Contributing Editor Interview

Featured Researcher Spotlight On: Nicole A. Cooke, PH.D., M.ED., MLS

Dr. Nicole A. Cooke speaks with Contributing Editor Nimisha about developing empathy and building cultural competence in library education & practice.

22167979633-1d10e9fe45-oDr. Nicole A. Cooke is an Associate Professor at the School of Information Sciences, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she is also the Program Director for the Master’s of Library and Information Science program. Dr. Cooke’s research and teaching interests include human information behavior (particularly in the online context), critical cultural information studies, and diversity and social justice in librarianship (with an emphasis on infusing them into LIS education and pedagogy). Follow Nicole on Twitter at @LibraryNicole.

This month’s featured researcher is Dr. Nicole A. Cooke, author of “Information Services to Diverse Populations: Developing Culturally Competent Library Professionals” (2016.) “The development of cultural competency skills and social awareness benefits LIS students, their future employers, and the library profession at large—not to mention library customers and society as a whole. This textbook and comprehensive resource introduces students to the contexts and situations that promote the development of empathy and build cultural competence, examines the research in the areas of diversity and social justice in librarianship, explains how social responsibility is a foundational value of librarianship, and identifies potential employment and networking opportunities related to diversity and social justice in librarianship.” – ABC-CLIO.

Your book Information Services to Diverse Populations: Developing Culturally Competent Library Professionals is outstanding and I can’t wait to see it used as a standard classroom text in all LIS programs. It not only encompasses racial and ethnic diversity but also differently abled, homeless, mentally ill, and LGBTQ+ communities. This book is really one of the first to address issues of implementing inclusive services across libraries with tangible lesson plans – what was it like to put it all together?

First of all, thank you! This book was a labor of love and I’m so very proud of it, and I’m truly gratified and humbled that it has been well received, AND used in so many graduate LIS classrooms.

The book is very much based upon and mirrors my course Information Services to Diverse Populations, which I created and began teaching at the University of Illinois in 2013. There was a gap in the curriculum and I was given the opportunity to address some of the needs being demonstrated by our student body. The book was also inspired by my research (diversity and social justice in LIS) and my professional service work (recruiting and retaining minority librarians). One of my overarching goals was to create the class/write the book I never had in graduate work or in my 15 years of professional practice as a librarian.

With that said, it was a hard book to write. I think many authors will tell you that book writing is a long and laborious task, however interesting and worthwhile the content. What made this book harder to write is that these issues are so important and so very close to me, I often had to take lengthy breaks and step away from the process. I wanted to do all the topics justice (and I couldn’t include every diverse population), I wanted to pay homage to all of the great literature and research that preceded the book, and I wanted it to be a tangible contribution to the field. Also, I tend to be a more concise writer, and books have to be a particular length; as a result of needing to add more content, I added some personal experiences and thoughts that are not strictly research based, but are squarely based in my professional experience. I was hesitant to share some things, but ultimately, I’m really glad I did because I think it adds some humanity to the text and works to emphasize some of the experiences that librarians of color (and library professionals from marginalized and/or otherwise oppressed groups) go through every day.

Add to this, the fact that I wrote the book while on the tenure track – so what I intended to be a year-long process, quickly turned into a two-year plus process.

Changing LIS programs and library policies to make services more equitable can be a struggle for those without power, and a lot of that comes from getting upper-level management to sign on and engage. Do you have any tips or advice for library students or library professionals who need buy-in from administration in order to implement real change in their service models?

The first thing that comes to mind is to do your homework. Don’t make a request without having done your due diligence; a good idea (especially one related to diversity, social justice, and other values many believe they don’t need or just don’t subscribe to) is not enough. Do you have evidence (from other libraries or the literature) that your proposed change or model has been successful elsewhere? And if it has any negative points, how do you plan to account for / counteract them? Have you done a community analysis to see if such a change is even warranted for your community? Then, hopefully when you get a green light or some level of buy-in, be prepared to implement your project alone and/or with little funding (you could then seek community partners and grant funding).  I don’t mean this to sound negative, I just want folks to be as prepared as possible when they’re ready to make a change.

Another thought is to do your work, follow your passion, outside of your institution. Sometimes our institutions just aren’t ready or they don’t have the funding. Can you work with a group of like-minded allies and accomplices to accomplish your ideas and goals? Is there a professional committee that can support your ideas? Working with an outside group or with outside experts can do two things: it can give you an avenue to implement change in the profession and it can give you more ammunition to say to your administration that you are capable of leading in a meaningful and sustained way.

And write up or present your results!

As of 2017, you were working on a diversity audit of the University of Illinois’s library school curriculum and suggesting ways professors may choose to insert discussions on diversity issues into other courses. What does that process look like?

I’m happy to report that this project has been completed. You can see the results here, in an article I co-authored with a former student. Diversity and Cultural Competence in the LIS Classroom: A Curriculum Audit.

The process took us a semester to complete, but if I’d had more time, I would have liked to have done this over the course of an entire academic year. The audit process was more difficult to complete because we didn’t have much support from other instructors (we were examining course syllabi), but because of the way the school’s intranet is set up, we were able to pull and examine over 100-course syllabi for evidence of diversity. That was one challenge; another was trying to navigate people’s different definitions of diversity. People have many and differing ideas of what diversity is and is not, and where, if at all, it should appear on a syllabus or in a classroom. So, while diversity does appear in the curriculum, it’s not consistent and it should be woven into the curriculum more than it currently is. I don’t think this is unusual among LIS programs across the country and in Canada. A point worth special consideration is whether programs have dedicated classes on diversity and social justice, or if these topics are incorporated across a curriculum. Ideally, both of these scenarios will be in play.

In 2018, I followed up on this project by organizing a mini-conference on culturally responsive and culturally sustaining pedagogy, the goal is to give instructors additional tools to incorporate diversity into their pedagogy and class content. Videos of the panels can be found here (the sessions occurred on Sunday, April 29, 2018).

Something that really resonates with me about your work is the continuous practice of empathy. I think burnout in the library profession has a lot to do with the lack of empathy for our users, our colleagues, and ourselves. Was there a particular moment or memory in your professional experience that has shaped your philosophy of empathy as a librarian?

Thank you for picking up on this – this is indeed a purposeful theme in my work and my practice as a librarian, teacher, and researcher. I’ll give you two examples, one general and one specific moment, that I think have shaped my emphasis on empathy.

In general, being a woman of color – in the world and in LIS – can be challenging in that I’m judged by my skin color before I’m judged on my work or character. I’ve had women clutch their purses closer when I’ve entered elevators (AT ALA CONFERENCES!), I’ve been passed over for opportunities because I’m African-American, I’ve not been invited to events and conversations because of that “diversity stuff,” I have been alternately taken advantage of and tokenized because of that same “diversity stuff,” I‘m routinely called by the names of other Black women, I’ve been microaggressed, and I’ve been harassed and physically and verbally threatened because of the work I do as a Black woman. I have deep empathy for others, or try to, because I want people to have empathy for me. I believe in that golden rule – treat others as you would like to be treated. I also believe in the platinum rule – treat others as they want to be treated. In order to do that, we have to have empathy; we have to want to embrace and celebrate others.

As for a specific example… years ago I was working the reference desk at my former library, and a woman called out to me, saying: “Hello, can you help me?” The reference desk was in the middle of the main floor, obscured by furniture and bookshelves, and the patron actually approached me from behind. When I turned around to see who had spoken, I saw a young blind woman, who was walking with a walking cane.

At this point in my career, I was engaging in a lot of personal reading and professional development around issues of diversity and outreach, thinking about how librarians can be more proactive and responsive to patrons from different backgrounds and with diverse information needs. So, when I saw this young woman, I immediately jumped up from my chair and met her on the other side of the reference desk to ask how I could help her. She told me that she was looking for an office in another building; she had become turned around in the library and was no longer sure how to exit the library and get to the next building. No problem! I told her. I explained where the next building was and told her that I was happy to walk with her to make sure she got there ok. With the biggest and most sincere smile she replied, “no thank you, I can do it myself. If you would just allow me to hold your arm and you can walk me to the door, I can get there by myself.” And that’s just what I did – I escorted her to the library’s door, and she went on her way.

I cried for an hour after that, not because I was angry or upset, but because it was such a revelatory moment for me. In that moment, this young woman and her bravery taught me one of my most important life lessons about empathy. She challenged my perceptions and challenged me to think about how we put the ideas we read about into actual practice. She really changed my philosophy of service and made me rethink how I engage with patrons and students.

“Theory (in this case, what we read and learn about how to serve and provide information to patrons) is useful, but it needs to be coupled with experience, context, and input from the communities we serve. Our patrons are the experts when it comes to their own needs. And we have to have the humility and empathy to allow this to occur in our library spaces.”

I made assumptions about what I knew about serving patrons. I had read the articles and best practices lists that told me how I should interact with patrons with disabilities, and I thought I knew what was best for the patron. But, what we read isn’t always what we should be doing in reality, at least not without some reflection and consideration of the context that surrounds every information request we receive. What I failed to realize, and what I failed to do in this instance, is allow the patron to tell me what she needed, before telling her how I could and would assist her. Theory doesn’t automatically equate to good practice. Theory (in this case, what we read and learn about how to serve and provide information to patrons) is useful, but it needs to be coupled with experience, context, and input from the communities we serve. Our patrons are the experts when it comes to their own needs. And we have to have the humility and empathy to allow this to occur in our library spaces.

Featured image [CC0], via Pexels

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1 comment on “Featured Researcher Spotlight On: Nicole A. Cooke, PH.D., M.ED., MLS

  1. Such wonderful insight! Dr. Cooke is inspiring!

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