Creating spaces for people like me in Special Collections.

First published in CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Newsletter Issue 111 April 2019.

This article will attempt to solve the lack of inclusivity and diversity in the cultural sector in 1000 words. Just kidding! This article will outline some of the issues surrounding inclusion and diversity in libraries. I will offer some ways to start to create an environment in which underserved groups; BAME, LGBTQIA, Working class, and differently abled, can thrive as staff.  I will include a quick break down of current statistics, discuss my experiences and promote Empowered Collaboration, a toolkit that includes sensitivity and privilege training, which in turn can apply to recruitment and retention methods.

Cultural institutions are homogenous…

Libraries and special collections are full of mostly white, heteronormative, middle class, able bodied, mentally healthy people with privilege.  Evidenced by the following:

  • Class Privilege: 61.4% of the workforce has a postgraduate qualification.[1] The highest qualification of most of the UK general population is A-level or equivalent.[2]
  • White Race, Ethnicity, and Culture Privilege: Less than 4% of the workforce identify as BAME.[3]
  • Ability Privilege: 84.1% of the workforce does not suffer from long-term health issues. Over 5% has an illness that affects their work’
  • Hetero-normative and Cisgender Privilege: No statistics exist for the cultural sector, but we do know only 2% of the population identify as LGBTQ+ [4]

So what happens when you’re different?

In my experience I am consistently the only or one of the only, staff of Colour in the building at any one time. I am often one of the only working-class individuals, part of a handful of the LGBTQIA community and make up a sliver of neuro-divergent[5] peoples. Due to my peers’ and customers’ misunderstanding of many facets of my identity (which I may or may not share with them) I encounter micro-aggressions on a near daily basis.

When micro-aggressions occur in these settings I have two options: speak out or let it go. Speaking out can lead to further confrontation, defensiveness from the micro-aggressor and places the onus on me to create a ‘teachable moment,’ which demands my patience, understanding and emotional labour. Letting it go increases the likelihood another person from a marginalised group will be in a similar situation. In either option, I lose some confidence and gain feeling of otherness and isolation in the sector.

    “It isn’t about having your feelings hurt. It’s about how being repeatedly dismissed and alienated and insulted and invalidated reinforces the differences in power and privilege, and how this perpetuates discrimination.”[6]

Don’t just take my word for it….

Clinical studies show how micro-aggressions can increase the body’s aging and lead to depression, due to the stress, anxiety and anger hormones that are released during these consistent interactions.

Roberto Montenegro, a chief fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Seattle Children’s Hospital, studies the biological effects of discrimination. He explains that chronic exposure turns into micro-traumas and “experiencing this kind of discrimination prematurely ages the body.”[7]

In 2017 the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the stress or ‘micro-traumas of discrimination can lead to aging at a ‘cellular level,’[8] taking up to 2.8 years from the subjects lives. However, all is not lost, the same study found that Pride in ones’ difference can counteract some of these stress hormones and battle premature aging. Cultural institutions can assist in expanding the representation of marginalised groups, which in turn leads to feelings pride.

So, what do we do now?

The information above does not intend to inspire pity or ignite a saviour complex but to create understanding, respect and self-reflection. Being oppressed by the heteronormative, patriarchal, colonised status quo does not remove an individual’s power but makes it harder to shine. It is important to support the creation of pride by authentic representation

         ‘For the minority populations to be a part of the larger society, and not face discrimination based on negative stereotypes, they need to see themselves in a variety of roles. Creators of nonfiction works have an ethical duty to the individuals they portray, the larger subculture they represent, and the consumers who view their work.’ [9]

This can be achieved through sensitivity and privilege training followed by co-production.

Empowered Collaboration

Empowered Collaboration seeks to diversify cultural institutions such as libraries through co-production with individuals from under-served groups. This can only be achieved with sensitivity to privilege and emotional labour.

For Empowered Collaboration to succeed, each person in the sector must be willing to engage with the topic of diversity with a sensitivity that will legitimise the feelings of the under-represented and result in a change behaviours and policies.

Ideally, Empowered Collaboration would be packaged as a training pack (which I am developing) but in the interim I have created a snippet of what the training would include.

Step one:

Understanding your privilege

Privilege is defined as a set of characteristics that benefited an individual in the cis-gendered, hetero-normative, euro-centric, capitalist, patriarchal power structure; characteristics that do not negatively impact daily life. It is important to have knowledge of your own experiences before working with under-served groups as they may not experience these privileges and have vastly different life experiences, thoughts and ideas. 

Step two:

Understanding lived experiences

The lived experience of an individual is an incredible resource, because it creates what is known as an Expert by Experience. This is someone who has developed a deep understanding of a subject due to encountering it in their daily lives. One person cannot speak for an entire group, but they can give a valuable insight into barriers and situations when discussing experience of New Professionals and recruitment, many of which may be invisible to those with privilege.  

Step three:

Understanding Emotional Labour

In 1986 Arlie Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labour’ in her book The Managed Heart. The term was created to describe the work services workers do that go beyond the physical and the mental. However, it has also been used to describe the energy it required to manage micro-aggression she described it to mean someone who regulates their own feelings and attempts to shape the emotions of others to achieve

It uses a disproportionate amount of emotional resources and leaves the individual drained. This burden is larger when it is an individual of a marginalised group attempting to explain their lived experience to a person with privilege.

When an individual must explain lived experience to persons with privileges an emotional toll is taking place. The person must explain their oppression is detail and may often be faced with questions and comments.

Step four:

Collaboration and Empowerment

Once library professionals have clearer understanding the concepts above they can begin to authentically and respectfully collaborate with groups from underserved groups. Empowered Collaboration can be used to develop training, staffing and retention strategies to dismantle a problematic environment and create a space readily available to all.

This must be done with a fair compensation for the collaborators in the form of knowledge, skills and finances. Collaboration must be facilitated in an accessible environment that feels safe to all involved.

In short; if you want to know how to break down barriers and diversify libraries, ask those who are currently on the outside looking in, compensate us for our time, and work hard to create a welcoming environment.

The next steps for Empowered Collaboration:

Once the toolkit for Empowered Collaboration has been created it will undergo a beta test with a small group of individuals from Special Collection backgrounds. The group will fill out an anonymous questionnaire at the start and end of the experience to provide an analysis into what they have gained from the sessions and what they believe could be improved.

[1] Cilip  (2015) ‘A study of the UK information workforce’ available at:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Office for Nationl statistics (2016)  Sexual Identity, UK, available at: 

[5] Definition: Having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of normal, including, but not limited to, Autism and long term mental health diagnoses. 

[6] USA Today. Published 28/02/2018,

[7] Ibid

[8] David H. Chae, ScD, Amani M. Nuru-Jeter, PhDb, Nancy E. Adler, PhDc, Gene H. Brody, PhDe, Jue Lin, PhDd, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhDd, Elissa S. Epel, PhD(2014) Discrimination, Racial Bias, and Telomere Length in African-American Men

Journal of Preventive Medicine. Volume 46, Issue 2, Pages 103–11

[9] Kid, M. (2016) Archetypes, Stereotypes and Media Representation in a Multi-cultural Society, Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, Volume 236, P 25-28. Available at: 96f37fab70c4&acdnat=1534773433_85eb789dd4697b663bb2b76e3c267938. 

Published by Jass Thethi

I am a Library and Museum professional. I am passionate about fair representation and diversity arts and heritage. I created theconcept of Empowered Collaboration, which describes how to increase diversity by respectful coproduction with under-served groups. I discuss real life experiences of being a minority in arts and heritage and potential ways to diversify collections through my blog and twitter account. All views in this blog are my own and not that of my employer.

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