Walk The Talk: Information Professionals and Discrimination

By James Johnson

It can be said that archivists, librarians, digital curators of modern data etc., all share core systemic values that fall in the realm of civil liberties and what that means to public hubs of information sharing and consuming. Some of these values include privacy, non-discriminatory access to information, and neutrality when it comes to engaging the public or community as access points to that information.

Through my studies I have come to learn there are a great many perspectives in the world of information professionals. And that means there will be differences that may come in to conflict with the core principles of library philosophy. These differences arise from the simple fact that we are all human beings with our own moral compasses; freethinkers in a free society. Is it possible that champions of these cherished freedoms could suffer from the same ills they seek to eliminate? Is it even possible that librarians and information professionals, who often have the loudest voices in social justice congress, discriminate against some of their patrons?

As it turns out, yes.

An economics paper on racial discrimination in public service sectors highlights some interesting findings. The authors sent emails to libraries (and other public offices) using fake names. Either black sounding names or white sounding names. They found that the more “white” a name appeared the more likely the email would garner a response to their inquiries, often times with a more polite tone than when the name appeared more “black”. These are information professionals (probably, the datasets on whether the staff are LIS trained are unclear) appearing to provide weaker quality services to blacks.

It’s clear this issue needs to be addressed and I’m not entirely certain it can be at the systemic level. What I believe can help is active observation of the self. How are we as service providers, those on the front lines of customer service, positioning ourselves when responding to others? Are we placing labels on these individuals based on how they present themselves? And if so, how can we remain neutral and provide quality, non-discriminatory service to everyone?

I think Donna Walker’s article on active listening is a good start. Instead of thinking in terms of ideas or arguments in the work place as she outlines, transition this methodology towards customer service. Use active listening to address the queries of a patron. We may not hear these concerns over our own biases, and these may very well be internal or subconscious. This can be a difficult concept to overcome, maybe even Herculean. That’s why it may be best to combat this issue on a purely customer service oriented re-positioning. Take the active listening position. Hear all queries and comments from this angle. Provide the best service you can by being a better listener. Doing this can remove invisible barriers and meet the needs of the community as neutral facilitators of information.

I think its important for everyone to have the freedom to hold their own opinions, unpopular or otherwise. We do not need thought police in our free society. But as providers of crucial services, information professionals need to be cautious and ever-present when dealing with all types of patrons. Walk the talk and actively pursue patron interactions with positivity and good listening skills. It’ll make everybody’s day better.

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