Monday, April 5, 2010

Committee on Diversity at the UCDavis Libraries

Last week, I attended the first meeting of the UCDavis Libraries Committee on Diversity, and this proved to be an illuminating look at two of the nine topics that have defined our discussion of the future of UC librarianship. The meeting was based on a presentation by Associate Executive Vice Chancellor for the Office of Campus Community Relations Rahim Reed. He reiterated throughout his talk his respect for the Library Diversity committee which has a history of contributing to the campus, he said. This contribution has largely taken the form of support for a centerpiece of the campus's diversity programming which is the campus community book project. Every year, a committee selects a campus book related to the theme of diversity. Previous designees include The Kite Runner and Mountains Beyond Mountains. This year's book is The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Each year, there is ongoing programming on campus surrounding the book that consists of exhibits and discussions. The author is always invited for a series of high-profile talks at the campus's main performance venue, The Mondavi Center. With the focus on a book, such a project is a natural for the library. In previous years, the library has always obtained the campus book and hosted exhibits and discussions.

At this time, the diversity office is facing a particularly urgent concern in the form of a rash of acts of discrimination. These include swastikas painted on the doors of Jewish students, defacement of the LBGT office and harassment of African-American students. Here we are in the 21st century! Some people are slow to get the message. As was pointed out at the meeting, these incidents are so far beyond the pale and at such an opposite pole from discussions on diversity, that, at first glance it is hard to know how to begin to deal with this. It's like teaching people to add and subtract. One is not sure where to start. Rahim admitted that no place can be guaranteed to be safe against everything, but he offered a comprehensive vision. In part, security will be stepped up around campus. But the main effort will be a version of "draining the swamp" that discriminators live in through education and training of staff, and this is the centerpiece, too, of the conversations that the diversity office plans to hold around campus. New ideas are always welcome. With this challenge to the Library's diversity committee, Rahim ended his presentation. Not only does the library have an opportunity to intervene in the life of the campus, but it has a history of doing so which was news to me as a relatively new member of the campus. In anything to do with cross-disciplinary education, it makes sense that the library should be at the forefront of such an effort, and it will be interesting to see what unique contributions that the library can make in the upcoming year.

For its first action, the committee decided to look internally at the library before looking outward to the campus. There have been a spate of troubles within the last few months. One was an incident in which a self-appointed group delivered letters to certain individuals claiming that they were not doing their share of the work. Another was a series of angry emails regarding the timing and nature of communications about layoffs that the library may be forced to implement in the near future. All incidents did not reflect the Principles of Community that the UC Davis campus prides itself on--to say the least. Some of have speculated that these incidents reflect the tension surrounding the budget crisis that afflicts the entire UC system, and, from that perspective, they are understandable. However, the themes of inequality and that certain classes of staff within the library are more privileged than others are ones that I, for one, have seen elsewhere and seem to be general in library culture. So, the committee's first move will be to address this aspect of the organizational culture of libraries. One of the features of diversity programming, mentioned by Rahim, is a series of workshops and courses on the campus on different aspects of diversity. Rather than sending individuals to this training, the committee is considering a special session tailored to library concerns to focus on healing divisions and increasing communication and effectiveness to face the challenges that lie ahead. The UC Davis Library Committee on Diversity will be a place to watch with regards to both library campus roles and organizational cultures.