Black Librarians: In Their Own Voice

A couple years ago, Book Riot posted an article by Katisha Smith titled, “13 Pioneering Black Librarians You Oughta Know.” Among others, Smith introduces us to Edward C. Williams, the first Black Librarian, Dorothy B. Porter, the “Dewey Decimal Decolonizer,” Clara Stanton Jones, the first Black President of the American Library Association, Eliza Atkins Gleason, Library Science Trailblazer, and Sadie Peterson Delaney, “Godmother of Bibliotherapy.” Only one of the thirteen librarians we meet is alive today. And that made me wonder — who are some of today’s pioneers? The list below is a result of entering that rabbit hole that is the internet and following one link after another. Obviously, the list is not exhaustive, and it is a bit eclectic. But what these librarians share is a passion for documenting and telling the Black experience, each in their own voice. If you have not yet met them, I’d like to introduce you to them.

In “Chronicling the Black Experience,” Mark Lawton writes about librarians and archivists who collect and tell their own stories. One is Rodney E. Freeman, Jr. who created the Black Male Archives, an online repository to “capture, curate, and promote positive stories about Black men around the world while inspiring and informing younger generations.” The Blackivists are a collective of six trained Black archivists located in Chicago. As part of their goal of prioritizing Black cultural heritage preservation and memory work, they provide training, project management, best practices, and consultation on analog and digital archives upkeep. Makiba Foster is regional manager of the African American Research Library and Cultural Center at Broward County Library in Florida. With archivist and scholar Bergis Jules, she formed Archiving the Black Web. The project “aims to organize efforts to collect and contextualize social media and other internet content that focus on the Black experience.”

The Black Librarian in America: Reflections, Resistance and Reawakening is the latest in the series of “The Black Librarian in America” volumes. Edited entirely by Black women — Shauntee Burns-Simpson, Nichelle M. Hayes, Ana Ndumu, and Shaundra Walker — the book addresses issues pertaining to Black librarians’ intersectional identities, capacities, and contributions. The book is available on pre-order with an expected release date on February 18, 2022.

Alma Dawson, in “Celebrating African-American Librarians and Librarianship,” an article published in Library Trends in 2000, celebrates the achievements of African-American librarians and their contributions to librarianship. Dawson identifies and reviews records of scholarship that are intended to serve as starting points for students and scholars. There is a wealth of detailed information including major studies, organizations, and recurring themes in the literature. Take a minute to read her review of demographics at the time of her writing.

Little Known Black Librarian Facts is a blog published by Michele T. Fenton, a cataloger at the Indiana State Library. Since 2011 she has posted about African American librarians and their library services to African Americans. She highlights African American pioneers and the library profession, and the triumphs and struggles in making library services available to African Americans. There also is a long list of her favorite websites and the blogs that she follows — a veritable collection of rabbit holes to fall into and from which you may never return!

Librarians Glenda Alvin and Tahirah Akbar-Williams, members of the African American Studies Librarians Interest Group (AASLIG) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) created a LibGuide that focuses on the scholarly research and services associated with identifying, preserving, and disseminating resources for the study of African American history, culture, and life. The LibGuide includes information about databases, websites, digital collections, books, periodicals, museums and cultural centers, and archives related to African American studies. They also highlight the SACO African American Subject Funnel Project, a project concentrated on creating new subject headings and changing/updating of old subject headings relating to the African American experience.

Karla J. Strand, Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, developed a reading list on “Disrupting Whiteness in Libraries and Librarianship.” Most recently updated in June 2021, the extensive bibliography contains citations (and links when available) to resources focused on race, racism, and disrupting whiteness and white supremacy in libraries. Special emphasis is placed on the field of library and information science and librarianship as a profession.

The Rocky Mountain PBS station posted an interview with Janet Damon, library services specialist for Denver Public Schools and who recently received the Rev. Dr. James Peters Humanitarian Award from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission for her work as a librarian and community organizer. In her position with DPS, Damon provides diversity and equity training for librarians and paraprofessionals within the district’s roughly 200 schools. This includes ensuring libraries have culturally-sustaining collections — or as she states in the interview, “just ensuring that students can see themselves in our libraries and our collections.” Outside of her job, Damon started, with three other Black Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and/or LGBTQ+ librarians, an organization called Afros and Books. In addition to promoting authors from diverse backgrounds and literature to the community, Afros and Books created several sub-groups to promote their work. One is called “Black to Nature Book Club,” which started during the pandemic to help children and families cope with isolation, stress, and anxiety. Damon, upon receiving her award, may have summed up the work Black librarians are doing: “This is my joy. I think it’s important when we feel like we’re walking in our purpose and integrity with what our soul is here to do.”