Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, needed a better way to reach its African-American community. Quincy Pugh, film and sound manager, explains how the decision to celebrate black history year-round and start “I Have a Problem with That”—a series of panel discussions that address challenging social issues—has boosted program attendance and engagement among its target audience.
When I was hired by Richland Library in 1989 as its first film and sound librarian, I set to work expanding a nonprint collection for a growing system. The library was seeing an increase in visits and user requests. During this time our service area was becoming more racially diverse, and our library was attempting to reach more African Americans with materials and programming.
When our new main library opened in February 1993, grand opening and anniversary events seemed to overshadow much of what was planned for Black History Month. People noticed and expressed concern. We heard them: We should have been expanding upon, rather than diminishing, efforts to reach the African-American community.
Our deputy director asked me to lead a committee to plan adult programs for African-American patrons—with a focus on increasing the attendance and equity of our efforts—particularly during Black History Month. Although Richland Library had always offered quality programs, they had not always been a good fit for the audiences we were trying to reach.
The African-American History and Cultural Events (AAHCE) committee, composed of four librarians and paraprofessionals of color, was formed. Our goal was to implement at least one program per quarter targeted to the black community. We also planned to supplement and enhance the cultural programming already in place at the main library and branch locations.
We began observing Black History Month in January, sometimes in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. This shows that we are proactive. We always put together a brochure of programs so our efforts aren’t lost on customers.
In spring we use National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month as foundational themes. We recruited a local poet and jazz vocalist from Richland Library’s literary residency program to help us develop poetry slams, jazz workshops, and live performances. We also host performances with related discussions in summer to mark Black Music Month in June.
Perhaps our most participatory program has been our fall forums. We wanted to address social issues relating to our community, so we premiered “I Have a Problem with That: A Roundtable of African-American Concerns” in 2004. Under this umbrella, we have presented discussions on such topics as gang violence, voting rights, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, the Affordable Care Act, state and federal budget cuts, racial profiling, and wrongful convictions. We have invited local media personalities, politicians, and scholars to sit on these panels.
Our forums have been successful beginning with the very first one, which brought in 120 people and was aired on a local radio station. The question posed to us after most presentations is “When is your next one?” or “Where can we go from here?”
We depend heavily on the professionalism of our moderators to keep discussions on track, but it’s important to allow ample time for audience members to express opinions and ask questions of our experts. Our topics can be emotional, but giving people an opportunity to speak furthers a sense of healing. We may not have the answers to complicated social problems, but the library sees a need to give voice to them.
These programs are the core of AAHCE’s efforts. We also present targeted events in conjunction with area filmmakers, artists, and storytellers as opportunities arise. Essentially, we celebrate black history year-round. The committee is able to accomplish big things on a small budget because we are passionate about our mission. In return, our community has shown its love through its attendance and support.
As I prepare to leave Richland Library in June after 14 years as the chair of AAHCE, our diverse 14-member committee has a waiting list for interested staff members. Though the focus of our inclusivity efforts may evolve, I am confident our library will continue to meet the programming needs of all we serve.