Measuring What Matters
Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in Academic Library Strategic Plans
Equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility have become buzzwords across the higher education sector with leaders at many institutions asserting these as strategic priorities and key values. In our most recent national survey of US academic library directors, conducted in fall 2019, we included new coverage of these important topics. And, now, as we face an academic year that will likely be shaped by budget cuts and re-prioritization, we wonder about the degree to which initiatives focused on these areas will accelerate, stagnate, or wind down.
In the 2019 national survey, only about one-third of academic library directors strongly agreed that their library and institution have well-developed strategies for improving equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility for their employees and in evaluating and making decisions about their collections. Thus, although equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility are often stated priorities, directors are not particularly confident that their strategies are sufficient to achieve organizational goals. Roughly four in ten directors at doctoral universities, however, were confident in their strategies, as compared to 27-32 percent of directors at baccalaureate and master’s institutions.
Given the extent to which leaders at doctoral universities were relatively more confident in these strategies, we conducted a mixed methods analysis of strategic plans at member institutions of the Association of Research Libraries, which represent the majority of “R1” institutions, a subset of doctoral institutions. Our purpose was to examine how they express their prioritization of equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility as well as how they intend to assess progress in each of these key areas. We are interested in expanding the application of this methodology to other institution types and welcome community feedback on future directions.
Of the 124 ARL member institutions, we obtained strategic plans from 74 libraries that reflect the population of our recent national survey of directors—excluding 16 Canadian libraries, eight public libraries, and an additional 26 libraries that either did not include strategic plans on their public website or had outdated plans. For cases in which a library had both a general strategic plan and a strategic plan specifically devoted to equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, we chose the general strategic plan to maintain consistency across all institutions and because we expected that even if an institution had a separate strategic plan for equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, the general strategic would still contain information about these areas if they were considered part of the library’s main priorities.
To analyze the strategic plans, we employed a quantitative text analysis and a qualitative content analysis. The text analysis involved a simplified version of Chung and Pennebaker’s meaning extraction method using the software Meaning Extraction Helper. We searched for the presence or absence of each of 16 search terms including several forms of the keywords equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility (e.g. we searched for equity, equitable, equitably, etc.) as well as words associated with assessment (e.g. assess, analyze, survey, assessment, etc.). We then rolled up these distinct terms into macro-level categories of equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and assessment. Thus, we considered diversity to be present in a strategic plan if it included any of the terms diversity, diverse, or diversify at least once in the text. We did not assess the frequency at which these terms occurred within the plans for this analysis because we did not want to assume that a greater frequency meant a more impactful or successful strategy. Lastly, to delve deeper into the goals and strategies libraries have in these areas, we conducted a content analysis to determine common themes across all plans.
It is widely known that diversity is lacking in academic library personnel, especially in terms of race-ethnicity; 71 percent of library employees overall and 87 percent of senior leaders are white at ARL institutions specifically. In an acknowledgement of this weakness and a commitment to making changes, the overwhelming majority—86 percent—of ARL strategic plans at least include the keyword diversity. Compared to the other thematic areas examined, it is also the most detailed with the greatest amount of content covered. Included in the plans are goals across three levels: internally- or library-focused, campus-wide, and community-based goals.
Internally-focused strategies tend to center on library personnel (both faculty and staff), library users, collections, spaces, and services. The most common strategy identified for enhancing diversity is recruiting and hiring diverse employees, though the plans also include statements about supporting and retaining employees who would add diversity to the library, providing library instruction and services aimed at diverse groups of users, and increasing the capacity of special collections to support their institution’s diversity initiatives. Occasionally, strategic plans assert that the library is already diverse or broadly values diversity, while in other cases they emphasize a focus on diversity of opinion and allowing all voices to be heard rather than representational diversity.
Some plans also discuss diversity strategies related to the larger campus community. These most often include providing events and programming within or sponsored by the library such as a film series on cultural heritage celebrations. In these contexts, the library often collaborates with student centers on campus with a goal to provide services for specific student groups.
Finally, a small number of plans include strategies that provide connection to various communities outside of the institution. Collaborations with local, regional, national, and even international communities are mentioned in a few. One plan outlined partnerships between tribes and campus leadership to provide access to archival collections of Native American resources for use around the world.
The next most commonly-included keyword is accessibility, a term used in 66 percent of the strategic plans. These addressed three related concerns: 1. ensuring the library website is accessible, 2. making sure the physical location is accessible, and 3. discovery of scholarly resources. Given the key function of academic libraries as information organizations, it is unsurprising that providing access to information to all users is a priority.
Website accessibility generally focuses on making the website compatible with screen readers to allow equal access to online materials for both visually disabled and non-disabled users. A few specifically indicate that they are implementing the HathiTrust Print Disability Policy and Services which allows disabled users to get access to digital versions of print materials that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.
For the physical library, a small number of libraries describe their use of universal design principles to ensure that facilities, technologies, and services are all accessible to all people regardless of disability, age, etc. Indeed, many library leaders invest substantially in ensuring library spaces are up to current safety, accessibility, and service standards, though temporarily restricting access to the physical library for renovations is not infrequently met with criticism from scholars when collections are also temporarily moved offsite.
Several strategic plans also discuss discovery and gaining access to collections, both digitally and in person. Much of this planning relates back to that of website and physical accessibility.
Finally, one plan discusses providing an exhibit that highlights a specific disability, in this case speech disfluencies and stuttering, in partnership with their institution’s Speech and Hearing Center.
Equity and Inclusion
Equity and inclusion are discussed in 41 percent and 65 percent of strategic plans respectively. For both of these keywords, the most common usages are in blanket statements about valuing or promoting equity and inclusion or in descriptions of the library as equitable and/or inclusive. Few strategic plans include operationalization of these terms or concrete strategies to improve in these areas. When equity is discussed more specifically, plans point to equity of access to resources (as discussed above), equity in allowing voices to be heard, and transparency related to committees and working groups. For inclusion, plans include discussion of an inclusive environment or community such as ensuring resources, services, and spaces all suit the needs of faculty, staff, and students, and describing spaces as inclusive and welcoming. Some strategic plans also include information about campus-wide programming and meetings intended to create an inclusive environment.
While 72 percent of strategic plans include one of the search terms related to assessment, only 16 percent specifically discuss assessing equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. It is clear that assessment efforts more broadly are being included in plans, with many mentions of gathering data to inform budgetary decisions, tracking library usage, collecting user feedback (e.g. on space planning from student advisory boards), and evaluating the library’s role in teaching and learning. Not everything that matters can be measured, but what leaders choose to measure does at least in part signal what is of importance and what will be managed.
Of those that do discuss equity, diversity, inclusion, and/or accessibility assessment, a few different approaches are mentioned. Surveys and focus groups are used to assess organizational culture and employee engagement. In some cases, instruments are developed internally while others rely on third-party materials such as ClimateQual. Of those who participate in surveys, a few mention benchmarking with peers to assess how well they are doing comparatively. Other assessment efforts include program evaluation of an internship, tracking hiring data, measuring compliance on website accessibility, and developing an inventory of activities related to diversity and inclusion.
Looking to the Future
The strategic plans used in this analysis were developed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past few months, many strategies and priorities of the library have changed dramatically with significant budgetary constraints and cuts taking place and expected in the coming academic year. While many directors have shared with Ithaka S+R a desire to protect staff from job loss and other financial impacts, for some, furloughs and layoffs have already occurred or are inevitable.
This leaves us with a number of questions on how equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility initiatives will be affected in turn. With a greater focus on digital services, employees most at risk of being furloughed or laid off may be those whose jobs are dependent on access to the physical library location such as staff in access services and facilities/operations—and these are two functional areas where there has been relatively more racial-ethnic diversity (66 percent and 62 percent are white non-Hispanic respectively). Will different demographic groups be disparately impacted by cutbacks, accelerating a decline in diversity among ARL libraries? How will inclusive decision making—outlined as important in some strategic plans—be affected by many library workers continuing to work remotely in the coming months? What new roles will the library take on to ensure equitable access to information, especially for students for whom at least some learning is likely to take place virtually in the coming academic year? And, will assessment efforts be increased as institutions seek greater evidence of return on investments given increased budgetary scrutiny?
We will be fielding a national survey of library directors later this summer to continue tracking these and other key areas of strategy and leadership. And, we will continue our work with many institutions as they are pivoting strategically in planning for new services and modes of delivery. Please let us know how we can help as you engage with these issues.