The Inherent Value of Diversity in Librarianship by Rachel E. Brackenridge

“Diversity, in race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, social background, and more, will bring power to the libraries where balanced views and all kinds of possibilities are inevitable for successful research and teaching. Diversity is not a problem, but an asset for the institution.”

  • Azusa Tanaka, Why Diversity Matters: A Roundtable Discussion on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Librarianship. July 29, 2015.

The necessity for diversity within the field of librarianship is commonly attributed to the increasingly diverse user population it aims to serve. According to Downing, et al. (2007), “It would be wise for librarianship as a profession to focus on creating a next generation of leaders that reflect the population demographics it serves (p. 36).”

Indeed, users may feel more easily understood by library staff who speak the same languages, or are perceived to share the same cultural attributes. This connection between employee diversity and the attraction and retention of customers is well-established in the for-profit world (Kline, 2010), and is commonly referred to as the business case for diversity (Bendick, Egan, & Lanier, 2010).

As described by Bendick et al. (2010), the business case for diversity posits that, “Diverse employees bring differing life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and ways of thinking that will assist their employer in relating to, understanding, and meeting the needs of an increasingly broad range of customers” (p. 471). This, in turn, is thought to increase profitability, and in fact, there is evidence that diversity is positively associated with profitability (Herring, 2009).

Unfortunately, the business case for diversity treats the attraction of a diverse workforce as simply a means to an end. Managers who view employee diversity through this lens often assume what Bendick et al. (2010) describe as, “an automatic match between the average characteristics of customers in a market segment and the characteristics of an individual job candidate or employee based on a single demographic characteristic, such as race, that the individual shares with the segment” (p. 471). It is easy to imagine that minority employees may be tokenized under such a rationale. They may even be passed over for promotions if their value to the organization is so inextricably linked to their minority status and the perceived advantage that status offers within a given customer or user segment (Bendick et al., 2010).

The business case for diversity might be leaned upon so ubiquitously in historically homogenous industries and companies because it is more psychologically palatable for those in majority groups. According to Thomas, Plaut, and Tran (2014), “[it] may very well be a psychologically ‘safe’ rationale for Whites because the business case for diversity emphasizes benefits to profit and not issues of justice, fairness, or privilege” (p. 82). As suggested by this assertion, there are alternative motivations for increasing diversity which are more ethical and treat minorities more fairly (Van Dijk, Van Engen, & Paauwe, 2012), and it behooves librarians to pause in their quests to meet diversity-related benchmarks and consider the lessons that the private- sector is currently learning in this area.

If the business case for diversity is misguided, it is nevertheless a progression from diversity ideologies that fail to recognize cultural or ethnic variation altogether. Colorblind ideology stipulates that one is morally obliged to overlook differences between ethnicities, including skin color, because to acknowledge difference makes one prejudiced (Thomas et al., 2014). Unfortunately, this ideology effectively minimizes white privilege, and by refusing to recognize real differences between cultures, it stigmatizes those differences and establishes white or majority culture as the norm (Thomas et al., 2014).

On the other end of the ideology spectrum is multiculturalism (Thomas et al., 2014). A multicultural ideology embraces diversity and sees its value as inherent, rather than simply business- savvy or profitable. “Organizations applying the multicultural diversity ideology seek to capitalize on [diversity] and provide an environment where their employees have a stronger possibility of maximizing their potential and impacting the organization’s performance” (Thomas et al., 2014, p. 84).

In considering this, it should be clear that, in order to embrace a multicultural ideology in LIS, we must separate the motivation to increase diversity in the field from the commonly held assumption that doing so will attract users or improve staff interactions with users at the point of service. The assumption that minorities can speak on behalf of all of those who share some of their ethnic attributes does not account for intersectionality (Werbner et al., 2013), and maybe more importantly, excuses members of the majority from developing intercultural competence (Ritchie & Walker, 2007).

Increasing diversity will no doubt benefit the field of LIS and our ability to serve our communities in countless ways (Downing, et al., 2007), but gaining insight into users’ interests and needs should not be our main motivation for doing so, as this threatens to pigeonhole minority librarians and fails to acknowledge their abilities to contribute more generally in the workplace (Thomas et al., 2014).


Bendick, M., Lou Egan, M., & Lanier, L. (2010). The business case for diversity and the perverse practice of matching employees to customers. Personnel Review, 39(4), 468-486.

Downing, Alire, Cawthorne, Hall, Offord, Pitchford, . . . Jordan, Prof. Karen, Dr Camila, Jon, Tracie, Jerome, Veronda, Prof. Alexandra, Alysse A. E. D. J. (2007). Library leadership development: Institutional commitment, increasing underrepresented populations and impacting the information profession. 20-39.

Herring, C. (2009). Does diversity pay?: Race, gender, and the business case for diversity. American Sociological Review, 74(2), 208-224.

Kline, A. (2010). The business case for diversity. U.S. Banker, 120(5), 10-11.

Ritchie, A., & Walker, C. (2007). Continuing professional development: Pathways to leadership in the library and information world. (IFLA Publications).

Thomas, K., Plaut, V., & Tran, N. (2014). Diversity ideologies in organizations. (Series in applied psychology).

Van Dijk, H., Van Engen, M., & Paauwe, J. (2012). Reframing the Business Case for Diversity: A Values and Virtues Perspective. Journal of Business Ethics,111(1), 73-84.

Why Diversity Matters: A Roundtable Discussion on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Librarianship. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2017, from

This article contains excerpts from: Brackenridge, R. E. (2017). Diversity in Library and Information Science: A Critical Review of the Literature. University of Denver. Unpublished.

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