Libraries have a diversity problem, and it isn’t the one you’re thinking of. It’s no secret that librarianship has issues with diversity. It’s an overwhelmingly white, female profession that carries with it a set of biases that could be problematic. The most recent statistical information I could find on the racial makeup of our profession was from the ALA’s 2009-2010 American Community Survey Estimates Applied to Institute for Museum and Library Services and National Center for Education Statistics Data, updated in 2012. While a bit dated, the numbers were still disturbing: of 118,666 surveyed librarians, 104,392 were white. I’m a male librarian and Latino. There were only 522 members of our profession in that category.

But while the issues relating to race in librarianship are widely known, that’s not the diversity problem I’m focused on these days. The diversity issue that’s almost completely unaddressed is disability in librarianship. Specifically, I’m currently looking at neurodiverse librarianship, and I’m sad to report there is almost no support for neurodiverse members of our profession.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I consider myself neurotypical, though I am bipolar (which isn’t clearly defined as neurodivergent, but likely counts). I have two autistic children (both have been formally diagnosed). And I’m positive that I’ve worked with neurodivergent colleagues in libraries over the years. Whether these colleagues were undiagnosed adults or masking their neurodiversity, I don’t know. But in the past few months, I’ve become very interested in this aspect of our profession. I’m aware that there’s a general deficit in librarianship in creating a welcoming environment for employees with disabilities (more on that another time) but the nature of neurodiversity means it can easily be passed over without notice.

According to the CDC, 1 in 54 children are autistic. Autism occurs across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic boundaries. The Department of Labor says:

Americans on the autism spectrum experience substantial challenges to attaining competitive integrated employment opportunities that match their interests, gifts, and talents. They experience substantial unemployment and underemployment, according to the research literature. Adults and youth on the autism spectrum also experience barriers to completing postsecondary education and training opportunities, accessing healthcare, and attaining integrating community living.

U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Policy: Autism

Autistic children become autistic adults. It’s highly likely that autistic librarians are among us, but there isn’t any movement toward the design of truly neurodiverse workplaces. But it’s not as if libraries need to develop this sort of design on their own. We can take our cues from the private sector and academia, both of which are beginning to find avenues of tapping into the deep well of quality work that the neurodivergent offer the workforce. William & Mary recently held an engaging session on the topic of neurodiversity in employment as part of a program that W&M runs to assist autistic students adjust to life on campus and move on to gainful employment.

I found the session to be enlightening, especially in the observations by John Elder Robison when he pointed out that workplace accommodations made for autism are things that better the situation of all employees. Accommodations such as providing diffuse lighting and quiet spaces away from noisy environments are actually quite helpful for neurotypical counterparts as well.

There is, however, a much larger elephant in the room when it comes to neurodiversity and librarianship. That’s hiring practices and entry to the profession as a whole. I have rising doubts about the utility of the master’s degree as a gatekeeper to the profession. The masters, in my view, serves to filter out many people from the profession who would otherwise make terrific librarians. But that’s also a topic for another time.

Aside from the issue of education, our hiring practices are designed along traditional lines, with a heavy emphasis on interpersonal communication and interviewing skills. These are areas where autistic candidates may struggle. Do we accommodate disabilities in our hiring practices? It certainly doesn’t receive heavy emphasis. I’ve had a lot of job interviews in libraries, and these are the sorts of things I’ve found when interviewing:

  • Candidate placed alone in front of a group of three or more interviewers
  • Candidate given a list of questions to be asked about five minutes before the interview begins
  • Candidate is asked to describe how they would do the job
  • Candidate asked a “gotcha” question
  • Interview panel gave the candidate limited time to answer or to ask questions

None of the above practices are problematic in themselves, but we have to recognize that we are effectively putting a whole segment of the population at a disadvantage. We’re filtering outc andidates when we should be taking steps to design the process to find the best candidate regardless of their disabilities.

All of these (admittedly disjointed) thoughts barely scratch the surface of the problem. The ALA’s resources on neurodiversity encompasses a couple of resource pages on serving autistic children and nothing on other neurodivergent groups. The professional literature is almost devoid of any mention of neurodiversity or autism in the profession (there are a couple of exceptions, but this definitely needs to be rectified). I’ll be writing more about this in the future; for now, it’s enough to know that I have a lot more to learn. And so does the library profession.