Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship

Library books in black and white

Image by Flickr user tweng (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Brief:

Despite the growing body of research on our professional demographics and multi-year diversity initiatives, librarianship in the United States remains overwhelmingly white. I suggest the interview process is a series of repetitive gestures designed to mimic and reinforce white middle class values, which ultimately influence the hiring decisions—and relative lack of diversity—of librarianship as a whole. I consider how the whiteness of librarianship may manifest long before the hiring process. By identifying and interrogating the body of white, middle class values inherent to both librarianship and professional job searching, I offer suggestions to encourage an authentically diverse pool of applicants.


Defining Whiteness

Whiteness is a shifting status bestowed by those in power, intertwined with class relationships and the production of structural inequalities. See the transformation of Italian, German, Irish, and Polish people from white ethnics to white over the 20th century in the United States. “The Italian comes in at the bottom, and in the generation that came over the sea he stays there. In the slums he is welcomed as a tenant who ‘makes less trouble’ than the contentious Irishman or the order-loving German.” (Riis, 1890)

For the sake of brevity, whiteness in this essay means: white, heterosexual, capitalist, and middle class. Whiteness is “ideology based on beliefs, values behaviors, habits and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege.” (http://www.ucalgary.ca/cared/whiteness) Beliefs, values behaviors, habits, and attitudes become gestures, enactments, and unconsciously repetitive acts which reinforce hegemony.

Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias

Librarianship is paralyzed by whiteness. This will continue unabated without interrogating structures that benefit white librarians, including the performative nature of recruitment and hiring. The interview and academic job talk conceal institutional bias under the guise of “organizational fit” or a candidate’s “acceptability”, while the act of recruiting presents an aspirational version of the library to candidates.

The standing-room-only presentation at Association of College & Research Libraries 2015 on the experience of academic librarians of color suggests librarianship is at least aware of its demographics. Some libraries are attempting to recruit broader pools of applicants, with a few offering ever-popular diversity residencies and fellowships. The fellowship model is mutually beneficial and offers chances to experiment with otherwise risky initiatives. However, fellowships mask precarity under the illusion of faculty status and support, when librarians accepting these positions may have neither (Salo, 2013).

While recruiting initiatives and fellowships are reasonable starting points, they become meaningless gestures for institutions which screen on performing whiteness. These actions are further undermined by framing diversity as a problem to be solved rather than engaging in reflective work to dismantle institutional bias. Framing diversity as the problem implicitly suggests a final outcome, locating responsibility and discomfort away from white librarians while marginalizing colleagues who do not perform whiteness to the satisfaction of gatekeepers.

Finally, when librarians who are not white and middle class arrive, they are alienated as “the diversity hire”, erasing their skills, talents, and expertise (Sendula, 2015). Librarians with visible minority status are assigned more work, as many marginalized librarians are appointed to diversity and hiring committees by default. This strands non-white and middle class librarians in a “murky place between gratitude and anger” (Bennett, 2015) as their visibility changes to suit the needs of the organization. That librarianship remains overwhelmingly white suggests marginalized librarians are seen when the institution finds it convenient, but rarely heard during critical stages of the hiring process.

The current librarian job market solicits performance and creates barriers to entry in three ways: cultural negotiation, conspicuous leisure, and access to wealth.


Image by Flickr user wolframburner (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Barriers to Entry


The whiteness of librarianship begins long before the job application process, as traditionally underrepresented students come to university systems with varying experiences in libraries. Conclusions on this subject vary: libraries can be a source of anxiety for marginalized students (Haras, Lopez & Ferry, 2008); the university library can feel overwhelming compared to underfunded or nonexistent K-12 libraries (Adkins and Hussey, 2006); or the library as a site of abundance and discovery. Nearly all scholarship on the subject agrees the library is a site where information seeking and cultural hegemony are negotiated (Long, 2011; Sadler and Bourg, 2015). For marginalized students, an academic library may be the largest they’ve ever encountered. “For students from a nondominant culture, knowing how to use library resources is not merely about finding information but also about navigating culture.” (Adkins and Hussey, 2006)

White Savior narratives are found throughout librarianship, where white librarians are framed as benevolent actors toward people of color, who “lack the agency necessary to enact positive changes in their own lives. The underlying assumption is that people of color, on their own, fail to enact resilience,resistance, and success…Any achievements in these areas seem to result from the initiatives of the white savior.” (Cammarota, 2011)

Rather than disarm the “structural, systemic, oppressive conditions disproportionately affecting the most economically disadvantaged people”(Groski, 2008) the middle class White Savior perpetuates myths about poverty. Marginalized patrons in libraries become the saved and lifted, without necessarily seeing themselves in the space of the library.

Students not reflected in the culture of the library are unlikely to see librarianship as a possibility (Williams and Van Arnhem, 2015). Marginalized students employed outside the university system face additional barriers as their work typically does not cultivate the development of a white collar professional identity. The hospitality industry, food service work, call centers, and other low income employment offers prescriptive identities, removing most agency from the employee. Marginalized students in graduate programs arrive after enduring lifetimes of institutionalized oppression surrounding their origins, with a painful awareness the they of “professional language” refers to themselves (Overall, 1995; Johnson Black, 1995; Bennett, 2014).

Moving from a prescriptive work environment to a professional one requires a certain amount of socialization into white culture. I don’t think of myself as an ex-hotel night clerk, but will always be a librarian even if my job title doesn’t reflect this. Librarianship is not simply what we do at work but a component of how we identify as people (Gonzalez-Smith, Swanson & Tanaka, 2014). This creates a dissonant sense of self and belonging in the profession, when our identity does not conform to professional expectations, “worldviews, or emotional orientations” (Costello, 2005).

Librarians themselves manufacture the culture of whiteness, with its ever-shifting criteria and continuous trading in surfaces (Ewen, 1988). Our policies embrace the fiction of neutrality, while our spaces, practices, and culture are not neutral entities (Sadler and Bourg, 2015). The idea of library-as-neutral is seductive because of its usefulness and minimal intellectual effort required from white librarians: neutrality is the safest position for libraries because it situates whiteness not only as default, but rewards and promotes white cultural values.

Whiteness-as-default allowed the conversation about 2015’s Banned Books Week poster to incorrectly assume no Muslim women were part of the image’s construction, effectively acknowledging librarianship’s tendency to reproduce inequalities and in many cases manufacture them in our systems and practices. From organizational structures and descriptions, to images and policy, librarians engage numerous fictions upholding cultural hegemony (Drabinski, 2013).

“Libraries and professional organizations have put together documents and policies on information ethics and intellectual freedom in an attempt to broaden the professional perspective. While these are important policies and procedures, they still reinforce cultural hegemony as they are primarily written in the language of those in power. For example, statements on professional ethics are put together by professional organizations, the overwhelming majority of whose members are white. Intellectual freedom is influenced by the discursive formations of those who write and enforce these policies. It is those in power who decide what level of intellectual freedom the library will support.” (Adkins and Hussey, 2006)

While librarians may fill social media with images of what librarians look like, our professional organizations and policy language articulate further what successful librarians look like: how they organize, what voices are heard, how they construct strategy, which crisis are acceptable to address and which should be suppressed under tone arguments or claims of unprofessional behavior.

The fiction of neutrality became apparent to me as a circulation desk clerk in a large public library system. Over winter break I visited an affluent suburb of Cleveland, Ohio where my partner’s family lives. We toured the public library and I was impressed with the college and career prep resources available. At my home branch I asked if I could make a similar display. I was told “Our kids aren’t really the college type,” and reluctantly allowed to maintain a small collection in the young adult section. This same system employed several librarians who insisted on business wear for work in a casual dress environment, explaining “Children in this neighborhood need a model for what a professional is, because they don’t have contact with any.” Many public library systems continue to address poverty from a deficit theory framework, ignoring the connection between treating poor people as inherently flawed and the profession’s inability to recruit marginalized workers.

A question posted to Librarian Wardrobe suggests one applicant’s struggle to be comfortable, yet professional during interviews. “I tend towards a ‘soft butch’ style and a very broke budget, but I have a major interview coming up. Any suggestions for an outfit that gets across my personal identity, my willingness to crawl around looking for a book, but also my professionalism?” This poster reveals their gender performance during an interview is necessary to maintain the comfort of others, not to present the ‘authentic self’ search committees claim to want. Their question, like so many others I found during my research, is about this maintenance.

  • How can I be butch, but not too butch?
  • Should I buy a plain band for my left hand if I am unmarried?
  • Should I dye my hair or have it relaxed?
  • How provocative is a suit that isn’t gray, black, or navy?
  • Where can I buy a button down shirt that will not gape at my chest?
  • Will not wearing makeup cost me a job?
  • If transcripts are required, how will I explain a differently gendered name?

Each question reflects problems about how to address the cultural expectations of whiteness in the context of othered bodies. Librarians who wear natural hair, whose shape/stature make it difficult to find professional dress, or librarians with disabilities have found their bodies as they exist to be deemed unprofessional. Rather than assign this failure to designers’ inability to account for variations in bodies, this is passed on to applicants. Few blame manufacturers for ill-fitting suits. We blame bodies for not conforming to them.

Such anxieties are pervasive, even when acknowledged. In 2014, I sat on a panel discussing gender, agency, and resistance where one presenter–a scholar from India–expressed concern in the context of her research how wearing a sari during her talk would mean risking objectification and dismissal in a room full of feminist folklorists. The academic job talk is similarly concerning, as the growing tendency to record and make available such talks transforms the interview process into a mediated performance. An intellectual understanding of bias isn’t enough, it must be interrogated to dismantle the mechanisms which produce bias.

Conspicuous Leisure and Wealth

In flooded job markets, barriers to entry can include requiring prior library service for any library job. While MLIS students benefit from on the job experience, such screening policies would exclude promising applicants unable to enroll in face-to-face programs: rural students, students with nonstandard work schedules, students with family obligations, students transitioning careers, and other MLIS-holders outside the fictions of “ideal worker” (Davies, 2014).

Hiring Librarians has documented responses from hiring managers claiming students in online programs cannot work in teams or learn effectively, when many students choose online programs for the exact opposite reasons. As with myths about poverty which overshadow the well-established resourcefulness of poor students, online MLIS students are dismissed as asocial and not “team players”. Bias against online MLIS students is especially harmful to rural and underfunded libraries, in light of the geography of MLIS-holders (Sin, 2011).

The reality of post-MLIS education includes thousands of webinars, MOOCs, chats, listservs, virtual meetings, systems work, and other collaborative technologies. Suggesting online programs lack rigor or cannot result in “real” learning is harmful, technophobic, and helps maintain the whiteness of academic libraries. This attitude favors applicants with the wealth and time to enroll in face to face programs, even though very little of their development as librarians occurs in lecture style, classroom settings. “Candidates must prove that they want it enough, prove that they are ‘the best’, where ‘the best’ sometimes just means the most willing and able to work for free” (Hudson, 2014).

Conspicuous leisure manifests in the time lost learning to perform whiteness and the wealth required to do so effectively. Unpack for a moment what the notion of being “put together” professionally involves: hairstyles, makeup, becoming comfortable in costuming which may or may not be designed for our bodies, voice coaching to eliminate accents and modify tone, time for exercise to appear “healthy”, orthopedics to address poor posture, orthodontics and teeth whitening, eye contacts if our lenses distort our appearance, concealing body modifications, and the countless ways marginalized librarians modify gesture, develop behavioral scripts, and otherwise conceal their authentic selves in the interest of survival.

Favoring applications with access to time and wealth is a larger manifestation of problems in hiring for libraries: we choose people like us because it is easy, rather than advocating for different views by picking “unfamiliar” candidates who might interrogate the processes. This manifests in micro (but no less harmful) aggressions if librarians who aren’t white and middle class manage to get hired and do not perform to “model minority” standards or otherwise refuse to sit quietly. “Our reviews are full of words like ‘shrill’, ‘abrasive’, ‘hard to work with’, ‘not a team player’, and ‘difficult’. We’re encouraged to be nicer and less intimidating and more helpful. Action items and measurable metrics are nowhere to be found.” (tableflip.club)

For marginalized librarians, the successful performance of whiteness may include integrating aspects of the self which allow White Saviors to feel good: I am resilient; I overcome; I have transcended my station. Such gestures convey applicants understand the rules of whiteness and hidden curriculum of the academy. Strategically revealed narratives of working nonstandard hours, surviving “bad” neighborhoods, single parents, holding multiple jobs while attending school, and similar stories can become currency in white culture (Cecire, 2015).

White culture embraces stories of overcoming intense odds while learning to perform whiteness, in the same way it creates and consumes stories of poverty tourism and role play for self-promotion: food stamp challenges, homeless awareness “sleep outs”, and the ever-expanding White Savior industrial complex. Recently, these stories have migrated away from individual librarians to libraries as institutions: media coverage of uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, and others center the library as a character in resiliency narratives. While the institution benefits in the short term from increased attention and support, this reinforces an ongoing messaging problem: libraries are most visible in the context of state sponsored violence. Libraries cannot simply possess inherent value, they must be framed as populist defenders or as sanctuary. Above all else they must struggle.

By contrast, librarianship assumes access to wealth or tolerance for debt to afford tuition, professional membership, and service opportunities. If I activate my American Library Association membership for all divisions and sections applicable for my job, the annual fee would come to $223 USD. This does not include conference registration fees, travel costs, a safe place to rest, or food. Activity in local and regional groups varies in cost, depending on the organization’s philosophy.

Competitiveness in the current job market requires at minimum a well-placed practicum experience conducting librarian level work, but only students with access to money can afford to take an unpaid internship. Galleries, libraries, archives, and museums throughout the United States continue exploiting unpaid labor, insuring the pool of well-qualified academic librarians skews white and middle class.

In the application process, asking for salary history is careless and further privileges a particular kind of applicant. For marginalized hires, salary history is another instance in a lifetime of humiliating scrutiny and surveillance on behalf of the state: the Free Application For Student Aid (FAFSA), housing vouchers, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), charity organizations, free or reduced cost student lunches, and invasive discussions with intervention professionals. FAFSA and SNAP programs are specific to the United States, but surveillance apparatus can be found wherever the “dole” exists.

Librarianship as a profession suffers when practitioners conflate sacrifice with worth, as though receiving comparatively lower salaries were justified due to our status as workers with a “calling”. Marginalized librarians–especially women–are taught to avoid negotiation and highlighting their accomplishments, to say nothing of diminished opportunities to build a livable salary history. This is culturally reinforced, as women pay measurable social costs for promoting themselves (Bowles, 2007). Marginalized librarians find themselves trapped in a rigged process: provide salary history and be underpaid, demand more and be rejected, all with the knowledge that salary will provide access to professional development opportunities.

For marginalized librarians, functioning at work requires navigating white cultural norms, conforming to professional orientations potentially at odds with their identity, taking on the additional work of speaking for an entire group of people (Gonzalez-Smith, Swanson & Tanaka, 2014) and for women, engaging in emotional labor to “be nicer” rather than producing tangible results. Librarianship can claim to recruit a diverse workforce, but without interrogating whiteness, the only winning move for marginalized librarians is not to play. The responsibility of fostering an inclusive workforce must fall to white librarians in power.


Interrogating Whiteness

How can we interrogate the process? As I watch other marginalized librarians go through their job searches, a few ideas come to mind:

  • In the absence of paid internships, offer professional development: pay for a conference or workshop attendance fees. If this is not possible, integrate opportunities for networking and mimicking the gestures of professional socialization.
  • Offer hands-on, project driven assignments, and create opportunities to showcase critical thinking and data-driven decision making to interns. Weeding books for three weeks and journaling the experience in a blog is not a solid project, yet I’ve seen this offered as one a half dozen times. Practicum requirements in library and information science graduate programs are meant to be process assignments; a conversation about meaningful, engaging work is part of that process.
  • Offer flexible times for internships. Requiring specific availability is the prerogative of the library, but understand this limits the diversity of your applicant pool. Partial or fully virtual internships offer tremendous opportunities for the library to expand as a truly 24-hour entity.
  • Update boilerplate job descriptions to remove salary history requirements. Given the profession’s reliance on unpaid labor and part-time work, salary history does not reflect individual worth or ability.
  • Screen interview notes for biased language.
  • “Doesn’t seem professional” as criticism without articulating why is a problem.
  • When someone says “I just like them better,” find out why.
  • If search committees consistently defer to one member, find out why.
  • Decide what you are attempting to measure with interview questions. Open-ended questions have answers that feel correct–there’s nothing wrong with behavioral interviews but hiding bias in a “correct” answer or “gut feeling” is a problem.
  • Avoid using White Savior narratives when dealing with communities and patrons in poverty.
  • When seeking marginalized employees to serve on diversity, hiring, or outreach committees, consider if this is the only kind of service work they’re asked to do.  Consistently asking the same people to perform emotional labor causes burnout and suggests the organization is not listening to marginalized staff.
  • Remember diversity is not always visible, and people should not have to disclose their lived experience to be heard by the organization. Provide anonymous options for employee feedback.
  • Give people the power to do their jobs. Actionably curious librarians without basic agency required to explore reskilling and shifting responsibilities causes breathtaking harm to our profession. Research suggests a number of librarians are bypassing this conversation altogether to avoid paternal IT policy, hostile administration, and often both (Yelton, 2015). Librarians in environments with agency and trust consistently build wonderful things.


Librarianship in the United States lacks diversity because the existing workforce functions within oppressive structures, while the culture of whiteness in libraries maintains them. Recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce is the responsibility of all librarians, but this process will move faster with individual voices in power interrogating bias in their practices. While these suggestions are not exhaustive nor universal in their application, I hope they can function as starting points for difficult but necessary discussions.

Thanks to Cecily Walker, Jessica Olin, and Annie Pho for asking hard questions and wading through my rusty prose. Cecily in particular tolerated many stream-of-consciousness Twitter DMs. This essay would not exist without Stephanie Sendaula, Brit Bennett, and many other librarians and writers whose work shaped my thoughts. I am grateful for the library and information science job seekers who shared their anxieties, their victories, and infectious tenacity.

Works Cited

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