Growing up in Homestead, PA, a mill town located on the outskirts of downtown Pittsburgh best known for its famous Negro League Baseball team, the Homestead Grays, Elaine Westbrooks developed an early affinity for her local library. An early build by Andrew Carnegie, the impressive structure also housed a community center that included a bowling alley, concert hall and a pool. Needless to say, books were not the only lure for the young visitor, but little did she know then that they would one day become her raison d’etre. When she was old enough to work, her sister—who worked at the library—got her a job there…and she’s been working at libraries ever since.
Initially planning on being an ESL teacher, she ended up focusing on language description, which led to her specializing in the description and organization of digital information. This linguistic training was a great entree into higher education library work. After earning a BA in Linguistics and a Master’s in Information and Library Science from the University of Pittsburgh, she served there and in various research library positions at three other universities.
In 2017, Elaine brought her library science skills to Carolina, where she was named University Librarian and Vice Provost for University Libraries. In her post, she’s helped put diversity, equity and inclusion front and center with the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) Council and has ensured that the Special Collection Library maintains archival documentation that reflects the historic contributions of the entire Carolina community. “The University Libraries is a part of the University system and that system has been one that was designed to exclude people who look like me,” says Elaine. “It is my job to ensure that every student who walks into a UNC Library belongs and is welcome. Students need to see themselves in our collections, the artwork we put on the walls, the staffing, and the programs we host. We need to do better and I can promise this campus that we will do better.”
How did your lens of diversity, equity and inclusion take shape both as you grew up and as you entered adulthood and the workforce?
It doesn’t take long for any Black person growing up in the U.S. to see how differently white folk and black folk are treated. It can be exhausting just trying to live your life. For many years, I never wanted to be the person speaking up about diversity because I already knew it was important; I already knew that diverse teams make better decisions. I also used to shy away from diversity discussions because I knew that I would often be tokenized in the process. As I got into leadership positions with more responsibility, I realized that I might as well use my voice and use my platform to be a force for good. As an academic librarian and administrator, it’s important to recognize that the Library does not exist in a vacuum.
What issues of diversity and inclusion did you recognize early on in your position at UNC as needing immediate attention? How did you address these issues?
I moved to NC the same week the events in Charlottesville, VA took place. The first message I sent to the Library staff was about Charlottesville and the unrest unfolding on the UNC campus. At the time it was pretty surreal but the challenges we have go far deeper than a racist rally in Virginia or a confederate monument. It’s important to address the issues head on. Everything that we ever knew about Julian Carr or Silent Sam has been in the Library’s archives and this was no accident. It was an intentional act by librarians and archivists over 75 years ago who understood their role to preserve history for future generations. At times we have done this work with bias, but we have the benefit of more knowledge and we have to be about truth and memory. Despite the fact that the entire Silent Sam controversy was very painful for our campus, it forced us to grapple with our past. I am proud of the fact that the Library plays an integral role in helping the campus community understanding who we are because the archives help us understand our past to make sense of the present so that we may shape our future.
In your position as University Librarian and Vice Provost for University Libraries, how do you advocate for inclusion?
In my words and in my actions. As a campus administrator I sit on a variety of committees and I speak up when I see flaws, gaps, and oversights that ultimately exclude others. As the University Librarian I don’t advocate. Instead, I do much more. I am the architect and leader of the change I want to see in order for inclusive excellence to become a reality. I chose to build a diverse and fantastic leadership team that includes over 50% people of color. I chose to educate myself. I, just like everyone else, need to be knowledgeable about racial injustice, white supremacy, ableism, and other kinds of oppression which plague our society. There is a body of research that is important to know and understand.
Can you share the focus and some of the accomplishments of the University Libraries’ Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) Council?
This group has been in existence since 2005, called “Diversity Programming and Education Committee.” At the end of 2019, we chose to rename it the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) Council to reflect my vision for the Libraries and indicate that the role and purpose of the Council is evolving. I wanted the Council to take on a more prominent role and go beyond education and hosting webinars to playing a role in helping the library achieve inclusive excellence. One of the Council’s recommendations was to appoint a full-time person to focus on Diversity. I took their advice and appointed Monica Figueroa to the position of interim librarian for inclusive excellence in 2019. She sits on the Library’s Leadership Team. Having a diversity expert at the leadership table sends a powerful signal to the organization and it has made a tremendous difference. The charge of the Libraries IDEA Council is:
- Propose library-wide goals and recommendations that address inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility
- Promote and/or develop inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility related trainings and programs provided by the University Libraries, UNC-CH campus, and beyond
- Collaborate with other inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility related organizations on campus, including the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) and the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion
- Serve as a resource for University Libraries staff on inclusion and equity concerns
What other initiatives and goals does the University Library system have towards DE&I at Carolina?
On June 1, I issued a statement “The University Libraries’ Role in Reckoning with Systemic Racism and Oppression” in response to the killing of George Floyd. This was a call to action to my library colleagues and a promise that we will act. The Reckoning Initiative will include two kinds of goals. One set of goals should be focused on our work and how we engage our community, using an external lens: How can the Libraries leverage our unique expertise to fill gaps in the scholarly record, increase access to information? Another set of goals will be focused on who we are as an academic research Library. We need to look at who we are. Do our actions align with our values? We strive for inclusive excellence but are we doing it? If the answer is no, why? How are we missing the mark?
For the former set of goals, I intend for the library to accelerate some of the exemplary projects that we are already doing to promote DE&I. The Community Driven Archives work by our staff in Wilson Special Collections Library was designed to support historically underrepresented history keepers in telling, sharing, and preserving their stories. This project ultimately will create a more inclusive record of the south. Also, On The Books: Jim Crow and Algorithms of Resistance is a project that was inspired by the work of Pauli Murray. We are using machine learning to help identify Jim Crow and racially based legislation signed into law in NC between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement.
For the latter set of goals, The Libraries needs to look at itself in the mirror. We are just beginning to go through the process of examining our hiring practices. For example, the profession of librarianship is disproportionately white; 88%. There should be higher percentages of non-white librarians in the profession (14%) but it is less than 6%. Why is this? I do not think there have been deliberate attempts by library staff to keep non-whites from working in the library. It is clear to me that we have a system in place that is keeping non-whites out and we have a responsibility to figure this out. Consequently, we will be examining how search committees are formed and identify changes to our entire hiring practices: how we draft job ads, recruitment strategies and practices, composition of search committee, and how hiring decisions are made. It will take time to study what is happening and to change our policies, practices, and procedures—in order to change the system.
How does the University Libraries convey the University’s priority of “building community” to its constituents?
The University Libraries touch everybody (students, faculty staff, alumni) and everything from athletics and research to the School of Medicine and Student Affairs. I can share 50 examples of how The Libraries is laser focused on building community but here are five diverse examples that are important to us:
- As the repository for one of the preeminent collections on the American South and the only university dedicated to the history of North Carolina and the University, we have supported new shared learning initiatives that focus on history, race, reckoning, and the South for anyone regardless of education or affiliation. We contextualize the south’s history through what has been collected and what has been omitted.
- We have hired library staff who have the expertise to help the Library create an inclusive environment for learning and discovery, actively engaging community partners.
- We are a leader in the U.S. for our community-centered archives work by providing expertise to African American communities in the South without taking custody of their documentary history.
- We are campus leaders in accessibility; ensuring that universal design is used throughout our web pages to create barrier-free access for all.
- We value privacy for all. We have just completed a privacy audit to affirm our commitment to privacy and confidentiality of patrons’ activities when they are in the library or using our resources remotely.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
I get to work with some of the most amazing and dedicated people who want to help students learn and become productive citizens of the world. Every day, I get to watch library staff partner with faculty who are creating art, solving big problems in the world, and furthering the understanding of the human condition. I also love the unique collections that we have. I am proud to continue building and documenting the history of the South while having a hand in re-imagining the new south with its global dimensions. Finally, I cannot say how much I believe in the mission of libraries. Libraries play a key role in advancing democratic societies. We fight to ensure that everyone has access to information because information is power.
What accomplishments that you have personally made at UNC towards improving DE&I are you most proud of…and why?
I am just getting started. I am not interested in what I call “check box” diversity where you can rattle off statistics that demonstrate success or progress. I am much more interested in transformational work that dismantles oppressive systems and creates a new culture truly centered on inclusion and racial equity. This work takes time and it is never easy. This work takes strong leadership but it also takes a high performing leadership team to be successful. So I would say that I am most proud of my leadership team. They are not only committed to inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility but also social justice and racial equity. Check back with me in five years and we can talk about what systemic change might look like.