing not to access health services. Overall’s definition, which draws on theory from these industries, locates the site of cultural competence development within the professional workforce and library organisations, also the locations where the challenges of cross cultural provision arise. Cultural competence has been incorporated into US library and information science education accreditation standards. Research has supported its role in recruitment and retention, staff development, organisational performance, collection management, and service and program design (Andrade & Rivera 2011, Kim & Sin 2008, Mestre 2010).

    Whether cultural competence has been truly embedded into US library and information science is debated. Case studies document incorporation into library business (e.g., Rivera 2013, Montague 2013); but Berry (1999) and Mehra (2011) assert that only token efforts have been made. Others (Galvan 2015, Honma 2006, Jaeger et al. 2011, Pawley 2005, Swanson et al. 2015) suggest that the issue is broader than development of cultural competence and includes diversity, race, racism, and whiteness. Broadening the debate in this way names the issues – diversity, race, racism and whiteness – which cross-cultural provision should address.

    Cultural competence clearly begins with the professional – and just as clearly should go beyond the individual to be developed within the whole organisation. The following examples demonstrate why culturally competent organisations are required as well as professionals. In 2013, during a Libraries ACT planning day exercise, I noticed that a significant proportion of staff were either born overseas or were children of migrants; and the majority of that group were not Anglo-Saxon. (This reflects the demographic profile of the Australian population: 26% are migrants; nearly three quarters of whom are not Anglo-Saxon.) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012) Nevertheless the library service remains an organisation based in Western systems. The non-fiction shelves are organised according to Dewey Decimal Classification, which privileges Western or white concepts of knowledge. The bulk of the collection is in English. The songs sung during programs for babies and young children are most often English nursery rhymes. The library service remains a white one; staff from minority groups have adapted to the prevailing structure.

    Wong et al. (2003) suggest that minority groups not only adapt to prevailing structures, they also adopt the underlying values. Wong et al., Canadian health practitioners of Asian descent, found their heritage did not guarantee that they would deliver mental health care appropriately to members of their own groups. They instead adopted the racialised approaches to power embedded in the Western health system in which they worked. Why would libraries be any different, particularly as they run on complex, long established systems, systems which can be adapted without changing embedded values? Dewey Decimal Classification, for example, is an ethnocentric arrangement of knowledge which has been modified to accommodate new and emerging areas of knowledge without changing the fundamental privileging of original concepts.

    The diversity envisaged in US discussions about cultural competence “encompasses race, gender, ethnicity, language, literacy, disability, age, socio-economic status, educational attainment, technology access and skill” (2012 Symposium on Diversity and Library and Information Science Education, cited in Jaeger, Bertot & Subramaniam 2013). If culture is defined as “the shared daily activities of groups and individuals” (Rosaldo 1989, cited in Montiel-Overall, 2009, p 3) then religion, political beliefs and affiliation, and recreational activities are also part of diversity and should also influence cross-cultural provision. Helton (2010) and Jaeger et al. (2011) acknowledge the usefulness of cultural competence for providing library services for all groups in diverse populations, not only those whose identity is defined by race or ethnicity.

    A fundamental aspect of cultural competence is that the process of achieving it never stops. Press and Diggs-Hobson (2005) point out that the professional is of necessity constantly learning about cultures in a service population: knowing everything about all the cultures in a population, before encountering them, is not possible. Ongoing interaction and actively seeking out knowledge (Garrison 2013) are integral components of developing cultural competence. The knowledge I brought to that first job in Alice Springs has continued to expand, through work and study. Most recently, during a short-term transfer to AIATSIS, I had cause to think a lot about colonisation and its ongoing effects in a post-colonial world.

    Whiteness in libraries

    In a recent conversation, a woman described how, when her family migrated from Egypt to the United States and then to Australia, her parents took her and her siblings to the library precisely so that they would learn how to fit in. Relating this as an adult, she said her parents chose the library “because it was a white place.” When I mentioned this to other librarians interested in cross-cultural provision and social inclusion, responses included:

    You know I am really going to have to think this through. The whiteness of a library as a place to learn how to fit in. I never considered it that. I loved to read and that is the place to find books. At the same time, one learns English – to read and write – which is part of education and educating in the ‘white’ way which is at the foundation of libraries.(personal communication with an Indigenous librarian, 16th September 2015);


    I find it curious how they intentionally used it in their acculturation to the dominant Australian culture … the literature that I have seen generally shows that immigrants trust the library and librarians. In that sense, libraries are welcoming and friendly spaces. However, that does not mean that libraries are culturally neutral zones and/or are as inclusive as one would like to think. I don’t think that this is all bad. It sounds like newcomers can benefit from it as they transition into the new society, however, long term this may cause them to feel excluded and/or that their cultures are less valued. Likewise, this would clearly be exclusionary to minority groups, such as indigenous [sic] peoples, who are not trying adapt to the dominant culture, but are nations within their own right. (personal communication with PhD candidate researching inclusion in libraries, 20th September 2015)

    These communications, and the following discussion, indicate that the need for cultural competence is not reduced by the uses people from minority groups can make of white spaces. If anything they underline the need for it, and for dexterity in its deployment. A 2003 evaluation of the project to establish Akaltye Antheme included comments that Aboriginal people came to the library because it was a “neutral space”. They meant that it was a whitefella space free from the tensions of blackfella life; it was also a space where whitefella and blackfella clashes, common elsewhere in town, weren’t going to occur, where they could relax for a while and also make use of library services. In 2008, Aboriginal people were observed using the library to do online banking, socialise, organise or inform others of community events like funerals, read hard copy and digital Akaltye Antheme resources, watch videos, draw, or browse the other collections (Kral, unpublished report for council, 2008). Aboriginal people used the Alice Springs library before the establishment of the Akaltye Antheme Collection; however its popularity and changes in library use following its establishment suggest that the changed environment, while not making the library any less a white place, was valuable to Aboriginal patrons.

    The Indigenous librarian quoted before, further commented about the affirmation members of her tribe find in their own libraries. Her comment reveals the value to individuals of places that reflect their identity:

    on the other side, you have tribal libraries where Indigenous people go to learn not just reading and writing, but cultural aspects and language in the comfort of their created environment. My co-worker, she finds a reconnection to herself at the place we work. (personal communication 16th September 2015)

    The potential alienation of libraries built on whiteness, mentioned by the PhD candidate, can be inferred from this comment.

    Ettarh (2014) suggests “intersectional librarianship” as a means for working effectively with diverse populations. Intersectionality recognises the interactions between any person or group’s multiple layers of identity and the marginalisation or privilege attendant on each. No single identity is in play at any one time; and outcomes and experiences vary correspondingly. Multiple layers of identity result in multiple interactions between privilege and discrimination or marginalisation. The differing outcomes and responses arising from that interplay are evident in by the Egyptian migrants’ use of the library for their children’s acculturation; and in the use of the public library and the Akaltye Antheme Collection by Aboriginal people in Alice Springs.

    An intersectional perspective can be developed by “learning to become allies … not just learning about the issues that affect the underrepresented but also learning how our own biases and privileges make it difficult for us to build alliances” (Ettarh (2014). Cultural competence requires virtually the same strategy for modifying personal and organisational practice.

    Intersectional librarianship, however, discusses power and privilege, an omission in cultural competence theory that I have read. Intersectional librarianship “involves challenging and deconstructing privilege and considering how race, gender, class, disability, etc., affect patrons’ information needs” (Ettarh 2013). Wong et al. (2003) argue that understanding power must be central to understanding culture and to negotiating its multiple layers and interactions. Ettarh identifies as a queer person of color and talks of the challenges “we” librarians as a diverse group face in a diverse environment. Her use of the first person plural pronoun, to include all librarians, accords with the effect of structurally embedded racialised power on all health staff, that Wong et al. describe.

    Cultural competence, as defined by Overall (2009), does address the framework in which library operations occur: the professional development of the individual practitioner, the interactions between colleagues and between practitioners and patrons, and the effect of the environment, inside and outside the library. Privilege, while not explicitly referenced in cultural competence theory, is implicit in how culture works; whiteness, again not explicitly referenced in cultural competence theory, is central in Western library structures and operations, in the environment in which libraries are located. If the starting point of cultural competence is an understanding of the role of culture in your life (including your workplace), and in the lives of others, then you will also become aware of the interactions and interplay of privilege and marginalisation described by Ettarh (2014). It should be possible to incorporate awareness of privilege and whiteness as another starting point for culturally competent practice.

    Achieving inclusive services in the diverse Australian population when the Australian library workforce is culturally homogenous therefore poses a test. Individual Australian libraries are providing services to particular groups but how these initiatives are sustained is unclear, meaning that the risk remains for individuals responsible for ‘diversity services’ to struggle with the lack of support and isolation identified by Mestre (2010). Yarra Valley Regional Library obtained grant funding to develop programs with the hearing impaired community, children and adults with low literacy, and children with autism autism (Mackenzie 2014) – which makes me wonder whether the organisational challenge, of incorporating initiatives for minority groups into ongoing core business, might also remain. Without education in cultural competence, practitioners do not have the opportunity to discuss and evaluate their cross-cultural initiatives within a theoretical framework.


    In a workforce that is predominantly Anglo-Saxon, in an industry that is firmly based on Western concepts of knowledge and systems giving prominence to those concepts, but which provides services to a diverse population, a cultural competence that includes awareness of whiteness, of privilege and the mechanisms that make it available to some and not others, is essential. Cultural competence can make the information at the heart of a library’s existence genuinely accessible. It can help create “low intensity meeting places” where different groups can interact – or not (Audunson 2004); where people can seek answers to culturally shaped questions in culturally mediated ways (Abdullahi 2008).

    I have appreciated the open-review process, particularly being able to choose one of the reviewers. It has felt more collaborative than the peer-review processes of other publications. Thanks to Sue Reynolds and Ellie Collier for picking their way through the two drafts of this article, correcting grammar and asking questions that spurred me to clarify and extend what I was writing about. Thanks also to Hugh Rundle, publishing editor. It’s been a cross-cultural exercise of itself and I particularly appreciate Ellie’s contribution in that respect.


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