Library workers perform multiple roles within the scholarly communication lifecycle. As selectors of content for their user communities, librarians make choices about what content they will acquire and how they will describe and make that content discoverable. As experts in how content is curated, reviewed, and published, librarians support their user communities in understanding the peer review process, author rights, copyright, and publishing strategies. This work is performed in an environment that mirrors the demographics of the publishing profession (Department for Professional Employees, AFL_CIO, 2023). Despite longstanding efforts by professional associations to diversify the field, e.g. ALA Spectrum Scholarship Program, librarianship remains a predominantly white and female profession.

Representation in hiring and retention 

Research about why libraries and information centers have remained so overwhelmingly white points to the profession’s biased hiring practices and failure to retain BIPOC librarians.  Both of these factors perpetuate a status quo wherein, as some librarians have described it, “homogeneous environments foster homogeneous attitudes and practices” that reverberate in the field (Espinal, Sutherland, & Roh, 2018).  There has been an increase in programs to diversify academic libraries, largely focused  on racial diversity and on hiring early career librarians. But there is much more to do to increase racial and other types of diversity among library workers. “If the goals of diversity in librarianship are to enhance services and the profession, then librarianship must move toward a strategically larger view of diversity recruitment and retention that would welcome and acknowledge all dimensions of diversity to avoid these limited hiring practices.”(Kung, Fraser, & Winn, 2020). 

Beyond hiring an increasingly diverse workforce, libraries need to focus on and invest in explicit efforts to recognize the kinds of systemic issues that affect marginalized library workers and, by addressing those issues, support retention of these new hires. An increase in resignations, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has hit libraries hard, and marginalized library workers even harder. (Ewen, 2022) Library leaders are called upon to examine how they benefit from the power structures in place and to “invest internally as much as we invest externally” (Ewen, 2022) in order to put the values in diversity and mission statements into action.

Descriptive practices

Libraries’ descriptive practices (subject headings, metadata) have also been critiqued for their biases. Efforts to address these biases within the language of library classification systems (Library of Congress, Dewey Decimal) have been slow to evolve, in large part because libraries use these complex and bureaucratic systems to standardize practices to ensure consistency of description and ease of discovery. As one researcher explains,“librarians tend to wait for the approval of larger institutions, governing bodies, or associations before making changes that could be beneficial to local users” (White, 2018). 

The efficiency of standardization, the slowness of bureaucratic approval processes, and in one recent instance, congressional intervention, have impeded the profession’s ability to shift toward inclusive language (Ros, 2019). Several library initiatives are underway to update catalog records by replacing biased/racist terms with more inclusive descriptive terminology. The latter practice is sometimes referred to as ‘decolonizing’ the library catalog’s subject headings, removing the terms that reflect “…the biases of the time periods and places they were created” (White, 2018). 

Contracts with publishers

The “serials crisis” refers to the ever-increasing and unsustainable costs of subscription materials.  New models, such as “publish and read” agreements between libraries and publishers seek to address this subscription crisis by enabling authors to publish their research articles open access. Many of these agreements are structured around an author-facing Article Processing Charge (APC), in lieu of a subscription fee, which some authors can pay with financial support from their libraries and funding agencies (University of California, n.d.). 

While these agreements certainly level the playing field for readers in terms of access to published research, the costs associated with APCs can be a financial barrier for many authors who seek to publish their research. Some members of the community believe these pay-to-publish models privilege those scholars who already enjoy the benefits of well-funded research disciplines and institutions; those who are not in these positions of power and resourcing are less likely to have the funding to pay APCs (Hudson-Ward, 2021).  

Library publishers

Academic libraries are increasingly assuming the role of scholarly publisher on behalf of their institutions through Diamond OA library publishing programs that eschew APCs and instead focus on open access models that provide equitable access to both knowledge and the means of producing that knowledge. Library publishers are deeply embedded in academic communities and able to partner closely with university presses, scholars, and students at their institutions using non-commercial funding models and values-driven services. See the Scholarly Publishers page for more information.  

Instruction & Outreach

Libraries play a crucial role in promoting scholarly communication knowledge through instruction sessions, workshops and events, one-on-one consultations, and web-based guidance. Librarians are increasingly seeking ways to transform these instructional activities to be more inclusive, relatable, and meaningful (Pho et al., 2022). Designing instruction, outreach, and information resources to be globally inclusive and with a cultural humility lens means taking into consideration the languages spoken by learners, cultural backgrounds and diverse learning styles, and the inclusion of knowledge examples from the Global South (Espinosa de los Monteros & Mandernach Longmeier, 2022). Similarly, “critical pedagogy” can shift the power dynamic in the classroom to a student-centered experience, where the beliefs, values, and knowledge of all learners are recognized (Saunders & Wong, 2020). 

Beyond being intentional about their instructional practices, library workers can and should play a role in informing their audiences about bias and inequities in the scholarly publishing system and open access models, as well as the inherent biases built into  measures of value  such as “the impact factor” and terms like “predatory publishing.”

The need for demographic data

Works cited

What can I do?

As experts in how content is curated, reviewed, and published, librarians support their user communities in understanding the peer review process, author rights, copyright, and publishing strategies. Librarians perform this work in a predominantly white and female profession. Given this fact, librarians should be intentional about addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring and retention, descriptive practices, contracts with publishers, and instructional activities. 

Effect change in your library with the following suggested actions:

  • Support the diversification of all areas of the library profession and support marginalized workers.

Return to home

Page updated: May 12, 2023