Working toward More Diversity among Medical Librarians
Recruitment Is Important, but Retention Is Key
July 19, 2021
In 2022, Shannon Jones will become president of the Medical Library Association, the second African American to head up the organization in 123 years. Jones is director of libraries at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The school is a standalone academic medical center that confers degrees in medicine, pharmacy, nursing, dentistry, public health, and an array of other health professions such as physical therapy and health administration. The Medical University of South Carolina Libraries serves all six colleges. Jones also serves as director of the Regional Medical Library for Region 2 of the Network of the National Library of Medicine serving members in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The majority of librarians, including health sciences librarians, are white women. Jones has made it a priority to hire and retain employees who are diverse across many dimensions and to mentor librarians of color across the country.
Q: How successful have the efforts been to increase diversity in the profession?
A: In recent years, there has been significant investment in this. All of our professional associations have had diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as goals for a very long time. I think the reasons you don’t see more diversity are complex. My understanding of the reasons is largely based on anecdote — specifically my conversations with African American librarians. I think people go to library school, but then they have difficulty getting hired. And if they get hired, it becomes a retention issue. If they’re not treated well or the library was not prepared for a diverse voice or to include someone who is different from the majority, then they end up leaving the profession. It’s troubling that we haven’t moved the needle much on this.
Q: How are you trying to address DEI at your library?
A: We try to take a whole-systems approach to diversity — not just when it comes to race and ethnicity, but also skillset and background. I have a librarian who used to be a basic science researcher and two who have master’s degrees in public health. We also employ other professionals with advanced degrees in areas such as social work and IT. I didn’t realize how many Muslim students were on our campus until we hired a librarian who is Muslim and our Muslim students gravitate towards her. You don’t know some of the skills that people bring to the table until you allow that diversity to flourish.
Q: Can you talk about your recruitment approach?
A: First, we make sure that the search committee is trained in issues of diversity. For example, they receive training on implicit bias because all of us have biases that impact our decisions. I also make sure the committee has demographic data on our current staff as well as an awareness of the racial and ethnic demographic. I look at where we have gaps. For instance, in 2017, all of our male librarians retired or left, so that was an opportunity to try to recruit a male librarian. For an IT position, I’m conscious about finding good female candidates. But the bottom line is that we are going to hire the best of the best. I also like to cast a wide net for candidates.
Q: How do you do that?
A: I post the openings in all the usual places — ALA, MLA, SLA. But I also contact people I have met at conferences who are doing exciting work. I search LinkedIn profiles and then reach out to people — cold calling, so to speak. And I’ll look through papers or posters from conferences I’ve attended. I keep a running list of people doing interesting work with the idea that if someday I have [an open] position, I can connect with them.
Q: What’s your approach to retaining people?
A: Retention starts the moment that we offer somebody a job. It could be something as simple as paying their relocation expenses. We also need to offer them a fair and competitive salary. I don’t ever want to be in the situation where an employee realizes that the person sitting next to them doing the same job is making $20,000 more than they are.
And then we invest in them. I encourage my librarians to do career development plans so that they are thinking about where they want to see their career going and then I try to help get them there. We invest financially in making sure that their skillset and knowledge are always top-notch and that they’re able to present at conferences and to publish. I want them to feel like they’re getting value out of their career and adding value to the campus.
I try to be flexible with people in terms of letting them set the tone for their work and how they accomplish it. I ask them what they need to be successful. We haven’t had a whole lot of turnover in our librarian ranks.
Q: Have you been successful in recruiting and retaining a diverse staff?
A: Yes. We’re diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, discipline, and [the] type of work our employees do. Take a look at our staff profiles.
Q: What work do you do outside your library to support health sciences librarians of color?
A: I do a lot of mentoring work. One example is a Chat and Chew weekly meeting, which I started early in the pandemic. A group of us — usually about 20 people — meet virtually every Friday just to check-in, decompress, and support each other. Some of my Black counterparts are working in environments where they’re the only one and it can be hard. So sometimes you need to be among people who share that experience. In our group, there’s a lot of emphasis on wellness. For example, several of our members introduced a few of us to plant therapy.
I’m also proud of the virtual book club [MLA Reads], open to anyone across the country, that I created in 2018 and co-lead. Since 2018, 33 discussion group leaders have facilitated nearly 350 participants in discussing three books. We meet in groups of between nine and 11 people, and we all read the same book — once a year. The group evolved out of an implicit bias training that we held at the 2018 Medical Library Association meeting. After the training, people wanted to process the implications of biases on their work, in their libraries, and in their personal lives.
The first book we discussed was Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. We also read The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias by Dolly Chugh. We just read Damon Tweedy’s Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine and in the fall we’re reading Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.
We discuss each book over four sessions, including some supplemental programming. For example, we had a supplemental session on how to engage in critical conversations and one on implicit bias, microaggressions, and stereotypes. And it’s not just about race. Regardless of whether you are red, black, blue, or green, you’ve probably had an instance where you felt like you were not supposed to be at the table or in a certain space. Maybe you are a female in a male-dominated profession. The books I mentioned earlier have pushed people to really think about what privilege means to them. What does oppression mean to them and what does it look like every day in the workplace?
The book groups have also been a good networking opportunity for people because members are not just health sciences librarians. We have community college librarians, academic librarians, and public librarians, for example. Participants get MLA continuing education credits. Some of our members have been inspired by our group and started similar book groups in their own institutions.
Q: Tell us about your work with the African American Medical Librarians Alliance (AAMLA), which I understand is a caucus within the MLA.
A: There was a period when African Americans did not have seats at the MLA’s decision-making tables and weren’t serving on committees nor receiving the highest awards. AAMLA began as a social group in the 1980s, when members gathered for dinner at MLA’s annual meeting. In 2000, it became an official special interest group of MLA to strategically address this. Things have changed a lot thanks to the AAMLA. In 2016, we had our first black president. The librarian who is delivering the prestigious annual Janet Doe Lecture this year is African American. And we have the first African American woman getting the association’s highest honor, the Marcia C. Noyes award. One of my colleagues at Morehouse School of Medicine was elected to the board and we had three African Americans elected to our nominating committee.
The AAMLA is also working on documenting the history of African Americans within the MLA. Additionally, we try to connect with new African American members early so that they know that the AAMLA exists to support them in becoming the best librarians possible.
Q: Do you have any other advice for other librarians who would like to increase diversity at their libraries?
A: One piece of advice is from one of my mentors who told me that you should always be lifting as you climb. The other is that we need to normalize self-care. I’m trying to get better at this myself. Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is tiring because you’re constantly getting pushed back, you’re constantly hitting walls. You might have some successes but you’re going to have some challenges and so you have to take care of yourself.
If you’d like to learn more about Chat and Chew or the MLA virtual book group, contact Shannon Jones at JoneShan@musc.edu.