Our latest post is an interview Sarah conducted with Jen Bayjoo, founder of Diversity in Libraries of the North (DILON), a new network which advocates for non-white librarians in the UK Library and Information Sector. Find them tweeting @libdiverse. Although efforts toward conducting physical meetups and events will be concentrated in the north of England (for now), members from all areas of the UK are encouraged to join. For more information on how to get involved, and the work DILON have done so far, on their website here.
To begin, it would be great to know about your career background – how you got into library work, for example was it something you were actively aware of as a career option and pursued, or did you fall into it? How did you get started out?
I did work as a library assistant before I went to university but although I loved it, I didn’t think it was an actual career. Looking back it’s probably because I thought librarians were dusty old white ladies who helped kids like me choose books to read. I did a couple of degrees and then hit that mid-twenties wall of panic – I could have chosen accountancy (I thank god I didn’t) or publishing, in which case the ‘L’ in DILON would probably just be another letter.
Would you feel comfortable talking to us about your experience of working in the LIS sector as a non-white person? How this may have differed from say my experience as a middle class white woman working in the sector?
I think this is the same as my overall life experience compared to yours. In almost every single thing I do I am a minority. Every book I read, every class in school, every friendship group, every single workplace, just walking down the street – and all of this minority-ness adds up and erodes away at your sense of brightness and self-worth. It’s a very difficult thing to see success in yourself when all the success that surrounds you is white, is so strongly not you.
Personally, no matter how much I love my job and feel like I fit in at my workplace, I’ll never escape the uneasy itchy feeling of being different and always (always, always) being the one to speak up for diversity. So my experience is also frustrating as it’s just my voice like a stuck record sometimes..! I always feel like I have to be careful to articulate my experiences without being ‘too angry’ and to have the answers to white people’s questions to hand; you are not allowed to be emotional or confused or unsure if you are viewed as a spokesperson for your entire race.
So when white middle class librarians wonder why non-white people aren’t attracted to our sector, they really need to open their eyes to society at large and try to understand how intimidating it is to enter such a strongly conservative, white, academic environment where you see no allies, no sisters, nobody like you. I have never not had a white interview panel…
You recently set up DILON, a network for BME/POC/Non-white library workers. Could you talk through your motivations for this and what you hope to achieve with DILON?
I remember reading the fact on the CILIP website that 96.7% of librarians identify as white and being so utterly shaken that I tweeted about it and spoke about it at conferences for a couple of years and even mentioned it to every poor/lucky man that I went on a date with..! But nothing changed. Then there was some fractured discussion on twitter from other people trying to raise awareness of diversity in libraries for a while, never getting anywhere and just being ignored really – not just by CILIP but by most library organisations.
This came to a head recently and overnight I came up with DILON (so proud of my acronym obvs) and set up a twitter, gmail and WordPress site. That’s all you need apparently to be a ‘network’ and not just one angry brown woman – and of course all the online support has been incredible.
I want to do so much with DILON! I think we have a real chance of changing conferences and encouraging non-white people to choose librarianship as a career, which are two things I think will help diversify the profession. We can also help support our members and keep holding all the white organisations to account until they show how they will make real change and then actually follow through. Then there’s working with library schools, looking at hiring practices, events, articles, discussions…
I am also really conscious that we have a deeply unbalanced and oppressive society and that with DILON I want to show white librarians that these things are connected, that racism isn’t just overt attacks but a virulent undercurrent in all our lives that has to be confronted to be defeated. It’s quite easy to trot about in our nice white workplaces and help students and chat about UX and journal packages and open access without never opening our eyes to bigger issues. I’m guilty of it too. But it’s time now for real change.
In the short time DILON has been active, you’ve already made some great progress – for example pushing for more diverse representation at conferences. How are you feeling about the positive responses to DILON so far?
Ugh it has been incredible!! I got an email from a librarian in London saying she has felt alone for so long and just forgotten about until now – it was such a lovely feeling to have reached somebody and to be reminded that even though we are few and far between, we can still get in touch and speak to each other.
Some of the responses about conferences have been great. There’s been a bit of a rush of people looking for more diverse speakers and bursting with ideas, so I hope we can keep the momentum going and make proper changes over the next few years. I have so many people to reply to (sorry if that’s you!) and I’ve had emails from people offering their technology and their platforms to help out – it’s been genuinely touching. Librarians are a very kind lot!
As a counter to that, have you had any negative responses?
Hmm, there’s been a sense of defensiveness and many people have come out to say that oh we had a black speaker so we’re working really hard or just that they’ll look into it. I would have liked to have seen some acknowledgement of the lack of overall diversity from a lot of people, because I do really feel that we deserve an apology for being let down.
I think they underestimate how hard and upsetting it can be to see white people on a platform again and again so I would have thought some recognition of that would have gone a long way to turning things around. I know it’s not just conferences (can I get life to apologise please?) but openness and a fresh start is needed. If you’re reading, it’s not too late!
Lack of diversity in the profession has been a known issue for a long time, and what Chris Bourg refers to as the ‘unbearable whiteness of librarianship’ has been a specifically pervasive part of this issue. In my own experience of researching this area, people seem to be genuinely well intentioned with regards to improving diversity in librarianship, do you have any particular thoughts on why progress is remaining so slow in spite of this?
If you’re a white privileged person then a lot of the energy and anger is directed at external forces – publishers, government, management – and librarians are positioned as this (white) saviour figure, fighting the good fight. So where do the holy saviours fit in when the people who have failed are themselves? I think this is why CILIP and other groups have been so slow, the issue of diversity is not like the other issues. It’s not us versus them, it’s just us.
Honestly, just talking to some white librarians about diversity makes them so uncomfortable, it’s like they are too scared of showing their privilege and ignorance. And let’s not forget that for non-white people to succeed in positions of power, some white people will not get those jobs, won’t get interviews, won’t make as much money; for equality, some people will lose their privilege and I think that’s quite terrifying deep down. So they may be well intentioned (and from the reaction to DILON some people are really ready to help) but overall there’s fear of change and of being accountable.
Hmm I wonder how many white librarians are reading this and thinking that it’s not their fault?
CILIP are frequently criticised for not doing enough to address the issues within the sector, do you think this criticism is fair? What would you like to see them do to address the whiteness of the sector?
Oh I think it’s fair! The oft-quoted figure of 96.7% of library staff identifying as white comes from research done in 2014. CILIP have had plenty of time to address this, not least because a number of us have brought it up regularly, but it has so clearly not been a priority. There has been some suggestion recently (interestingly days after I launched DILON) of a BME library network to be set up by CILIP. Sadly this came about after discussion with BME people and wasn’t something CILIP themselves had thought of four (ten, twenty) years ago.
Instead they plan to ‘celebrate diversity, which is one of the most sickeningly patronising things they could have said, so kudos for that I guess. I’d like them to just put in some real, transparent effort and not make any more excuses. They are our national body and I’m personally annoyed that I had to do their job for them, and much better might I add 😉
I’ve spoken with them about a few things (some positive, such as training for their staff and member networks) and I hope we can work together, especially as they accredit library schools…
I think any kind of activism can be deeply exhausting, but especially race work. One thing I’ve struggled with – even as a white person – is being hit by a wall of defensiveness as soon as you try and have a discussion about privilege and race and intersectionality, and I imagine that is a really familiar situation for you. How do you balance your activism with self-care?
Oh god, you read my mind. Being angry really takes it out of you and it stops you from speaking up because you know the ‘injured white man’ response you’ll face. I see it as people prioritising their own need not be offended by you saying they are offensive, than our need not to be offended in the first place. It’s constant privilege in action and it’s so tiring.
For self-care I am trying not to go on binbag twitter at weekends and to really focus on my friendships, listen to some podcasts (Belinda Blinked anyone?) and eat junk food outside; I can’t believe it has taken me 29 years to truly appreciate how great it feels just to be outside. More summer please.
One thing we really want to achieve with FLIP is to improve access to the profession – there are so many reasons why it can be difficult to carve out a career in the sector. What advice would you give to aspiring non-white librarians? What would you like to have been told when you were just beginning your career?
That this is a very white space and it’s not your responsibility to change that. You can enjoy your job and be successful without thinking about your race, but if you want to help diversify the profession there are other people who want to help you – find them on Twitter.
Also, the profession is dying without you! Every day that we don’t have a diverse staff in all our libraries is a day that weakens us. So even though you see that nobody where you are applying to work (especially in management) looks like you, remember that they need you and that you will be very welcome.
I wish I had known more about micro-aggression and been armed with responses to people talking about racism even though they are white men talking out of their bums, so that I didn’t feel that the one thing I had to contribute was worthless just because I couldn’t articulate it in a calm and academic way. It’s really hard to argue about something that is your lived existence with people who are academic in their views and will use any display of emotion as a reason to dismiss you. Be prepared for this, you will cry alone in a bathroom out of frustration and anger.
Finally, on a lighter note – if you could work in absolutely any library – real or fictional – which would you choose?
Ooh I said on the Librarians with Lives podcast that I would be Madam Pince, the Hogwarts librarian but only in a future scenario where black Hermione is Minister for Magic and I have an archive to curate. I definitely stand by this and have delved into the world of Harry Potter fanfic for scientific research of course! I mean, you could shelve books with magic and there would be no subscriptions or single-sign-on, only charms and unlimited books. The dream! I can’t think of a single fictional librarian of colour to be though…
We’d like to extend a huge thanks to Jen for agreeing to be interviewed! If you would like to be interviewed for our blog or have an idea for something you’d like to write for us get in touch via email or twitter!