Diversity & Inclusion at the iSchool

The College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland was founded in the 1960s with an overtly activist mission.


The UMD iSchool is a notably welcoming and encouraging environment, with members of the college community representing a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.

In the past few years, surveys taken of the College students, faculty, staff, and alumni have shown the College to have embraced diversity and inclusion as central to the mission of the school. The numbers of students in the MLS program who identify as LGBTQ or a person with a disability, for example, are far above the national averages. Many iSchool students at the University of Maryland – regardless of their educational focus – have listed the emphasis on diversity and inclusion as a main reason for choosing to enroll here.

College Climate Survey

In the spring semester of 2013, a Diversity Climate Assessment Survey about the College of Information Studies was made available for a period of six weeks.  As part of the College’s ongoing efforts to ensure that diversity and inclusiveness are woven into all aspects of the College environment, the goal of the survey was to better understand how members of the College community perceive the current state of diversity and inclusion. The survey provided the opportunity to get not only a sense of perceptions of diversity and inclusion within the College, but also a detailed picture of the diversity within the members of the College community. Read about the survey results.

The History of Activism at the iSchool

The College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland was founded in the 1960s with an overtly activist mission, with the founding dean and faculty focused on the ways in which libraries and other information institutions could serve as agents of social responsibility and community good. The many innovative efforts to promote diversity, inclusion, and social justice had a significant impact on the profession of and education in library and information science.

Dean WassermanThe University of Maryland’s School of Library and Information Services (the original name of what is now the College of Information Studies) began at its founding in 1965 with an agenda focused on bringing information to communities that were typically ignored by libraries and expanding the range of people who joined the library and information science professions. Paul Wasserman, the founding Dean of the School, and faculty members such as Mary Lee Bundy, James Welbourne, and Richard Moses focused the early years of the School on truly innovative – and in some cases audacious – projects to alter the ways in which libraries and information functioned in communities.

Many years later, reflecting on the daring of the School’s early years, the great F. William Summers identified the School as the first library and information science program to fully embrace the “social gospel” and focus on “identifying and addressing the manifold social needs of the community” as the heart of the education program. Or, as Wasserman summarized the goals of the School, faculty and students from the School “formed the vanguard of the activist movement [in librarianship] by demanding social responsibility from the American Library Association.”

Within the first few years of launching the School, the faculty had established three major initiatives to broaden the inclusiveness of library and information science education and practice.

1) The School created an office to recruit students and faculty from underrepresented populations in library and information fields. Several members of the faculty and staff of the School were drawn from urban library systems in the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia as a result of these efforts. The School also became the first library and information science program to have a scholarship program specifically for students from populations underrepresented in the field. Shortly after founding the School, Paul Wasserman wrote that the duty of the School was to “equip human beings who are both competent and committed to expanding the potential of man, of our culture and our society.” This belief was reflected in many courses focused on special populations – people with disabilities, prisoners, the urban poor – that were developed at the School in its early years and that influenced subsequent course offerings at many other library and information science programs.

2) The School designed an Urban Information Specialist Program specifically to prepare librarians to work in high poverty, urban areas. This Specialist Program was a 36-hour Master of Library Science (MLS) degree program entirely focused on the information needs of residents of urban areas. The majority of the students in the program were from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds. Program design and financial support for the first students in the program came from a grant from the federal government.

3) A partnership was established with the Enoch Pratt Free Library of the City of Baltimore to create a “public information center” in the city to serve as a clearinghouse of information related to health, housing, education, police and emergency services, consumer affairs, employment, and government in general. The public information center was established in a high poverty area of Baltimore and featured large amounts of information related to daily life information needs and as well as telephone-based reference services.

Outside of the School itself, several members of the faculty founded a non-profit corporation to create materials for improving the conditions of the urban poor. Through this non-profit entity, faculty members created publications and provided training and consulting services to libraries and other organizations. Very much a do-it-yourself operation, the nonprofit nevertheless managed to produce a series of publications and kits and even ran conferences on the topic of improving equality for the urban poor.

In 1967, the School established it's own public library as an experiment to see if a library could function as a resource and community center for a community with limited access to resources and information. The School established the High John Library in Fairmount Heights, a largely Black neighborhood with high levels of poverty and limited information and educational resources located in Prince George’s County, MD, less than ten miles from the UMD campus in College Park.

High John LibraryWith Richard Moses and Mary Lee Bundy as its directors, the library was designed to serve the needs of the local community while also serving as a learning lab for students in the MLS program. For community members, the library provided information resources that were otherwise not easily available to them. For MLS students, the library was the ultimate field study experience. For the School’s faculty, the library was a chance to try out new ways to make the library services relevant in an urban community with a wealth of poverty and a dearth of resources.

The utterly unprecedented nature of the High John Library (named after an African American folk hero from the era of slavery) raised controversy in the field of librarianship, seen as a public challenge to the entire field. Critics at that time, when libraries were viewed as sanctified archives of literature and did not engage with their communities, attacked High John for overstepping the boundaries of the library profession. Some argued that libraries should not serve poor communities altogether and that library students certainly should not be educated specifically to work in such communities. The High John Library was even criticized for using language and terminology in its literature that was tailored to the community.

Pushback on the concept of the High John Library was also fueled by the bold activism of the faculty and students involved. They organized and staged a series of protests at the ALA conference to pressure the ALA to create the Social Responsibilities Roundtable (to bring greater field-wide attention to issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion) and drove around the South in a truck emblazed with the High John Library logo to publicly shame libraries that still practiced de facto segregation.

Despite criticisms of the radical nature of the High John Library, students and faculty continued to use it as a test case for many new approaches to outreach and community services. The library held outdoor rock concerts, projected movies on the outside walls of the building, and used surrealist promotions – “Read 1,000 books and win an alligator!” – among many ways to creatively reach the community.

Contradictory to its goals, the library fundamentally failed to connect with the local community and struggled to maintain staffing and resources. In 1970, the High John Library was absorbed into the local public library system, ending its life as an experiment in library activism. Looking back, a major failure of the project was the lack of co-design with the local community. Services were based on expectations and assumptions about the community made by the experiment’s facilitators. The facilitators themselves were also predominantly white and did not reflect the diversity of those they aimed to support. Ultimately, the local residents did not embrace the library as a part of their community.

The High John Library remains the only attempt made by a library and information science program to run a public library as a central part of its educational and public service mission.

The College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland and the Citizens for Maryland Libraries (CML) – a Maryland non-profit organization – jointly present the James Partridge Outstanding African American Information Professional Award each year. The award recognizes information professionals who exemplify the highest ideals of the library/information profession, including career-long dedicated service, leadership, and a commitment to the empowerment of those whom they serve. Established in 1997, the award has recognized nearly two dozen extraordinary pioneers in the field of library and information science. Click here to view past recipients of this award.

To Learn More: D. Barlow & P. T. Jaeger (Eds.), Celebrating the James Partridge Award: Essays toward the development of a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable field of library and information science (pp. 21-32). London: Emerald.

The activist ethos of the early years of the College had an enormous impact on the education of future library and information science professionals and the activities of current professionals and institutions. The focus on social responsibility, outreach, meeting community needs, and courses and programs that emphasized serving the needs of diverse populations significantly shaped the field as it is today.

The School – now the College of Information Studies or the University of Maryland iSchool – is still devoted to efforts to promote diversity, inclusion, and justice. The approaches have changed over time, but the goals remain the same. The College now has an undergraduate degree, three Master’s degree programs, and a doctoral program, with diversity and inclusion being strong themes across the College’s degree programs.

Land Acknowledgement

Every community owes its existence and strength to the generations before them, around the world, who contributed their hopes, dreams, and energy into making the history that led to this moment. Some were brought here against their will, some were drawn to migrate from their homes in hope of a better life, and some have lived on this land for more generations than can be counted. Truth and acknowledgment are critical in building mutual respect and connections across all barriers of heritage and difference.


At the College of Information Studies, we believe it is important to create dialogue to honor those that have been historically and systemically disenfranchised. So, we acknowledge the truth that is often buried: We are on the ancestral lands of the Piscataway People, who were among the first in the Western Hemisphere. We are on indigenous land that was stolen from the Piscataway People by European colonists. We pay respects to Piscataway elders and ancestors. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that bring us together here today.

The land acknowledgment we use was organized by Ghonva Ghauri from MICA and approved by Piscataway elders.

In addition to teaching, service, and research, the iSchool has several positions and organizations specifically devoted to promoting and celebrating diversity and inclusion in the iSchool and connecting the iSchool to wider university, local, state, national, and international communities.

  • Renee Hill, Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Faculty Equity Administrator - Coordinates efforts related to diversity and inclusion in the iSchool, serves as the primary representative of the iSchool on campus-wide and broader community initiatives, and is primarily responsible for monitoring and evaluating diversity efforts at the iSchool. 
  • Kibbi Henderson, Associate Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Staff Equity Administrator - Ensures that considerations of diversity and inclusion are central to hiring and personnel decisions at the iSchool, coordinates diversity training for personnel, and identifies additional opportunities to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
  • The Diversity Committee - Collaborates to lead efforts related to the iSchool’s ability to inclusively engage and meet the needs of all faculty, staff, students, and partners. This includes, but is not limited to, promoting awareness of diversity issues within the College; facilitating efforts to increase the representation of underrepresented populations among the students, staff, faculty, and partners; arranging for the College to work with organizations and be represented at diversity events; and coordinating the James Partridge Award.

The iSchool also is home to iDiversity, an organization for iSchool graduate students interested in inclusion information practice and diversification of the information professions. iDiversity hosts a range of talks and events on these topics. The activities of the organization include providing information literacy tutoring at local educational institutions, helping local libraries with fundraising, building free libraries for communities with no local library access, and other advocacy projects. You can follow iDiversity on Twitter at @iDiversityUMD #iDiversity or go to their website at idiversity.umd.edu.

Questions?

For any questions or suggestions about diversity and inclusion efforts at the College, please contact the iSchool’s Diversity Officers, listed above.