Ethnic Minority Collections

According to the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) statement on race, there is very little genetic difference between human races. (2011) However, this has not prevented racism from persisting.  Lizbet Simmons traces countless incidents of racism against minority students in her article: End of the line: Tracing racial inequality from schools to prison. (2009)  In 2011, NPR released a story outlining how Native American children in South Dakota were singled out and unfairly taken into foster care by the state. (Sullivan, L. & Walters, A., 2011) NPR also released statistics demonstrating the disproportionate number of minority children in foster care versus the numbers of white children in foster care. (Padilla, J. & Summers, A., 2011) The AAA’s statement on race concludes by saying:

“The racial worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power and wealth.  The tragedy in the United States has been that these policies and practices succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans and people of African descent.”  (2011)

Inequalities seen between races are not due to biological differences; rather, they are due to a deeply embedded tradition of discrimination.

One area of inequality is within our systems for storing knowledge and history.  Minorities in the United States are inadequately represented in libraries and archives.  Native languages are underrepresented. Cultures and histories are underrepresented. (Bainbridge, D., Dewsnip, M., Nichols, D.M., & Witten, T.T.K. 2005 and Josey, 2002) Groups of people are isolated and forgotten by our collective failure to notice them even though it is our responsibility as information professionals to document them and provide equal access to information for all people.  It is not difficult to find writers who are willing to illustrate this problem, but active solutions to this problem are few.

The lack of active solutions may come from how complex the problem is.  We are aware of how inaccurate history is when it is written by the victors and the victors in this situation are the ethnic majority.  The problem is: who else can enact a solution other those who control the libraries and archives (the ethnic majority)?  The problem is funding.  The problem is in the lack of diversity among information professionals in our libraries and archives.  The problem is in the ethnic majority denying that there is a problem.  The problem is complex.  The following will outline why documenting ethnic minorities is important and it will review the problems surrounding this type of endeavor.  After this, examples of efforts that are already in effect to remedy this problem will be presented.  The study will conclude by highlighting what must be done and present suggestions for further research and action.

Why is it important to create ethnic minority collections?

In 1942, the United State found itself in the middle of World War II.  With the majority of the workforce deployed in the war effort, there were few people left to execute jobs like farming.  Because of this, the United States partnered with Mexico and enacted the Braceros Program which granted temporary work visas to Mexican immigrant workers.  The program lasted from 1942 – 1964.  The program also mandated that 10% of the workers earnings would be withheld and they could retrieve it when they returned to Mexico at the end of their employment (an incentive to go home).  An estimated $32 million dollars was withheld and when the workers did get home, their money was gone.  One audit from 1947 showed that BanRual (the bank in Mexico designated to disperse the money) used the money to fund daily operations.  Other records showed the braceros’ complaints about the missing money; still, the braceros were not repaid.  In 2001, US District Judge Charles Breyer held that the money had been stolen, but threw the case out because the statute of limitations had expired.  The Mexican government is offering to pay some restitution (albeit a small fraction of what they were owed), if the braceros provide five to eight items of documentation proving their claim.  The requested documentation generally does not exist due to poor records management.  (Osorio, 2005)

When we needed able workers, the braceros assisted us.  The braceros helped us in spite of discrimination, low wages and abuse.  (Osorio, 2005)  But when it came time to repay them, we knew they were not paid but we did nothing.  The money withheld from them is the difference between a semi-comfortable retirement and no retirement.  If proper records had been kept, they would be able to prove their claim today, but no one stored these records.  If for nothing else, it is important to document minorities to protect them from being taken advantage of.  The braceros case is not the only one.  Lloyd sites a case that involved the Australian government requiring archivists to destroy files about the government separating indigenous children from their families.  The files were destroyed because the file’s “contents would embarrass the government.” (Lloyd, 2007) Osorio similarly sites that many of the records that documented what happened to the braceros’ money “disappeared.” (2005)

While it is important to document minorities to save and respect their culture, it is equally important to document minorities in an effort to protect their basic civil rights.  If I need a past tax form or pay stub – I can call my previous employer to retrieve this information, the braceros cannot.  Archives, libraries and museums must play an active part in protecting minorities by keeping proper records and standing up against those who hope to erase them.  By failing to keep proper records, we risk losing the cultural richness that they bring into our society and we open them up to severe injustices.  The measure of a society is found in the way that it cares for its weakest members.  (Buck, 1954) We are obligated to care for every member of our society.

What problems surround creating ethnic minorities collections?

When creating any collection, the problem of determining significance becomes an issue, especially to those hoping to document specific groups like ethnic minorities.  The problem of significance outlines the difficulty of selecting material and by default, determining what it is important for someone else.  In determining significance, we subjectively design reality and manufacture memories.  (Lloyd, 2007) This is what happened when the Australian archive was asked to destroy embarrassing documents-they created a false history by erasing past acts.  In the United States we have seen this happen in how we teach our children about the pilgrims who came to this country and had a happy Thanksgiving feast with the natives (while forgetting to mention the sickness, theft and murder we inflicted upon the natives).  Finally, omitting significant details is not a problem of the past.  E.J. Josey writes that people in the United States have forgotten how terrible our racial history is and that people are moving forward to believe that anti-discrimination laws have created a fair/equal playing field for all people. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in; this is a manufactured truth of what we would like our reality to be. (2002)

According to Lloyd, librarians have traditionally showed little interest in the concept of significance.  Possible reasons for the lack of concern are limited budgets and limited space. (2007)  Even within my own university, I have heard management outside the library assume the library can operate on a budget of $125,000 per year when our databases alone cost $2,000,000 per year.  It is understandable why a librarian might fail to invest time investigating significance when he/she is fighting to demonstrate the worth of the collection he/she already has.  With this in mind however, the reality represented in the library may be more of a reflection of limited resources rather than an accurate depiction of our culture and history.

Another similar problem facing those who hope to document ethnic minorities are the demographics of most librarians.  The majority of librarians are older white females.  We do not want history to be written by the victors, but libraries and archives have traditionally been dominated by white professionals: the ethnic majority.  In a review of library programs from 1997-1998, Josey remarks that there are too few minorities working in libraries and this lack of diversity within libraries is unacceptable. (2002)  However, according to a study conducted by Bisher, Manjarrez and Ray, from 2003-2005 significant efforts were made to increase diversity within libraries and now ethnic minorities make up 1 out of every 5 librarians; though the authors also state that these statistics are questionable due to irregularities in reporting. (2010)  Still, the statistics that the report suggests are encouraging considering that ethnic minorities make up roughly 1 out of 5 US citizens (20%). (CIA World Factbook, 2011)

However, the efforts toward increasing diversity among library staff are far from complete.  I recently did an observation study at the Plant City Burton Public Library.  I sat in a discrete location and recorded interactions in the library for 30 minutes.  I noticed two older white female library workers but the vast majority of patrons were ethnic minorities: Hispanic/Latino, African American/black, Indian etc.  There were some white patrons, but they were few and far between.  I also work with three libraries in the Lakeland area and while I am aware of one Hispanic/Latino librarian working in one of those libraries that is far from what I would consider a diverse library system.  Efforts to create more ethnic diversity within library professionals must continue.

Finally, multicultural and multilingual collections are still topics of harsh debate.  Author M. Schlesinger (a prominent American historian) writes that unchecked multiculturalism will lead to separatism and the “tribalization of American life” and that if someone wanted to disable black Americans all they would need to do was create an “Afrocentric curriculum.”  (1991) In 2008, Stephens wrote that in “creating bilingual libraries, librarians are undermining the American democracy.” Thankfully, these sentiments do not go unchecked.  Joesy responded to Schlesinger by illustrating that in the United States, there are 106 ethnic groups that “autonomously participate in the development of their culture or special interests within the confines of their common cultural heritage.” (2002) Comments like Schlesinger and Stephen’s are symptomatic of a majority ethnic culture that is all too eager to forget its history of racial transgressions.  They would prefer to assume the country is currently a place where everyone has equal opportunities and that anti-discrimination laws have eradicated prejudice.  But the truth is, our history of racism is still fresh and while we are not engaged in public beatings of minorities, covert forms of racism still persist.  Part of this covert racism exists in our libraries and archives when we fail to properly document and represent the people our codes of ethics require us to protect.

What projects are currently in place?

The IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations) created a multicultural library manifesto to help guide and teach librarians how to create multicultural and multilingual collections.  To paraphrase, the manifesto encourages librarians to focus on promoting the value of cultural and linguistic diversity, preserving cultural and linguistic history, preserving oral traditions, encouraging the participation of the community in this process and utilizing current technologies to facilitate this process. (2011) Some organizations have already started innovative programs with this type of mission in mind.

One method currently in place for documenting ethnic minorities is simply collecting raw data.  Both the Resource Center for Minority Data (RCMD) in the United States and the National Ethnic Minority Data Archive (NEMDA) in the United Kingdom have tested this type of collection.  The value in this type of archive is that it provides researchers with the data needed so they can produce studies like the one sited above by Bisher, Manjarrez, and Ray.  Without the collection of raw data about ethnic minorities, it is hard to know if we are or are not moving towards a more ethnically diverse and welcoming community.

The most unique current collection highlighting multicultural diversity is The Story of Race which was a collaborative effort of the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota.  The Story of Race is the first nationally traveling exhibition that addresses issues of race from a biological, cultural and historical perspective.  This exhibit has many collections and activities.  One interesting piece of the collection is the investigation of the sickle cell disease.  While many people consider this to be a “black disease” nothing could be farther from the truth.  The genetic sickle cell variation actually stems from an evolutionary gentic trait developed as a resistance to malaria.  Because malaria was a bigger biological threat to humans than sickle cell, the genetic variation endured.  Having a darker skin tone is a coincidence, it is not the cause. (AAA, 2011) Exhibitions like The Story of Race work to educate people to develop a more ethnically diverse community by eliminating false truths that continue the myths of race based inequality.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has the most innovative program involving multicultural material.  In 1992, UNESCO started the Memory of the World program.  The purpose of this program is to preserve the world’s cultural heritage, assist in universal access to this information and increase awareness of the value of our multicultural history. (UNESCO, 2011)  In addition to providing a digital format and place for people and institutions to place documents of cultural significance, the project also endeavors to protect and preserve libraries and archives in danger of extinction.  The project is awe inspiring and is dedicated to the same values outlined in IFLA’s multicultural library manifesto.

What further steps can be taken to create ethnic minority collections?

The above examples are excellent efforts toward creating multicultural collections. However, with respect to creating collections for and about ethnic minorities in the United States, problems of significance and diversity within librarianship are still hurdles that must be dealt with.  The IFLA suggests that librarians include the participation of the ethnic minority in the development of the ethnic minority collection.  By including the ethnic minority in the development of an ethnic minority collection, the problem of significance would start to resolve itself because history would be written by the community rather than by the victors.

Also, by involving ethnic minorities in the development of collections that are about their culture, this may empower ethnic minorities to try careers as librarians or archivists.  While statistics indicate we are heading in the right direction, we must continue working toward a more diverse population of librarians.  According to a recent demographic study in 2011, the majority of minority babies born in the United States exceeded the number of white babies.  Thus, the minority is becoming the majority (NPR, 2011) Until we achieve ethnic diversity, involving ethnic minorities in the development of ethnic minority collections is the best way to resolve both the problem of significance and the lack of diversity.

As Lloyd pointed out, most of the time librarians are not able to deal with significance or ethnic minority collections because they do not have enough resources to do so.  I work at the University of South Florida Polytechnic and our library is so small I can walk from one end to the other in less than 10 seconds.  We do not have enough space to house a proper ethnic minority collection.  To increase our access to multicultural collections we depend on internet resources like the International Children’s Digital Library. (2011) But we could do more.  Libraries in one community could easily connect via a wiki or a common blog to share resources with each other and the community.  Or, a library community could collectively invest in one digital repository for storing an ethnic minority collection in the same manner UNESCO operates their Memory of the World program. While this seems like an impossible endeavor, it is possible if multiple libraries pooled their resources.

No matter how necessary it is to promote cultural diversity in libraries and create collections to preserve the culture of ethnic minorities there will always be a Schlesinger or a Stephens around to dismiss the effort as needless or anti-American.  As long as people are willing to fight against multicultural libraries, we must make more conscious efforts to fight for them.  We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap of collective amnesia and forget the cultural richness that our country embodies.  I, the middle-class white girl, need to be exposed to my Hispanic/ African American/ Arab/ Indian/ Native American cousin’s heritage.  I need it because being exposed to new cultures enhances my culture and my creativity.  I need it because being exposed to new cultures solidifies my place as a resident of a multicultural world.  We need this because understanding other cultures helps us move toward a more just and peaceful world.


  • Bainbridge, D., Dewsnip, M., Nichols, D.M., & Witten, T.T.K. (2005). Digital libraries and minority languages.  New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 11(2), 139-155.
  • Bisher, K., Manjarrez, C. A., & Ray, J. (2010) A demographic overview of the current and projected library workforce and the impact of federal funding.  Library Trends, 59, 1-2.
  • Buck, P. (1954) My several worlds.  New York: Day Press
  • Bowser, B.P., Jones, T. & Young, G.A. (1995) Toward the multicultural university.  Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
  • Laszlo, E.  (1993). The multicultural planet: The report of the UNESCO international expert group.  Oxford, England: Oneworld
  • Lloyd, A.  (2007). Guarding against cultural amnesia? Making significance problemactic: An exploration of issues.  Library Trends, 56(1), 53-65.
  • Osorio, J.  (2005).  Proof of a life lived: The plight of the braceros and what it says about how we treat records.  Archival Issues, 29(2), 95-103.
  • Owen, D. (1992) Creating a national ethnic minority data archive (NEMDA) for the United Kingdom.  Assignation 10(1).
  • Simmond, L.  (2009). End of the line: Tracing racial inequality from schools to prison. Multidisciplinary Global Perspectives.  2(2), 215-241.
  • Schlesinger, A.M. (1991). The cult of ethnicity, food and bad.  Time 138 (1)
  • Stephens, J. (2008).  English Spoken Here.   American Libraries 38(10), 41, 43-4.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: