Research on Competency Content Area 7: Cultural Competency and Responsiveness

Authored by the YALSA Research Committee

This post is part of the YALSA Research Committee’s efforts to shed light on some current research related to the Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff. Here, we’ll briefly review some scholarship that addresses competency content area number seven: cultural competency and responsiveness, described in the standards as “actively promot[ing] respect for cultural diversity and creat[ing] an inclusive, welcoming, and respectful library atmosphere that embraces diversity.”

Despite the increasing emphasis placed on diversity and cultural competency by institutions such as ALA and YALSA, research conducted by Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Julie Stivers (2015) uncovers an unpleasant reality. The findings of their recent study, “Examining Youth Services Librarians’ Perceptions of Cultural Knowledge as an Integral Part of their Professional Practice,” indicate that youth services librarians either do not see cultural responsiveness as a priority or do not feel comfortable talking about it. The authors suggest that LIS programs need to address diversity issues more often and more directly, advice some have already taken to heart. Janice Underwood, Sue Kimmel, Daniel Forest, and Gail Dickinson (2015), for example, describe a project for preservice librarians in which students are asked to practice culturally relevant booktalking, “an experience which provoked thoughtful reflection about culturally relevant pedagogy” (p. 103).  Assignments such as this one that ask students to think critically about their own culture and those of their future students are key to graduating students who become culturally responsive practitioners.

But just how many programs offer specific courses in cultural competency or responsiveness, or focus on these elements in other courses or major assignments? Denice Adkins, Christine Virden, and Charles Yier (2015) investigate where librarians gain and cultivate their cultural knowledge. In the course of this investigation, one of their findings is that there is a great demand for this kind of coursework by LIS students, and that programs vary widely in their response to this demand, though offerings have definitely improved and expanded in the past few decades. The research threads represented here thus far—examining diversity offerings in Library Science education, analyzing the effectiveness of current diversity courses and training opportunities, and looking at the perceptions and practices related to cultural competence by current youth services staff—are dynamic and promising, and there will undoubtedly be extensions of these explorations and related conversations on the horizon.

It’s also important to note that within the fields of social work, education, and communication, the concept of cultural humility has been rapidly gaining ground as scholars and practitioners call for a revision of the “definition of cultural competence that acknowledges power and privilege in relationships” (Garran & Werkmeister Rozas, 2013, p. 108).  In that vein, Fisher-Borne, Montana, and Martin (2015) propose moving from a model of cultural competence—which suggests that one can and should strive to attain a sort of cultural proficiency—to a model of cultural humility, a framework that emphasizes the pursuit of “individual and institutional accountability in challenging the barriers that impact marginalized communities” (Fisher-Borne, Montana & Martin, 2015, p.166).

A recent YALSA article brings the concept of cultural humility into library services, in what feels like an inevitable progression and a natural fit. Nicola Andrews, Sunny Kim, and Josie Watanabe (2018) discuss a project in which they train library tutors and volunteers slated to work with teens in cultural humility, focusing on self-evaluation, recognizing and addressing power imbalances, and forming relationships across cultural lines. The results of the study were positive, and the findings will likely inspire others in similar efforts. The concept of cultural humility shines through in a piece by Julie Stivers (2017) as well, though she doesn’t use the term.  In “The Critical Piece,” she describes building relationships with Native teens and teens of color in her library, writing about “Flooding [her] library—and [her] life—with reflective literature and counter-stories that challenge the dominant narrative” (p. 13). She talks about working “with” her teens, rather than “for” them, building diverse professional networks, and learning to recognize her own implicit biases, and in doing so, Stivers provides many openings for productive conversations to come. As these two articles demonstrate, there is certainly a place for the concept of cultural humility in LIS youth services and much room for research into the power it might hold to help transform our philosophy and practice.

Adkins, D. a., Virden, C., & Yier, C. (2015). Learning about diversity: The roles of LIS education, LIS associations, and lived experience. Library Quarterly, 85(2), 139-149.

Andrews, N., Kim, S., & Watanabe, J. (2018). Cultural Humility as a transformative framework for librarians, tutors, and youth volunteers: Applying a lens of cultural responsiveness in training library staff and volunteers. Young Adult Library Services, 16(2), 19-22.

Fisher-Borne, M. M., Montana Cain, J., & Martin, S. L. (2015). From mastery to accountability: Cultural humility as an alternative to cultural competence. Social Work Education34(2), 165-181. doi:10.1080/02615479.2014.977244

Garran, A. M., & Werkmeister Rozas, L. (2013). Cultural competence revisited. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 22, 97-111.

Hughes-Hassell, S., & Stivers, J. (2015).  Examining youth services librarians’ perceptions of cultural knowledge as an integral part of their professional practice. School Libraries Worldwide, 21(1), 121-136. http://dx.doi.org/10.14265.21.1.008.

Stivers, J. (2017). The critical piece: Building relationships with teens of color and Native youth. Young Adult Library Services, 15(2), 12-15.

Underwood, J., Kimmel, S., Forest, D., & Dickinson, G. (2015). Culturally relevant booktalking: Using a mixed reality simulation with preservice school librarians. School Libraries Worldwide, 21(1), 91-107.

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