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Career Strategies for Librarians
Shifting: Ways to Cope When You’re the Only Minority in Your Department
by Ana Guthrie

Interpersonal work relationships can be unique at best, or awkward at worst, for minority librarians and
library paraprofessionals. Ethnic, religious, or lifestyle (e.g., gay or lesbian) minorities often express that
being successful at their jobs requires sharp work-home separation—a practice that is often referred to
as shifting.

One example of shifting would be altering one’s speech between dialects, such as using Spanglish (an
English-Spanish hybrid) in some settings and “Standard English” in others. Another example would be
refraining from discussing one’s partner or spouse at the office. Some employees avoid all
conversations on religion in the workplace.

In Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden
write that those who shift frequently “adjust their styles to fit their work environment” and “change their
voices, attitudes, and postures to meet the cultural codes of workday America as well as the broader
societal codes” (Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2004, p. 150). Minorities “grapple with the yo-yo effect” as they
hurriedly switch personas and “often it is like handling two jobs” (p. 153-156).

Add to this juggling mechanism the fact that news headlines are riddled with controversies such as the
Imus/Sharpton debate, the Isaiah Washington episode, or the “War on Terror,” and it is little wonder that
work environments are tense—probably for everyone, but arguably more so for ethnic, religious, or
lifestyle minorities. Plus, chances are that minority library employees are alone in their departments,
since only about one in eight librarians and one in four library assistants are from underrepresented
groups (Wilson, 2007). These employees are prone to feelings of intimidation or self-consciousness,
even if they work in harmonious departments.

The popular professional advice to leave one’s personal life outside the office door is ubiquitous and
wise. However, there are ways that minorities can positively represent their nonwork realities and
simultaneously cope when they are alone in their departments.

Join a Division or Interest Group

Professional organizations such as the American Library Association (ALA), Special Libraries
Association (SLA), and the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) all provide support networks
for minority library workers. ALA, for example, established the Black Caucus (BCALA), the Ethnic and
Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT), and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and
Transgendered Round Table (GLBTRT). These groups provide forums and programs that are geared
toward equipping minority librarians with tools for professional excellence. Joining an organization’s
division or subsidiary group can be just the remedy for counteracting fears of being an “outsider.”
Similarly, sharing publications or program highlights from such divisions with your colleagues is a
powerful way to celebrate your identity at work.

Find a Buddy

At its core, the library profession champions equality and individuality. The American Library Association’
s Code of Ethics states that “we treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness and good
faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of
our institutions” (ALA Code of Ethics, 2007). As such, every library department should uphold a culture of
inclusion and tolerance, even if there is a dearth of diversity.

If possible, minority library employees should bond with one or more open-minded co-workers. These
types of friendships can be opportunities to express your heritage and, at the same time, counteract
isolation. For instance, I was thrilled recently when a co-worker invited me over to her home to cook soul
food. That invitation led to a great friendship. Since then, we have supported one another’s careers—
and, in fact, my friend encouraged me to write this article. She also made me promise to come back to
her house to cook enchiladas.

Find a Mentor

Getting advice and information from seasoned minority librarians is one of the best ways to build career
stamina and receive encouragement during times of isolation. Knowing that someone else shares your
unique heritage, religion, or alternative lifestyle can help you feel more relaxed and optimistic. Studies
have shown that positive interactions with mentors quell feelings of marginality. For minorities, mentors
can also provide career advice (including guidance on work-life balance) that more closely mirrors their
realities.

Your mentor need not be part of your library system. Look far and wide when trying to find a trustworthy
and experienced mentor. Many national, state, and regional organizations offer mentoring programs.
Finding a mentor can be as easy as starting a conversation at a library events or conference. I happened
to meet my mentor, who recently retired after twenty-five years as an academic librarian, at a mini-
conference for library school students and those interested in becoming librarians. When it comes to my
career, she continues to be an energetic cheerleader and a patient listener.

Become an Active Recruiter

Finally, be proactive. A great way to make your library department less lonely is to encourage qualified
minorities to apply for positions. In the end, you will have more company. An even better outcome,
however, is that your institution will be known as one that celebrates diversity, and as a result, others will
come aboard. Become active in national, state, or regional professional organizations and continuously
publicize open positions to qualified minority library employees.

Works Cited

American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Unions (2007). Library Workers: Facts and
Figures. Department of Professional Employees Fact Sheet 2007. Retrieved on July 15, 2007 from

American Library Association (2007). Code of Ethics. Retrieved on July 15, 2007 from

About the Author:

Ana Guthrie is an Afro or Creole Nicaraguan who recently received her MLIS from Florida State University.

Article published Sept 2007

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