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Making the Library More Inclusive by Learning from Black Students

photo of Black and White female students at Duke walking across lawn
First-year students get to know one another while walking across Duke’s East Campus Quad, August 2020. Photo by Jared Lazarus, Duke University Communications.

Duke University Libraries staff are using findings from an in-depth study of Black students to make library spaces and services more welcoming, inclusive, and supportive.

Black undergraduates and graduate students at Duke University contend with campus culture, curricula, and physical spaces that still largely reflect and center white experiences, history, and values. As in much of academia, Duke is a space where Black students rarely see themselves valued or accurately represented. Across disciplines, Black students report systemic bias in instructor behavior and the scholarship assigned and discussed in class. They experience microaggressions in almost every area of life at Duke. These instances of bias reinforce the idea among Black students that their belonging at Duke is limited.

Black students largely view the Duke University Libraries as inclusive spaces in the sense that they meet their diverse learning needs as underrepresented students. However, some aspects of library spaces are unwelcoming because they center white history and culture. Students have reported a general feeling that both Duke and Duke Libraries, while not actively hostile or racist, are complicit in their silence. Students have noted the lack of visible actions and signs supporting diversity and inclusion, minimal efforts to limit white western European cultural dominance, and no attempts to educate white students about minority experiences. Students have expressed doubt that the university or Duke Libraries would take meaningful action if students reported instances of prejudice or microaggression.

Despite efforts to transform the institution, Duke remains a historically white space, and Duke’s past continues to shape the culture of the campus. While the university and library cannot change the fact that these are historically white spaces, library staff can strive to ensure that all students’ voices are heard and aim to make library spaces, services, staff, and resources welcoming and inclusive to everyone. In 2019, the Assessment & User Experience Department at Duke University Libraries worked with Black students to better understand their experiences in the libraries and on campus, and to identify things the libraries could change to increase the positive experiences Black students have with library services, facilities, and materials. The multi-faceted study included a literature review and environmental scan, informational interviews with campus stakeholders, focus groups and Photovoice sessions with Black undergraduates and graduate students, and analysis of library satisfaction survey data focusing on race. (Photovoice is a community-based, participatory research method to gather qualitative data.)

Team members used the results of the research to develop 34 recommendations that address the issues study participants and survey respondents raised. Recommendations include dedicating a library space to Black culture, history, and scholarship; increasing visual representations of people of color in library spaces; and investigating ways to provide curricular support for faculty who wish to include more diverse scholarship in their course materials. Findings were incorporated into a report shared with library staff, campus stakeholders, higher education communities interested in providing support for Black students, and potential donors interested in funding relevant library services.

This study was instrumental in helping library staff understand Black students’ experiences at Duke and with the libraries. In fall 2020, staff began implementing the recommendations for making library services and spaces more supportive, usable, and welcoming for Black students. Examples of efforts underway include creating resources to diversify curricula, researching and proposing a library space dedicated to Black history and scholarship, developing clear policies and a mechanism for reporting harassment in library buildings, and identifying ways to use materials from special collections to increase visual representation of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in library spaces.

This mixed-methods study serves as a model for other libraries that wish to use participatory research methods such as Photovoice to reach users from underrepresented groups. The project also highlights ways to partner with students at every stage of the research process, from literature review to recruitment to discussion groups to analysis.

View the 20-minute presentation on this project and download the slides by Joyce Chapman and Emily Daly of Duke University Libraries, delivered October 29 during the virtual 2020 Library Assessment Conference. For more information about this project, contact Emily Daly or Joyce Chapman.

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