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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 11. Views from Britain: Case Studies And Comments

Editorial Note

The voice of Black librarians has been conspicuous by its absence in the debate on racism. When it is raised, it is either within the confines of meetings of Black workers or has to be issued anonymously, so oppressive is the situation for Black workers. Case Studies and Comments are anonymous comments about experiences of racism in libraries from 9 Black librarians. They were circulated at the Library Association Conference "Institutional Racism; stamping it out in libraries" at the Library Association, 12 November 1999. Information for Social Change reproduces the Case Studies to make them available to a wider readership.

West Indian, Chartered, East London. 18 years experience

There were five black librarians on section 11 funding in our borough. This funding was abolished, and there was no means for us to be assimilated. Management, after union pressure, decided to create two mainstream posts to replace the five - one on the same grade, one on a lower grade. This resulted in three experienced black librarians losing their jobs and one having to go down a grade. We were marginalised to start with and this experience only served to show how discriminatory management were to black staff and services to ethnic minorities.

West Indian, Chartered, 25 years experience. North London

There was an incident as a college librarian when I was abused, harassed and just short of being physically assaulted by National Front students. I was terrified since I was alone at the site. Luckily a lecturer turned up in time. It became a major issue in the East End of London College. The teachers' union NATFHE supported me and also the Anti-Nazi League. After many months of investigation my boss, the college librarian, informed me that these students were from the department where the assistant head of department was a leading light in the National Front. I got out of that job as quickly as I could, totally disillusioned and very hurt.

Nigerian Librarian, 12 years experience. North London

After taking out a grievance against my boss for not acting correctly according to the local authority's procedures in my case of racial harassment, it was found after further investigation that this manager, a number of years earlier, had been found guilty by Councillors of racial discrimination against another Black British woman librarian. Instead of being dismissed, the only recommendation was that he be debarred from promotion. What hope has the whole system got in overcoming racism when the rot starts from the top and even politicians are involved?

Chartered Nigerian Librarian and consultant, over 30 years experience.

After working in the public library system for many years, I succeeded in getting the post of branch manager over a white colleague. This colleague, who then became my deputy, was intent on not working with me, refused to do anything I asked and undermined me and ridiculed me to junior staff. I protested and sent a complaint to senior management who gave him a series of warnings. The situation did not improve. I felt this was racial harassment, a sackable offence. Eventually all management did was to transfer him to another branch. I have had no apology or investigation of the matter. I believe that if I, as a black man, were found harassing anyone I would be dismissed instantly. How can black professionals get into management and remain there when we are undermined like this?

Jamaican Chartered Librarian, 18 years experience. East London borough

In a general survey carried out by our local authority it was found that there were no blacks in senior management in the library service. I am not surprised. The reason given for this was lack of movement i.e. the senior tier were stuck in posts. I do not accept this reason, however. Whites have been moving in and out of top tier posts for the 15 years I have been there. Black chartered and experienced librarians have never been given a chance.

Chartered Black British Librarian, over 20 years experience. North London borough

I applied, and was interviewed, for the post of Head of Reference Services, a position that I had held in another London borough. I did not get the post but obviously expected it to be awarded to a superior candidate. The post was offered to a colleague, a white librarian on a lower grade with far less experience than me, who had never worked at that level required. When I asked why I had failed, the written reply was that I did not have an adequate knowledge of the literature. I responded demonstrating that I did, and that I felt that I was racially discriminated against. I took legal advice and was told that I did have a case and should approach the CRE. I did not proceed with this however. This matter has now been included as part of a general overall grievance of racial harassment against my manager. Obviously my black face does not fit.

Asian Library Staff from a London borough

In 1983 I joined a public library to work as an assistant. It has been a long and strenuous journey since then. Strenuous, because I found it difficult to come to terms with events taking place around me. I used to be filled with discontentment when I saw colleagues rising up to higher grades and power with the same qualification, skill and experience I have. I feel these colleagues had one qualification more than me, and that is they are ëwhite'.

The initial years of my career had been trying. A fresher like me from a foreign university used to be constantly reminded for not having enough background knowledge of British history. I couldn't understand why British history was so important for an assistant to know. In those days the job of an assistant only included stamping of books, shelving, noting messages from answer phone and checking reserve stock. A small section of Asian language books was introduced for which I did the transliteration. My line manager asked me to translate a few notices for the library from time to time - which later on became a part of my routine job. Years later, when I left this authority to work for some other borough council, I came to know that translation and transliteration are special tasks and an extra hourly fee is paid to the staff for carrying out such tasks. By the time I came to know of this I had already joined another local authority. I wonder if the line manager knew what he was asking me to do as I never received a penny for the job.

The new job was an assistant job where I felt too many people were interested to manage me. Each manager acted as a mini Hitler. I found myself under constant scrutiny under these mini Hitlers. Accountability, liability, reporting to such and such person, and monitoring were common words.

At one point I was passed over for promotion but other managers ganged up to recommend their favourites. Just by the stroke of a pen they could damage anyone's way to promotion. This authority adopted an Equal Opportunities Policy in 1985. I couldn't see any difference with or without EOP, as not a single person has ever been recruited from the black or Asian community since 1985. This policy looks fine on paper but a proper way to implement it is absent. The mini Hitlers are very much everywhere.

I have my own theory of putting things right:

  • I call for greater emphasis on training for managers.
  • They must demonstrate their sense of fairness towards black and Asian staff.
  • Educate staff at all levels that everyone is equal.
  • Equal Opportunity Policy ëis put into practice' (not merely a lip service)
  • Managers in position must have ëlistening ears' and are aware of ëstaff care' (Staff are trained enough on customer care!).
  • There should be an independent referral unit within the Department to deal with claims of race discrimination by staff.

Unless authorities give greater priority to the above issues, inequalities and discrimination will persist.

Comments of an Asian Librarian

The Library Association's statistical information on Ethnic Librarians - numbers and percentage - speaks volumes.

There can be no quality without equality. Asians have their own distinctive languages, culture, religion, history etc. like other ethnic groups. Token Asian librarians still, by and large, work very isolated without any support from the system.

Asian librarians with language skills are discriminated on the pay scale - no honorarium is paid for this unique skill they possess and are required to use.

Mainstreaming has made the system worse in service delivery. Research has shown that though library usage in particular libraries is mainly by Asians, there are no Asian library staff to serve them. Asian users do not get the efficient and effective service they deserve - because of their culture they do not demand. The LA should work closely with CRE to monitor and improve the environment for ethnic minorities. Similarly the Home Office should set up targets, policy etc.

When we plan to promote a specific service e.g. business information to the Asian community, the typical comments from colleagues and managers are "it would create more enquiries we may not be able to handle due to shortage of staff." What does this suggest?

These token Asian librarians work in isolation, are not members of library groups - they do not have any staff to work with or manage - without experience how can they progress? The management structure is such that Asian librarians can never be part of Management.

Asian Librarian of 32 years experience

Academic qualification; MA (Eng. Lit.)

Professional qualification: Bt. (3 years teaching experience)

ALA (Post-graduate Librarianship)

Joined London Borough Library 1966 - worked in Lending, Reference, Junior, A/V, Stock Department and Cataloguing Department till 1976.

In 1977 I was appointed Community Services Librarian under Section 11 on AP4. By 1985 I was responsible for African-Caribbean, Greek, Vietnamese and Chinese - it was ludicrous!

After much argument and frustration a Chinese, an African Caribbean and an Irish Librarian were appointed and in 1987 a Head of Multi-racial Library Services was appointed on PO2.

Unfortunately, by late 80s the Management had changed considerably for the worse - racist Managers were in post! As a result, within 2 years our job descriptions were changed 3 times. Not only that, to add insult to injury, we were demoted! All this happened to only our department - no other department was treated in this shabby manner.

To me it was ëinstitutional racism' at its worst - salami style, they were dumbing down the service. I protested to the Council, the local MP, the LA etc. but nobody lifted a finger to help the department. By 1992 the inevitable happened - the department was scrapped. If this is not ethnic cleansing I don't know what is. The LA Record, especially, should be ashamed of not mentioning a single line on this disaster (I was in contact with the LA throughout the dispute) amid exercising censorship in not publishing my article on the premise that it was libellous! What is the purpose of the LA & LA Record if not to publicise injustice and lend a helping hand to its members? It is a sad reflection that somebody had to die (McPherson Report) before ëinstitutional racism' was included in the agenda.

I took the Borough to the Industrial Tribunal - they chickened out before the hearing and settled. The pity is tax-payers money is being spent to retain racist and incompetent Managers. Institutionalised racism is still alive and kicking in many authorities today.

1993 - to date: working as Ethnic Services Librarian on SO1 (I was on this grade 20 years ago!) though doing the same job as before plus more!

Name me one ëwhite librarian' with my academic and professional qualifications and over 32 years of library service, still on SO1 grade!

Unless Local Authorities and the LA pick up the following challenge:

Prime Minister's commitment of open Local Government and accountability.

Home Secretary's commitment to eradicate institutionalised racism'

The Warwick Report: Chief Librarians' commitment to honour the findings of the Warwick Report to me it is all hot air! It is incumbent on the Government and LA to ëname and shame' poor performing authorities if they really mean business and want the library scene (ethnic minorities) to change for the better in the 21st century.

What happened to equality?

" Ten years ago there were five black and ethnic minority social services directors out of the 120 departments in England and Wales at the time. However, at the beginning of the 21 st century there is only one black social services director out of 180 departments since reorganisation, and this has been the case for the past few years. "

- Audrey Thompson, Community Care No. 1331 20-26 July 2000, p. 22-24


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