who is the library customer? – someone different

Another issue important to serving our library customers is a good understanding of diversity and cultural competency in the field of librarianship.  The following is taken from an extensive paper I wrote about indigenous libraries last fall and adapted and expanded to include new information.

Diversity and Cultural Competence

Inclusiveness of underserved populations requires cultural competency of non-minority library professionals and workers in areas of access, services, programing, environment, and relevant collection development to name a few (Gulati, 2010; Jaeger, Subramaniam, Jones, & Bertot, 2011; Overall, 2009).  Burke’s (2007) study of Native American use of public libraries in the U.S., show that socioeconomic and geographic variables have a great influence on library usage, often indicated by the use they make of library services, such as access to technology or task related behavior rather than for enjoyment and recreation.  Cultural competence takes into account the cultural frame of reference of the library users to enhance library service to best meet the information needs of the demographics represented in the service population.

Awareness of different cultures, identities and abilities is essential in today’s world (Gulati, 2010; Jaeger et al., 2011; Kumasi & Hill, 2011; Overall, 2009).  Jaeger et al. (2011) states that “each population has its own information needs and cultural perspectives toward information that need to be accounted for.”  Diverse groups often feel unwelcome or do not use their local libraries (Burke, 2007; Overall, 2009).  Which is not surprising since the early purpose of libraries was to assimilate and not validate indigenous identity (Mohi, 2009) and the majority of library professionals do not represent the underserved (Gulati. 2010; Jaeger et al., 2011).

Cultural competency is no longer optional; it is required in order to provide information access to diverse populations and demands continual education of the library worker (Balderrama, 2000; Jaeger et al., 2011) which needs to begin while LIS students are in school (Kumasi & Hill, 2011).  Overall (2009) defines cultural competency as “highly developed abilities, understanding and knowledge” (p. 183) to aide in providing “equitable access” and an “equitable environment” (p. 199).  Jaeger et al. (2011) suggests preparing the profession for changing trends in demographics because “without a better representation and understanding of all diverse and underrepresented populations in terms of information, LIS scholarship is at risk of irrelevance for the majority of the population.”  Services offered without cultural awareness results in services based on the externally perceived needs rather than successful and beneficial services (Overall, 2009).

The Alaska State Library Association sponsored the formation of the Culturally Responsive Guidelines for Alaska Public Libraries adopted in 2001 (Ongley, 2001).  These guidelines were developed by a group of Alaskan library directors and sponsored by the Alaska State Library to help public librarians examine how they respond to the specific informational, educational and cultural needs of their Alaska Native users and communities (Alaska Library Association, n.d.).  The guidelines were generated to meet the needs of the Alaskan indigenous population served by public libraries as well as other cultural groups in the areas of the library environment, services and programs, collection development, and library staff (Alaska Library Association, n.d.).  The dialog these guidelines generate nationally is of great importance to the non-indigenous librarians understanding and awareness of the indigenous population(s) they may serve.

ACRL Racial and Ethnic Diversity Committee developed the Diversity Standards:  Cultural Competency for Academic Libraries to provide a framework for academic libraries to effectively and skillfully engage their diverse communities in hopes it will encourage local application of the standards (ACRL Research Planning and Review Committee, 2012).  Cultural competence is defined as:

“A congruent set of behaviors, attitudes, and policies that enable a person or group to work effectively in crosscultural situations; the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each.”  (National Association of Social Workers, 2001)

And, the eleven standards are:

  • Cultural awareness of self and others
  • Cross-cultural knowledge and skills
  • Organizational and professional values
  • Development of collections, programs, and services
  • Service delivery
  • Language diversity
  • Workforce diversity
  • Organizational dynamics
  • Cross-cultural leadership
  • Professional education and continuous learning

The key concept in these discussions is inclusion to minimize marginalization and separation.  The development of these standards in a library specific context is significant towards practical application of best practices in librarianship.  Cultural competency standards can be adopted both internally and externally to transform the library culture in order to achieve the institutional mission and goals to the fullest extent for the benefit of the community it serves.



ACRL Research Planning and Review Committee. (June 2012). 2012 top ten trends in academic libraries. College & Research Libraries News, 73(6), 311-320. Retrieved from http://crln.acrl.org/content/73/9/551.full.pdf+html

Alaska Library Association. (n.d.). Culturally responsive guidelines for Alaska public libraries. Retrieved from http://www.akla.org/culturally-responsive.html

Balderrama, S. R. (2000). This trend called diversity. Library Trends, 49(1), 194-214.

Burke, S. (2007). The use of public libraries by Native Americans. The Library Quarterly, 77(4), pp. 429-461.

Gulati, A. (2010). Diversity in librarianship: The United States perspective. IFLA Journal, 36(4), 288-293. doi:10.1177/0340035210388244

Jaeger, P. T., Subramaniam, M. M., Jones, C. B., & Bertot, J. C. (2011). Diversity and LIS education: Inclusion and the age of information. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 52(3), 166-183.

Joseph, G., Burns, K., Doyle, A., & Krebs, A. (2009). Indigenous librarianship. In Encyclopedia of library and information sciences, third edition (pp. 2330-2346) Taylor & Francis. doi:10.1081/E-ELIS3-120044735

Kumasi, K., & Hill, R. F. (2011). Are we there yet? Results of a gap analysis to measure LIS students’ prior knowledge and actual learning of cultural competence concepts. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 52(4), 251-264.

Mohi, J. H., & Roberts, W. D. (2009). Delivering a strategy for working with Maori, and developing responsiveness to an increasingly multicultural population: A perspective from the national library of New Zealand. IFLA Journal, 35(1), 48-58.

National Association of Social Workers. (2001). Standards for cultural competence in social work practice. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers, 2001. http://www.socialworkers.org/practice/standards/NASWCulturalStandardsIndicators2006.pdf

Ongley, D. (2001, November/December). Guidelines adopted for Alaska public libraries. Sharing Our Pathways, 6(5). Retrieved from http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/sop/SOPv6i5.html#adopted

Overall, P. M. (2009). Cultural competence: A conceptual framework for library and information science professionals. The Library Quarterly, 79(2), 175-204.