Interview with Julie Edwards, Instructor for “Diversity Plans for Academic Libraries”

Julie Biando Edwards is the instructor for our upcoming class, Diversity Plans for Academic Libraries. Julie is the Ethnic Studies Librarian and the Multicultural Coordinator at the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana. She graciously agreed to be interviewed about this class and about her professional experiences that have led to her teaching it.

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, Julie. To start off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be the Multicultural Coordinator at your library.

Thanks Rory. My background is actually in public libraries. I had the great good fortune of working in libraries in both rural and urban communities, in Wyoming and Massachusetts. In both communities I was able to experience different forms of diversity and to better understand the role that libraries can play in the social lives of people. I loved my time in public libraries, but I wanted to be back in Missoula, my adopted hometown, and in 2007 I applied for a job at the University of Montana working as their Ethnic Studies Librarian. All of the librarians have coordinator duties in addition to their liaison duties, and the coordinator position that went along with Ethnic Studies was Multicultural Coordinator. I actually prefer the term Diversity Coordinator, because diversity is about so much more than multiculturalism. In this capacity I work with various offices, units, and committees on campus with a focus on making the campus a more welcoming place for all members of our community. I’ve been very fortunate to work with wonderful people on committees and initiatives, including helping to revise the campus diversity plan. It is one of the most gratifying parts of my job.

Sounds like a good path. So in your job, you have worked on a diversity plans, which is the topic of the class. What exactly is a diversity plan? I think that probably a lot of academic libraries simply don’t have them, so I wonder if part of the class will be about why they are needed and how to advocate for instituting them.

A diversity plan is basically a document, similar to a strategic plan, that helps libraries direct their efforts in making their buildings and services more welcoming and inclusive to both employees and patrons. Ideally, a diversity plan will help guide library decision making in a holistic way. I sat in on some diversity workshops a few years ago, when the University was beginning the process of revising our plan, and someone said something that made a big impression on me. She said that diversity is about more than a quantitative goal – it is more than just getting diverse demographics on your campus, although that is extremely important. It is also about creating a culture where everyone on your campus feels welcome, safe, and valued. She said that diversity plans should strive to help create this culture of diversity, which includes broad demographic representation, and that ideally your diversity plan will be set up so that diversity becomes the lens through which you make decisions, rather than an “add on” after a decision is made. This is hard to achieve consistently, but it is a good goal.

Yes, in this class we will talk about why plans are useful for libraries and about how to advocate for them. This can be a tricky task and some libraries will have to start small. We were lucky in that the University’s diversity plan established as an action item that all campus units would develop unit-specific plans, so we had a nice framework within which to work. Not all libraries will have that codified commitment to diversity from their campuses. But I maintain that libraries can be leaders in helping promote diversity on their campuses, and we are all very lucky that the ACRL, this year, adopted Diversity Standards: Cultural Competency for Academic Libraries, which were very useful in helping us draft a plan and which establish a nice framework for librarians who might think that they are starting from scratch.

Sounds good. So, why don’t you give some details on what this class will cover and who will benefit from it?

In this class we’ll cover how to develop a plan that makes sense for your library and for your campus. Students will be asked to review any diversity definitions, documents and plans already in place in their institutions and to consider how those might be used to draft a library-specific plan. They’ll also be encouraged to think about what diversity means for their campus, which is something that will be different for every institution. We will talk about strategies for advocating for a diversity plan, with an emphasis on the ACRL standards. And then we will walk through the steps necessary to develop a plan. These include how to form a committee, how to structure a plan, how to best communicate the work of the committee and solicit feedback, and how to implement the plan in some kind of formal way. We’ll talk about how to define diversity for your library, how to contextualize that definition within librarianship – which I think is a very important step – and how diversity can be best integrated into various library services. I am also a big believer in the role that libraries can play in supporting human rights, and I will encourage students to look at how to incorporate human rights language into their diversity plans. So the class will be a mixture of both a more theoretical consideration of why diversity plans are useful and some very specific, individually driven work that will allow students to take the first steps towards setting up a diversity plan in their own libraries.

So there is material there that will be useful for both selling the idea of a diversity plan and creating and implementing one. I am thinking that people taking the class may be coming from institutions with different situations regarding diversity as an element of planning – maybe some will be assigned to take the class by their administration, and others will have some support but will be in a position of selling the idea of a diversity class in their libraries. I would think that the mix should be good for discussion purposes during the class.

I’d like to ask another question, about the process of setting up and implementing a diversity plan. I wonder if you could talk about a couple of major challenges that you encountered or that other people can expect to encounter when working on something like this, and how you overcame that challenge or how you would recommend it to be overcome, and how issues like that are a part of the class?

Yes – a mix is always good, because that allows people to share ideas about what has worked for them and to strategize with each other about how to sell the plan. I certainly hope that students will be able to share ideas with each other, and learn as much from each other as from me. I definitely expect to learn from the students, and since diversity plans should have a clear date of review and revision attached to them I imagine that I will come away with ideas that will strengthen the plan at my own library.

I will say that it is infinitely easier to do this work with support from top library administrators. If there isn’t clear buy in from the top it will be very difficult to get a plan off the ground. Without administrative support it will be hard to have a plan taken seriously and will be very hard to get the kind of buy in that will make actionable progress a reality. I don’t think that students should come into this class with the idea that it will guarantee them a diversity plan. But having the ACRL standards certainly opens the door – these standards should be considered by all academic audiences. One thing that I will do is ask students to look closely at the standards and talk about ways they can approach their administration regarding the drafting and implementation of a plan. The first steps will be looking at the standards, looking at the campus in question, looking at the library’s strategic plan (if applicable) and drafting a memo that can be shared with the administration laying out why a plan is useful for the library. In the case where there is clear administrative support, gathering this information will be important for contextualizing the plan for the entire library, but won’t be necessary for convincing skeptical administrators.

Setting up a committee is challenging. You want people who care about diversity, who can put the time and effort in, and who represent all levels of the library. But creating a plan like this requires a working committee, so at the same time it has to be small enough to accomplish a specific goal in a set time period.

Another challenge will be getting broad buy-in from the entire library. If a diversity plan is going to be a living document with actionable items that will help shape the library, it has to have support from all levels of the library. This is something I feel strongly about – diversity is the job of everyone in the library, not just of a few select people at the top. We are all responsible for our environment. So we will spend some time looking at how to communicate with all stakeholders throughout the process in such a way that encourages questions and feedback but that also doesn’t derail the work of the committee. Being clear, asking for feedback, and then actually considering and – where applicable and appropriate – integrating that feedback into the plan can be a very time consuming process. But it is essential for a broadly accepted plan, and we will share strategies for accomplishing that.

Participants won’t leave this class with a diversity plan in hand – that just isn’t possible in four weeks. But they will leave with knowledge of the ACRL standards, a written rationale for drafting a diversity plan at their universities, a better understanding of the diversity documents already in place at their universities, a sense of how to form a committee and how to communicate with their libraries, an idea of what kinds of items should be in their diversity plans, and a beginning strategy for getting the plan adopted and carrying out the plan’s initiatives.

That sounds great – practical and important. I’d just like to add one other question before we close, sort of a fun one. If you could teach any class for Library Juice Academy, and we can assume that people would enroll in it, what would it be?

Good question! I’d like to teach something on libraries and human rights, although it would take me while to develop it!

That sounds like an interesting one, worth thinking about. Thanks for doing the interview.

Thanks Rory

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