Opening Plenary Session

Academic Libraries in America's Multicultural 21st Century


Dr. Carlos Cortés
Professor Emeritus of History
University of California, Riverside



Dr. Cortés opened his remarks by asking the audience to consider the challenges and opportunities that academic institutions and research libraries face in helping faculty, students, and staff better understand the major themes and issues of multicultural diversity in the 21st century. For example, he stated that libraries should consider diversity in obtaining books and other materials to be used by their clientele.
Using examples primarily from the United States, but also exploring the context of global multiculturalism, Dr. Cortés briefly explored six major diversity issues that have been and will continue to be factors in shaping the future of societies around the world. The underlying challenge for libraries is to position themselves to be better resources in helping to address these issues.

(1) Equity. If it were not for the inequities of the past, the issue of diversity would not be so important today. Since its inception, the United States has been a multicultural society, but not always an equitable one.
The nation began as a society of vertical multiculturalism, in which people of certain groups--for example, men and white people in general--had built-in legal and other structural advantages over others. Since that time, one of the major themes in American life has been the quest--often the struggle--to move toward becoming a society of horizontal multiculturalism, in which members of diverse groups share equal rights and opportunities
For example, the abolition of slavery and passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote were steps from vertical toward horizontal multiculturalism. However, these actions did not mean the achievement of full horizontality, because many other equity issues remained, such as racial segregation and denial of full access for women. Good libraries should provide ample opportunities to explore the many struggles for equality in such areas as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, language, and sexual orientation.

(2) Balance. Multicultural societies like ours are involved in a continuous balancing act. On the one hand, we need to strengthen, even while modifying, our common culture in order to provide society glue. At the same time we need to recognize the imperatives growing from diversity, particularly the presence of multiple cultures within our boundaries.
Good libraries should not only contain materials on the American balancing act of common and multiple cultures. They should also provide opportunities for comparatively exploring how this balancing act operates in other societies. Take, for example, the ways that other nations have dealt with the issues of multiple languages, divergent policies on the officializing of languages, and the relationship between religion and government.

(3) Limits. How far should we go in tilting toward unity or diversity? Put another way, at what points should we put limits on the conformist extremes of unity at all costs and the anarchic extremes of diversity at all costs? Take religion: as a nation we support diversity by drawing limits on religious conformity by guaranteeing freedom of religion. Yet at the same time we draw limits on religious diversity. For example, you can't establish a religion based on the taking of human life.
But what about animal sacrifice? That unity-diversity limits issue is still up for grabs. In a recent decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down an ordinance by the city of Hialeah, Florida, which prohibited the killing of animals in public ceremonies, saying this was a veiled attack on religion. The law's target was clearly the growing practice of Santer╠a, which began as an Afro-Caribbean religion, came to the United States through immigration, and in which animals are sometimes killed as part of ceremonies. Yet the court did not indicate how it would rule if Hialeah or some other community banned all killing of animals, not just in public ceremonies, and this ban incidentally restricted the practice of religion.
Questions of limits--to both unity and diversity--arise continuously regarding such issues as racial profiling by law enforcement, establishment of English-only regulations by government and private enterprise, the Equal Rights Amendment, gay marriage, the nature of citizenship, and domestic partnership benefits. Libraries should support the examination of these complex and often controversial limits questions.

(4) Perception. People learn about difference. This may or may not be part of a school curriculum. Regardless, it inevitably occurs in society through such avenues as the mass media, as Dr. Cort╚s demonstrates in his forthcoming book, The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity (Teachers College Press, 2000).
In this way, people develop deep preconceptions about groups with whom they have never had significant personal contact. Libraries should provide resources for exploring how group images come into existence, are disseminated, become reinforced, and sometimes change, as well as the ramifications of those images for life in a multicultural society and shrinking globe.

(5) Interaction. Intergroup perceptions may develop at a distance. Yet most people, sooner or later, will come into direct personal contact with diversity. Yet with whom do people truly interact?
According to philosopher Richard Bernstein, when people avoid contact with those who are different and mainly interact with people like themselves, they contribute to what he calls "fragmented pluralism." Worse yet, he argues, they ultimately lose or fail to develop the ability to communicate with and understand others, therefore creating a situation of "polemical pluralism."
The United States is a multicultural nation, as are many others. Yet we face the deep societal issue of moving beyond merely being multicultural to becoming truly intercultural, where we develop the capacity for intergroup understanding, communication, and cooperation. Libraries should provide resources that address this issue, both in the United States and worldwide.

(6) Change. Not only is change inevitable, it will also inevitably occur more rapidly in the future. As England's Queen Victoria once said, "Change must be accepted, when it can no longer be resisted."
Obviously the United States is undergoing a dramatic demographic revolution. By the middle of the 21st century, people of color will comprise half of the nation. This is projected to occur in California during the year 2000, while it has already taken place in California schools. Libraries need to be centers in which people can investigate the process of change and its implications for diversity.

Dr. Cortés concluded by reminding us that increasing multiculturalism in our society is inevitable as we enter the new millennium. Academic institutions and libraries can contribute to the process by which we individually and collectively prepare for a rapidly changing world of increasing diversity, by helping us address the six issues that he discussed. This is more than an intellectual challenge--it is also a societal imperative of paramount importance.

Jeanne Fong
University of California, Berkeley



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