Module 8: Cultural Competence & Cultural Humility

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Module 7: Exploring Culture
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Module 8: Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility
Module 9: Racial and Ethnic Identity Development

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Define cultural competence and cultural humility and give examples of these concepts in action.
  • Describe why cultural competence and cultural humility are important to creating equitable and inclusive library services.
  • Set personal goals for moving from cultural competence to cultural humility.


Becoming culturally competent and practicing cultural humility are central to serving youth of color and Indigenous youth. As Dr. Nicole A. Cooke (2017) argues, cultural competence and cultural humility compel us to act – to move beyond simply being aware of or sensitive to people’s cultural differences. Library staff who are culturally competent and practice cultural humility collect materials, provide programs, design instruction, and build technology tools that reflect the various cultures represented in their communities.  They also actively work to identify and address systemic inequities. In this module, we will develop a shared understanding of the terms culturally competent and cultural humility, explore why an understanding of these two concepts is important to creating equitable and inclusive library services, and create personal goals to guide your journey to cultural competence and cultural humility.

What does it mean to be culturally competent?

Culturally competent librarians and educators understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures. Cultural competence encompasses:

  • being aware of one’s own world view
  • developing positive attitudes towards cultural differences
  • gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and world views
  • developing skills for communication and interaction across cultures

Underlying cultural competence are the principles of trust, respect for diversity, equity, fairness, and social justice (Rhonda Livingstone).

While there is no single checklist that identifies the attributes of culturally competent educators or librarians, the following attitudes, skills and knowledge are commonly identified in the literature:

  • understands and honors the histories, cultures, languages, and traditions of diverse communities
  • values the different abilities and interests of youth
  • respects differences in families’ home lives
  • builds on the different ways of knowing and expertise found in different cultures and communities
  • recognizes that diversity contributes to the richness of our society and provides a valid evidence base about ways of knowing
  • understands that a strong sense of cultural identity and belonging is central to developing a positive self-esteem
  • identifies and challenges their own cultural assumptions, values and beliefs
  • demonstrates an ongoing commitment to developing their own cultural competence
Who is…

Dr. Nicole A. Cooke

Dr. Nicole A. Cooke is an Associate Professor and the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. In this role she focuses on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice in the profession.

To learn more about Dr. Cooke and her work:

  • Watch this webinar in which Dr. Cooke discusses power, diversity, and cultural competency in LIS.
  • Read one of Dr. Cooke’s texts (we recommend starting with Information Services to Diverse Populations: Developing Culturally Competent Library Professionals).



In this short video produced by NEA, academic experts from across the United States define cultural competence and share their thoughts on the importance of cultural competence for today’s educators. As you watch, consider these questions:

  • What are primary premises of cultural competence?
  • What issue is cultural competency designed to address? How does it address this issue?


Review these definitions of Cultural Competency. In your journal, make a list of the key ideas that stand out for you in these definitions. Use those ideas to develop your own definition of cultural competence.

  • “the ability of an individual or organization to understand, interact, and engage with people who have different values, culture, languages, lifestyles, and traditions based on their distinctive heritage and social relationships” (SAMHSA 2023)
  • “a congruent set of behaviors, attitudes, and policies that enable a person or group to work effectively in cross-cultural situations; the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each” (National Association of Social Workers, 2001).
  • “the ability to recognize the significance of culture in one’s own life and in the lives of others; and to come to know and respect diverse cultural backgrounds and characteristics through interactions with individuals from diverse linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic groups; and to fully integrate the culture of diverse groups into services, work, and institutions in order to enhance the lives of both those being served by the library profession and those engaged in service” (Overall, 2009, 189-190).
  • “the ability to successfully teach students who come from cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, developing certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching” (Diller & Moule, 2005).
  • “high levels of respect for and knowledge of other cultures; actively working for and with diverse groups” (Cooke, 2017, 18).

What is cultural humility?

The concept of cultural humility was developed by Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia in 1998 to address inequities in the healthcare field. It is now used in many fields, including education, public health, social work, and library science, to increase the quality of interactions between workers (i.e. library staff and educators) and their diverse community members.  Cultural humility goes beyond the concept of cultural competence to include:

  1. A personal lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique
  2. Recognition of power dynamics and imbalances, a desire to fix those power imbalances and to develop partnerships with people and groups who advocate for others
  3. Institutional accountability (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998)


In this YouTube video excerpt, Melanie Tervalon, a physician and consultant, and Jann Murray-Garcia, a nursing professor at UC Davis, discuss the philosophy and function of cultural humility. The full video (29 minutes) can be viewed here. As you watch this video, consider the following questions:

  • What are primary premises of cultural humility?
  • How do Tervalon and Murray-Garcia distinguish cultural humility from cultural competency? Why do they think this distinction is important?


In your response journal, reflect on what you learned about culture in Module 7 and what you’ve learned about cultural competency and cultural humility in this module. Then answer this question: Why should library staff and educators care about cultural competency and cultural humility?

When you’re done, click here to see what the research says.

  1. Youth are more diverse than ever. The 2016 Kids Count data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that 49% of youth in the U.S. between the ages of 0-18 identify as non-White.
  2. The fields of librarianship and education remain primarily white and female, suggesting a cultural mismatch between library staff, educators, and the communities they serve (ALA, 2012; U.S. Department of Education, 2016).
  3. Culture plays a critical role in learning. By incorporating youths’ historical knowledge and analysis into library programs and services, youth may feel that they are validated and that their culture is relevant to the learning experience (Mestre, 2009; Sheets, 2005).
  4. Cultural competence & cultural humility lead to more authentic and effective interactions with youth and their families. Incorporating youths’ cultural backgrounds into all aspects of library services can help youth feel accepted and better connected to the library as a place where they belong (Kumasi, 2012; Mestre, 2009).
  5. Research suggests that low cultural relevance is one factor that contributes to lack of library use by people of color (Overall, 2009)
  6. Culturally competent educators and library staff value diversity, are adaptable and able to embrace varying levels and types of diversity (Cooke, 2017).
  7. Since libraries provide free and added value services, if people do not feel welcome or represented in the library they may choose not to use them (Cooke, 2017).

Images of Practice - Icon by Adrien Coquet from Noun ProjectImages of Practice

What happens when cultural competence isn’t enough? In the video below, Adilene Rogers (a Bilingual Youth Services Librarian at Sacramento Public Library) discusses how cultural humility has improved her work with Spanish-speaking youth and their families.


Becoming Culturally Competent and Practicing Cultural Humility

Becoming culturally competent and practicing cultural humility are ongoing processes that change in response to new situations, experiences and relationships. As Cooke (2017) points out “each community is distinct and has its own needs; there are also communities within communities, all of which deserve recognition and special attention” (p. 18). Knowing about one community does not make us culturally competent about all communities. Additionally, communities are dynamic and change over time. Maintaining cultural competency and practicing cultural humility require continuous and intentional work.

Cultural humility “stretches the idea of cultural competence,” challenging library staff to not only recognize power dynamics and imbalances, but to redress these imbalances.

Nicole A. Cooke, 2017, 20

As the diagram below shows, cultural competence is a necessary foundation for cultural humility.

Cultural competence and cultural humility can be thought of as a pyramid, with cultural competence serving as a foundation for cultural humility. Cultural competence includes developing cultural self-awareness and gaining cultural knowledge. Cultural humility involves understanding and redressing power imbalances and holding systems accountable.

Both cultural competence and cultural humility require:

  1. Developing cultural self-awareness
    1. Becoming aware of your own cultural norms, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors
    2. Identifying & examining your own personal biases, stereotypes, and prejudices
    3. Considering the impact cultural differences might have on your interactions with BIYOC, their families, and their communities
  2. Gaining cultural knowledge
    1. Being comfortable with “not knowing” – Balancing your expert knowledge with being open to learning from the community and their lived experience
    2. Being curious about other cultures – Asking questions, reading #ownvoices texts about other cultures, viewing #ownvoices films & documentaries, studying another language, attending classes & workshops about other cultures, etc.
    3. Attending cultural events and festivals
    4. Establishing trusting relationships with community confidants or connectors who are able to provide insights into cultural norms, family practices, communication styles, traditions, etc.
    5. Conducting an asset-based community analysis or community walk (see Module 17b)

Cultural humility also requires:

  1. Understanding and redressing power imbalances
    1. Studying the history of race and racism in the U.S. and understanding how it disproportionately impacts BIPOC
    2. Completing racial equity training
    3. Learning to develop and evaluate culturally relevant and appropriate programs, materials, and interventions
  2. Holding the library or educational system accountable for providing inclusive and equitable programs and services
    1. Serving on the library or school equity team
    2. Collecting and analyzing data about library practices, programs, services, and community partnerships through an equity lens
    3. Analyzing library policies for bias and rewriting them to make them reflective of the cultures, customs, behaviors and information needs of various community members


Now that you’ve explored the concepts of cultural competence and cultural humility it’s time to get to work. Complete the Cultural Competence Self-Evaluation Checklist [PDF] to identify areas that need attention. This self-assessment tool is designed to help you: (1) think about your skills, knowledge, and awareness in interactions with others and (2) identify areas of strength and areas that need further development. After you’ve completed the assessment, make a list of the areas where you need further development (those you rated a 1 or 2).

Now set three goals for becoming culturally competent and practicing cultural humility: one short-term goal that you can accomplish immediately, one medium-term goal that you can accomplish over the next several weeks, and one long-term goal that you can accomplish over the next year. Use the Goals for Becoming Culturally Competent & Practicing Cultural Humility template [PDF] to write these goals down. Post these goals somewhere in your library. Once you have achieved a goal, replace it with another one.


In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

My library serves families from 30 countries. I can’t possibly learn about the culture of all of them.
Cultural competence does not require that you become an expert in every culture represented within your community. Because cultures and communities are always changing, this may not even be an attainable goal. Instead of striving to be an expert yourself, recognize the cultural expertise of young people and their families, and show them that you are open to learning from them. Look for ways to respectfully communicate to children, teens, and their families that you are curious about their cultures and excited to know more. Show them that you value their cultural knowledge and strengths (the asset-based aproach). This can take many forms, from inviting families into the library to share their cultural expertise to having informal conversations with individual students. Through interactions and opportunities like these, you will gradually learn more about the various cultures represented in your community.

While engaging in this work, keep in mind that some BIYOC and BIPOC may be uncomfortable sharing aspects of their culture with you. There may also be elements of their culture that are not meant to be shared with outsiders. Be respectful of their preferences and keep in mind that it is not their role to teach you.


What if I become culturally competent and practice cultural humility but my colleagues don’t? How do I get them onboard?
Look for opportunities to share what you have learned related to equity and inclusion with your colleagues. Often this is most effectively accomplished through one-on-one interactions. You might consider sharing some of the resources you’ve encountered in this curriculum. The best motivation for this work is often the youth themselves, so think about how you might amplify the voices of children and teens in your school / library such that your resistant colleagues hear directly from youth.


References and Image Credits

American Library Association (2012). Diversity Counts 2012 Tables. Retrieved from

Cooke, N.A. (2017). Information services to diverse populations: Developing culturally competent library professionals. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Diller, J.V. and Moule, J. (2005). Cultural competence: A primer for educators. Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth.

Kumasi, K. (2012). Roses in the concrete: A critical race perspective on urban youth and school libraries. Knowledge Quest, 40(4): 12-17.

Mestre, L.S. (2010). Culturally responsive instruction for teacher-librarians. Teacher Librarian, 36(3), 8-12.

National Association of Social Workers. (2015). Standards and indicators for cultural competence in social work practice. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from

Overall, P. M. (2009). Cultural competence: A conceptual framework for library information science professionals. The Library Quarterly, 79 (2), 175-204.

Sheets, R. H. (2005). Diversity pedagogy: Examining the role of culture in the teaching-learning process. Boston: Pearson Education, lnc.

Tervalon, M., and Murray-Garcia, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Undeserved, 9, 117-125.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service. (2016). The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from


Go Back:
Module 7: Exploring Culture
You Are Here:
Module 8: Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility
Module 9: Racial and Ethnic Identity Development