Liberal Arts College Libraries and the Management of Diversity

Haipeng Li
Reference Librarian/Outreach Coordinator
Oberlin College Library
Oberlin College
Oberlin, Ohio 44074

ABSTRACT: The shift in demographics in higher education necessitates the need to not only address but also achieve diversity in the academic environment. Academic libraries, like their parent institutions, face the same challenges in addressing issues related to diversity. This study examines the overall situation of liberal arts college libraries in the process of dealing with issues of diversity, specifically looking at staffing, collections, services, and workplace climate. Results of this study indicate that diversity can be achieved in small liberal arts college libraries with careful long-range planning and a sound structure in the library administration.

1. Introduction

As the demographics in higher educational institutions continue to change, the need to achieve diversity in academic libraries becomes even more important. The library profession appears to be well aware of the shifting priorities and challenges that lay ahead in regards to the achievement of institutional diversity. Many academic libraries have initiated diversity programs to assist in preparing their institutions for the socioeconomic realities of the millennium.

Based on their findings in the study, "Managing Diversity in Liberal Arts College Libraries,"1 published in the May 2000 issue of College & Research Libraries, Mark Winston, Professor of Library Science at Rutgers University, and Haipeng Li, Reference Librarian at Oberlin College, suggest a real need for the continuing exploration of issues related to diversity in the liberal arts college environment, particularly in regards to staff representation, the creation of a working environment conducive to diversity, the equitable provision of information services, and the development of and provision for access to collections. This study addresses diversity in liberal arts college libraries, an important segment and integral part of the academic library community, and perhaps a type of institution where, because smaller settings often facilitate increased personal responsibility, the tenets of diversity can be better defined and the goals more likely to be achieved.

The library literature seems to concur with the findings of this study and also suggests a need for discussions about diversity issues in smaller liberal arts college libraries. Most of the research available focuses on diversity programs and initiatives taking place in large research institutions, including the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, and Pennsylvania State University, to name a few. With new financial demands and technological advancements, small college libraries are being forced to face the same challenges by larger institutions. According to Robert D. Stueart, Dean of Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College, “Today’s libraries in liberal arts institutions are by their very nature in a state of overload, both in terms of information and in demand from the environment and it has become much more difficult to define what is expected of academic libraries in liberal arts institutions."." In short, liberal arts college institutions are facing competing priorities and unprecedented challenges that are both similar and unique to those experienced by larger institutions.

Indeed, it is quite true that the smaller institutions often do not have access to the same kind or scale of resources that large institutions have. Stueart notes that large academic research libraries generally possess financial or personnel resources that small college libraries lack.."3 Because the role of the academic library in liberal arts institutions is central to the instructional mission and teaching functions of the liberal arts institution, the challenge for liberal arts college libraries is to build collections and provide services conducive to the changing needs of their institutions, most of which heavily rely on private rather than public funding.

In spite of the relatively small size of liberal arts colleges, there is even a greater need, because of the nature of these institutions, to address the issue of diversity. Liberal arts colleges can serve as the starting points for a sound undergraduate education and a good training ground for librarianship. Eva Brann argues in her article “The American college as the place for liberal learning," that liberal arts colleges provide the kind of unique educational environment that is most suitable for liberal education.."4 If the mission of the liberal arts colleges is to prepare students with a solid educational foundation, and if exposure to diversity thinkers and ideas is integral to the liberal arts educational objective, are we missing the obvious connection? That is the symbiotic connection between diversity and education?

Over the years liberal arts colleges have been quite successful in enrolling students from diverse backgrounds. For librarianship which requires a sound liberal arts education, liberal arts college institutions would then seem to be the logical places to initiate programs of diversity. For example, in the area of recruitment, the implementation of diversity initiatives designed to reach students of various groups at the pre-MLS level is critical to attracting individuals from diverse backgrounds to the field of librarianship. The liberal arts college setting, in part due to the central role the academic library can play and often does play, offers great possibilities for the design and delivery of resonant diversity programs.

The size of the liberal arts institutions, indeed, brings some advantages if the institution is committed to addressing issues of diversity. As Margaret Ruddy and Raymond Murray have pointed out in their article, “Policy Makers and a Small College Library," in a small college environment, “familiarity and involvement with all college activities will most effectively keep library needs understood by, and easily justified to, both faculty and the administration."."5 Thus, the administration of a small college offers an opportunity for intense involvement that is not necessarily present at larger institutions. Ruddy and Murray continue by saying, “the more complete the staff involvement, the more successful the integration of the library into the mission of the institution." Diversity is ABOUT everyone and FOR everyone in the organization and it makes perfect sense for all library staff to be involved. Only by full immersion can an organization truly accomplish diversity.

In spite of its advantages, liberal arts college libraries are still facing challenges with limited resources, constrained budgets, and increasing expectations and pressures, particularly when dealing with issues of diversity. Options including creating special positions such as Multicultural Services Librarian or Library Diversity Officer that are likely to be found at large institutions are often not feasible in a smaller liberal arts college library setting. The college library must, however, find ways to address diversity issues and reflect these changes in the liberal arts college environment. Are diversity programs in fact happening at liberal arts college libraries? The study conducted by Winston and Li “Managing Diversity in Liberal Arts College Libraries," provides a good background of where issues of diversity stand in this unique academic environment.

2. Methodology

The study surveyed 166 liberal arts college libraries. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Classifications was used to help identify institutions that are designated as Liberal Arts Colleges I. Questionnaires were sent to library directors of identified institutions. A follow-up mailing was sent to those who did not respond initially. The overall response rate was 72%, providing a solid pool of data for analysis.

3. Findings and Discussion

The findings of this study suggests that although the level of diversity-related activities in liberal arts college libraries has not been overwhelming, There is evidence that activities and programs related to diversity have been undertaken in some instances. For example, of all the libraries surveyed, twenty libraries (18%) responded positively when asked whether they had sponsored in-library diversity/sensitivity training workshops; four libraries (3.6%) answered affirmatively when asked if they had conducted diversity climate surveys in their libraries; and two libraries (1.8%) had hired outside consultants to seek advice on issues related to diversity in the workplace. The survey also indicated that a very small percentage (4.5%) of the libraries have a library diversity committee or a library diversity or affirmative action officer (3.6%), as might seem more appropriate based upon the size of the libraries and colleges. A much larger percentage (72.1%) reported having a college diversity or affirmative action officer. It is also important to note that the survey revealed that 36.9%, more than a third of the libraries surveyed, employed no minority librarians at the time surveyed.

While the correlation between diversity activities and programs and the existence of a diversity committee as a part of the administrative structure of the library is not overwhelmingly clear in this study and is therefore worth exploring, research in general does seem to indicate that a library committee or some other type of long-term component built into the library administrative structure is a critical contributing factor to assuring the success of diversity initiatives in the library organization. Such a parallel can similarly be drawn between the libraries and their parent institutions. As the study shows, the presence of a college diversity or affirmative action officer on campus does prove to be significant in correlation to the number of diversity activities, in particular, in the area of professional recruitment and services to student populations from diverse backgrounds. Of the eighty institutions that have a diversity or affirmative action officer, seventy-two (90%) have designed recruitment strategies to increase diversity in applicant pools for professional positions; whereas 76.67% of the libraries without a college diversity officer have taken such recruitment efforts. While more than 50% of libraries with a diversity officer on campus have provided training for search committees on issues of diversity, only 26% of libraries without a college diversity officer have done so. The study also shows a significant difference, based on the presence of a college diversity officer, in the number of libraries that have implemented programs that are designed to provide services to diverse student populations. While 61% of institutions with college diversity officers have offered such programs, 40% without a college diversity officer have done so. Thus the study demonstrates a palpable correlation between the presence of a diversity/affirmative action officer in the administrative structure of the institution and the number of diversity activities on campus.

Research in this area indicates that such a component in the organization is an effective mechanism for moving diversity initiatives forward. In Managing Diversity in Organizations, Robert Golembiewski sees diversity in its larger organizational context, “with its consequential potential for managing it through the effective use of the proper infrastructure that encompasses policies, procedures, and culture,"."6 and it is, therefore, imperative to build into the structure a standing unit as a way of institutionalizing activities and programs of diversity as a long term goal. In another article, “From affirmative action to full spectrum diversity in the American workplace: Shifting the organizational paradigm," James D. Slack at the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina also argues that in order to accomplish full spectrum diversity in the workplace, an internally-based rationale for taking proactive measures to enhance the mix of human resources is needed.."7 By “internally-based," he is arguing that changes in an organization need to happen from within; thus staff within the organization need to take proactive roles in the process of changing the organization. A long-standing mechanism built within the administrative structure of the organization seems to be an effective way to ensure that such changes do occur.

There are different ways of building that mechanism in the organizational structure as a long-term strategy for achieving diversity. Janice Simmons-Welburn discusses the concept and significance of Diversity Dialog Groups as a means to present an important opportunity to increase the understanding and acceptance of diversity in an organization.."8 Since the Diversity Dialog Groups focus on participant-led collaborative learning in small groups, it is particularly effective for facilitating personal growth in participants. Such an approach proves to be very useful if conducted on a regular basis and deserves consideration.

Similarly, a long-standing library diversity committee can be another effective way of institutionalizing the commitment to achieving diversity. Once a diversity committee is in place, it can perform a wide range of coordination and programming of diversity activities. Furthermore, the diversity committee can participate in the library administration’s process of making decisions, policies, and procedures related to issues of diversity. The article, “A Library Committee on Diversity and Its Role in a Library Program," by Kristin H. Gerhard and Jeanne M. K. Boydston, both from Iowa State University, provides a useful full-length discussion of the wide range of activities in which the committee was involved, including working with search committees and sponsoring staff workshops.."9 Such a committee is particularly useful and valuable for a small college library where resources are limited. With a committee in place in the organization, diversity work does not have to fall on the shoulders of one person, something that is likely to happen in a small organization where individuals are compelled to both take on multiple responsibilities and complete tasks single-handedly. The diversity committee then, given the responsibilities to address the entire spectrum of diversity issues, can more effectively tackle the trajectories found in diversity work: workplace climate, staffing, services and collections, as outlined in the article, “Managing Diversity in Liberal Arts College Libraries."

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, it is evident that issues related to diversity offer both challenges and opportunities for all academic institutions. Even though the literature indicates that some college campuses have attempted to address diversity in some measure, there is still much “unfinished business"10 in addressing this important issue. In particular, there is a strong need to address diversity in the liberal arts college environment where initiatives may be minimized because of limited resources. In spite of these limitations, however, results of this study demonstrate that diversity in regards to both infrastructure and service outcomes in liberal arts college libraries is not only possible to achieve but can prove to be very successful with careful long-range planning, coordination and persistence. The findings of this study also suggest that library personnel, including the library diversity committee actively engaged in diversity work, can be effective in the process of creating meaningful change and a spirit of inclusion in the institution, especially if made an integral part of the library administration. As a result, the library as an organization, its staff, and subsequently the whole institution, are all greatly benefited and made stronger by this ongoing and deeply entrenched commitment.


1 Winston, Mark, and Haipeng Li, “Managing Diversity in Liberal Arts College Libraries," College & Research Libraries 61:3 (May, 2000), 205-215

2 Stueart, Robert D. “The Liberal Arts College Library: Paradox or Panacea," College & Research Library News 51 (November 1990), 524-529

3 ibid, 524

4 Brann, Eva T.H. “The American College as the Place for Liberal Learning," Daedalus 12:1 (Winter 1999), 151-171

5 Ruddy, Margaret, and Raymond Murray, “Policy Makers and a Small College Library," Winsconsin Library Bulletin 79 (1984), 5-7

6 Golembiewski, Robert T. Managing Diversity in Organizations. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

7 Slack, James D. “From Affirmative Action to Full Spectrum Diversity in the American Workplace: Shifting the Organizational Paradigm," Review of Public Personnel Administration 17:4 (Fall 1997), 75-87

8 Simmons-Welburn, Janice. “Diversity Dialog Groups: A Model for Enhancing Work Place Diversity," Journal of Library Administration 27:1/2 (1999), 111-121

9 Gerhard, Kristin H., and Jeanne M. K. Boydston, “A Library Committee on Diversity and its Role in a Library Program," College & Research Libraries 53 (July 1993), 335-343

10 Unfinished Business: Race, Equity, and Diversity in Library and Information Science Education. Wheeler, Maurice (ed.). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Submitted to CLIEJ on 20 July 2005.
Copyright © 2005 Haipeng Li
Li, Haipeng. (2005). "Liberal Arts College Libraries and the Management of Diversity," Chinese Librarianship: an International Electronic Journal, no.20 (December 1, 2005). URL: