Walk into any library these days and you are liable to see a cheerful poster proclaiming that libraries are for everyone. Three University of New Mexico librarians are working to make sure that ideal is a reality, through a practice of cultural humility. 

“It’s a way of working with other people in an organization to make positive change,” Sarah Kostelecky, associate professor and director of Digital Initiatives and Scholarly Communication in the College of University Libraries and Learning Sciences (CULLS) said. “It’s a way of being aware of structural inequities and committing to redress them.” 

Kostelecky, along with Lori Townsend and David Hurley, both associate professors in CULLS, recently published Cultural Humility and Hopeful Visions, Practical Actions: Cultural Humility in Library Work.

 “The first book explains the concept and how it applies to libraries. The second is a collection of chapters written by librarians around the country, and the world, sharing how they see or use cultural humility in their work,” Townsend said. 

The team first encountered cultural humility in 2015 as an idea from medical professionals. From there, it inspired years of hard work and research.

“Healthcare has the same issue that libraries have, where the profession is much less diverse than the population it serves,” Hurley said. “When we read about cultural humility, we thought ‘hey, this would make a lot of sense for the library world as well.’”       

According to research from Ithaka, 85% of librarians are white. That fact stuck with Hurley and the team, when looking at cultural humility, and the population they serve.

“It really is inclusive because it is recognizing that all of us have a culture and norms that we value and use in daily life, and that all of us are individuals,” Townsend said. 

The authors see cultural humility as an approach to improving equity, diversity and inclusion at libraries, universities, and similar organizations.

“When you practice cultural humility, you orient yourself to the person you are interacting with, and the aspects of their identity that are most important to them, while being aware that you may not know all the ways their, and your, cultures and norms are impacting the situation,”  Kostelecky said.

UNM is one of the few R1 universities that is also classified as a minority institution, which Hurley said provided an ideal base for their research. 

“I think being at UNM and being in New Mexico has very much influenced our thinking,” he said. “This is a very diverse place with a lot of different cultures interacting, and a lot of history impacting those interactions.” 

“You have to be listening to what people are telling you. You keep listening. You don’t make assumptions or jump to conclusions based on your perspective. You prioritize their perspective to understand where they are coming from.” – Lori Townsend 

One of the hardest things, they say, which is highlighted in the book, is for people to let go of their defensiveness.

“When you get defensive, you make it about you when usually whatever it is, it isn’t really about you. You have to decenter yourself and your way of seeing things,” Hurley said. 

The ideas that make up cultural humility are simple, but that doesn’t mean putting it into practice is easy.  

“That’s what Hopeful Visions, Practical Actions is about. We wanted to give people a chance to see what practicing cultural humility really looks like in everything from helping with research questions, to writing grants, to choosing children’s books,” Kostelecky said.  “We have people contributing from large academic libraries, rural public libraries, library schools where people study to become librarians, and more.” 

Both books are meant to be about inspiration rather than mastery. Cultural humility is not a one-time fix. Kostelecky said it’s easily a lifelong practice.

“There’s no endpoint, no ‘Ok, got it, I’m culturally humble now. That can be challenging for people who want to be able to master some skills with training or education,” Townsend said. “When you practice cultural humility, you are always learning from somebody or something else, and maybe needing to reexamine things you thought you already learned.”

You can find Cultural Humility and Hopeful Visions, Practical Actions: Cultural Humility in Library Work from these College of University Libraries and Learning Sciences online now.