Fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion is an issue of ever-growing importance in libraries and archives but to what extent can these principles be universally applied? At Ithaka S+R we recently fielded a study on representation in the New York cultural sector and are now working on a study on representation within the academic library community. I have also experienced the palpable interest in these issues in the library and archives sphere first hand through two conferences I recently attended, the annual American Theological Library Association (ATLA) conference and the annual Society of American Archivists (SAA) conference. While both conferences placed an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion through dedicated keynotes and additional programming, my opportunity to experience both highlighted a key issue: working at or with faith-oriented institutions presents unique challenges when thinking through what diversity, equity, and inclusion means.

A commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in libraries and archives can manifest in a variety of ways. At the institutional level, there may be projects to increase representation amongst collections and patrons, often through outreach initiatives. As Chris Taylor, head of inclusion and community engagement for the Minnesota Historical Society, emphasized in his keynote at last week’s SAA conference, fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion within libraries, archives, and museums also means being attuned to representational issues among staff. The work of organizations like the SAA and ATLA, at their conferences and through committee work, also demonstrates how diversity, equity, and inclusion must also be addressed by efforts within the professional organizational bodies to understand representational issues across the professions and encourage members to also work on these issues.

What does diversity, equity, and inclusion mean when working at or with faith-oriented institutions where the religious protections guaranteed to these institutions supersede individuals’ academic freedom? In these institutions, which include universities, standalone seminaries, and theology schools with explicit faith missions, certain mainstream conceptions of diversity, equity, and inclusion may not be possible for several reasons. Students and staff, including both professors and librarians, may have to sign statements of faith, which circumvents institutions including those who do not adhere to the beliefs and practices associated with that faith. Furthermore, staff may be prevented from providing resources and services that do not adhere to their institution’s beliefs and practices. As a result, within this institutional landscape there are currently some institutions where faith-orientation strongly aligns with mainstream understandings of diversity, equity, and inclusion and these principles have been adopted, other institutions where some elements have been adapted, and yet other institutions where these principles are not and cannot be included in a mission statement.

Debates around the relationship between religious and academic freedom in these institutions and the implications for their associated academic disciplines, such as religious studies and biblical studies, are ongoing and fraught, necessitating careful navigation by the professional organizations that serve those scholars. In order to circumvent those debates, ATLA’s work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as evidenced by their recent conference programming, focuses on how these principles can be embodied within ATLA and across ATLA’s membership. This community struggles with similar representational issues faced by the library and archives professions more widely, such as being white-dominated and skewing older, but these issues are further inflected through representational issues pertaining to religion in America, most notably, the dominance of mainline Christian denominations and the complexities of creating a safe space for those who are marginalized by particular religious worldviews, such as the LGBT community. Another challenge is that the concept of tolerance is not only not equivalent to a commitment to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion but also arguably contradictory to those aims. As the conference’s keynote by Professor Rahuldeep Gill emphasized, fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion within the ATLA community will be hard and deeply uncomfortable.

A lunch coordinated by the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee further enabled members to participate in small-group discussions where they could begin to share and discuss their perspectives on this challenging work and ATLA’s ongoing approach. For example, ATLA also worked hard to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion was embodied in the Ithaka S+R study they are sponsoring on the research support needs of religious studies scholars alongside the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion (AAR).  This sponsorship enabled us to include some institutions at low to no cost, which enabled a greater variety of institutions to participate in the project. ATLA also provided staff to conduct additional interviews so that we can gather perspectives from scholars that would still be under-represented in the sample, most notably Islamic Studies scholars and scholars from historically black colleges and universities.

The unique challenges faced when working with or at faith-oriented institutions whose mandates might prohibit efforts at universal diversity, inclusion, or equity place in relief the changing nature of academic and other institutions and their relations to the world beyond them. As diversity, equity, and inclusion continues to be increasingly prioritized in libraries and archives, ATLA’s recent efforts highlight how attending to these issues in organizations that include faith-oriented institutions will be difficult but necessary.