Libraries are a mirror of the communities that they serve. For many libraries, the looking glass reflects America's tendency to attract new citizens - and those aspiring to citizenship - seeking to turn long-frustrated dreams into reality.
Libraries are necessary to support these dreams, since they are the public institutions that new Americans and diverse groups rely on the most to support continued education, and English language and technology skills needed to thrive and compete in today's competitive global market.
The numbers tell us that library services will be in growing demand, since demographers predict that by the year 2050, African Americans, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Latino/Hispanics, and Native Americans will constitute the majority of Americans. Such predictions are becoming reality, as racially and ethnically diverse groups have seen higher percentage growth rates than white populations from 2000-2010 and are on track to continue to experience higher percentage growth rates than the white population for each decade through 2050.
At this moment Spanish is, by far, the most supported non-English language in public libraries. Seventy-eight percent of libraries reported Spanish as the priority #1 language in which they develop services and programs. Asian languages ranked second in priority at 29 percent. Another 17.6 percent of libraries indicated Indo-European languages as a second priority.
Although libraries strive to reflect the communities that they serve, there is a wide cultural and linguistic gap between the people behind the desk and those they face on the other side.
The majority of library employees are not a true representation of the community at large. According to the American Library Association (ALA), out of the 6,608 ALA-accredited library science master's degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2008-2009 (the most recent year for which data is available) only 5 percent went to Hispanics (333), 4.7 percent were awarded to African Americans (313), 3.8 percent to Asian/Pacific Islanders (252) and .6 percent to American Indians (38).
While these figures are daunting, for the library profession they are just another challenge to overcome.
Yes, there is still much work to be done, but the library community is resourceful and passionate about leveling the playing-field for all of their users. Later this month the five ethnic caucuses of the ALA and other library leaders from all types of libraries and backgrounds will meet for the Joint Librarians of Color Conference (JCLC), Sept. 19 - 23, in Kansas City, Missouri, to discuss how libraries can prepare for the country's demographic shift. Our nation's library leaders will participate in discussions on meeting the increasing demand for multicultural and multilingual collections; recruiting a racially diverse bilingual workforce; and developing multilingual literacy programs that empower English-language learners.
The JCLC, which is a conference for all library professionals, is just one example of how the library community is preparing to develop more services for diverse communities.
Since 1998, more than 820 new librarians of color have entered the profession and continue to receive leadership and professional support through the ALA's Spectrum Scholarship Program. Through this program, the ALA aims to meet the critical needs of supporting master's-level scholarships for students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The American dream has become a reality for diverse patrons at 100 public libraries in 28 states since January 2007, as adult English-language learners participated in American Dream Starts @ your library programs. Through the generous support from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, thousands of adult learners attended English, Job training, citizenship, and GED preparation programs.
Library collections are becoming more diverse thanks to librarian fueled multicultural literacy programs and book awards like El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Day of the Child/Day of the Book) a multicultural celebration of children and reading; the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, a showcase of the best African American children's books; the American Indian Youth Literature Award, for the very best writing and illustrations by and about American Indians; the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, for adult and children's books that best portray Asian/Pacific Americans' heritages; the CALA Best Book Award by the Chinese American Librarians Association, which promotes academic, adult non-fiction and fiction, young adult non-fiction and fiction, and juvenile books by Chinese American authors, and many, many, more.
As library professionals, we have always felt that one of the strengths of our nation has been the right of free access to information. If libraries are to be their best, we must continue to carry on the legacy of democracy, with services and staff that reflect both the people they serve and the larger global community.
There is no doubt that librarians and library staff have not shut the book on diversity, and are fighting to protect the right of free access to information for all. Just as the freedom fighters of the civil rights era, our librarians and library staff carry on their work to ensure that all Americans have the right to transform their lives through education and freedom to information.
Haipeng Li, is the University Librarian, at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Janice M. Rice is Outreach Coordinator, College Library, at University of Wisconsin- Madison. Li and Rice both serve as co-chairs of the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color Conference, Sept. 19 -23, 2012.