This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA). “BCALA comes out of an unflagging commitment to equity,” says Tracie D. Hall, executive director of the American Library Association (ALA) and herself a member of the affiliate organization. “I cannot help but think of how prescient its founding was 50 years ago.
“The history of segregated library service is almost forgotten, but we must be reminded that some of the first sit-ins and civil rights demonstrations took place in libraries, because so many libraries followed Jim Crow laws that offered separate and unequal library service to Blacks or excluded them altogether.
“Today, in an era where we are seeing too much polarity and lack of inclusion in systems and in social discourse, we need BCALA more than ever,” Hall says.
American Libraries spoke with 10 BCALA members—all leaders in the library field—about what the 50th anniversary means to them, their hopes for the future, and the role of libraries in combating systemic racism and discrimination and fighting for social justice.
From the COVID-19 pandemic to police brutality to economic turmoil, our communities have been weathering a great deal in 2020. What should a library’s role be during these trying times?
James Allen Davis Jr.: Libraries must encourage these conversations through social book groups like RADA (Read. Awareness. Dialogue. Action.), which was started in 2015 at Denver Public Library. This program has opened the door for brave spaces, addressing issues such as mass incarceration, police brutality, and immigration, as well as providing workshops on talking to kids about race.
Some libraries have also adopted the Harwood Institute model for having community conversations to assure that services to their communities are relevant.
Connecting with the nonprofit Government Alliance on Race and Equity [a national network of cities and towns that promotes racial equity in government and communities] will provide libraries with training and resources to meet the needs of the communities they are part of.
Makiba Foster: Libraries should reconsider trying to lead on larger societal issues if they are not willing to address these very same issues and how they manifest within our own institutions. I’m not saying libraries don’t have a role in helping to advance social justice within their communities, but to be true to the work, we must practice those ideas within our institutions.
For example, during the pandemic, how are libraries treating their staff and addressing safety concerns? With respect to policing, what authority does your library give to police and security when they patrol spaces and interact with your patrons and staff? With all the statements affirming Black lives that library directors and administrations across the nation have shared, this has triggered a reckoning within our profession. It’s why Black workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) called out the hypocrisy and asked for administrative accountability with regard to discrimination, wage inequality, and unsafe working conditions. [FLP’s director resigned in July.]
Libraries certainly should continue with reading lists, social justice programs, and services that address those marginalized within our communities. Creating space within our buildings and offering programs to support the work of community activists and organizers is critical. However, I am conflicted about the role of library as facilitator for conversations about race and social justice. Facilitation connotes a neutrality, a kind of disassociation, as if we haven’t been struggling for years in these areas. If libraries serve as anchors within their communities, and if we are truly invested in their outcomes, then we have a duty to be vocal and not equivocate on issues that help our community advance social justice and equity. In turn, libraries have a duty to be more introspective, rooting out discriminatory practices and attitudes to ensure our institutions are not pillars upholding structural oppression with respect to staff, patrons, services, and policies.
Victor Simmons: A library’s role during these difficult times is strongly rooted and defined in ALA’s Library Bill of Rights: to provide “information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” We must still maintain a strong moral compass to assure we are forever on the side of what is right for our communities as a whole. The conversation on race in America must begin by accepting the hard truth that not enough open conversations are happening.
Libraries must begin to broach the topic of race with our adolescent users. We must open our spaces for discussions with youth to help them understand the beauties of cultural and racial diversity. We need to have storytimes that highlight amazing people of various backgrounds to show children the similarities these individuals had with them as they were growing up. This should be coupled with providing adult programming to draw a diverse audience and offer opportunity for interaction and discussion, not only on similarities but on differences as well.
Jermaine Dennis: Far too often, libraries do not provide enough opportunities for the public to be integral in deciding the role libraries should play in their communities. Who is better to decide these roles than the people libraries serve? They are the most informed about and the most affected by their conditions, and it’s time the library profession made a more conscientious effort to get community members involved in deciding the roles of libraries.
The 11th National Conference of African American Librarians (NCAAL) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was postponed until July 2021. What past conferences have been memorable, and why?
Davis: Members of BCALA had been excited to host NCAAL in Tulsa—home of the Black Wall Street—while remembering the 1921 Tulsa massacre by the white populace. Once the pandemic hit, we were forced to postpone, but BCALA hosted its first free virtual summit May 15–16.
The most memorable conference for me was the 10th NCAAL, held in 2017 in Atlanta. The theme was “Culture Keepers X: Beyond Library Walls: Innovative Ways to Engage Our Communities,” which really spoke to the importance of libraries becoming advocates for intellectual freedom and social justice. It was here that I heard the late civil rights leader US Rep. John Lewis share his experience of going to a public library in 1956 with his cousins and being denied access to the collection because of his race. This showed how important it is for libraries to be at the forefront of removing barriers to services and collections as well as being proactive in building a community where all its members can thrive.
Foster: Attending NCAAL is unlike any library conference. It is intimate, it is safe, it is affirming, it is a true community of practice. Unlike other conferences where there is a feeling that your sole purpose is to be there to work on behalf of the larger national organization, NCAAL is a conference for the attendee.
My experience with NCAAL is that its purpose is to empower, reinvigorate, and support you at whatever phase of your professional journey. I had the great honor to cochair the 9th NCAAL in St. Louis and it took place during a time not unlike what we are experiencing now with the racial unrest related to police killings of unarmed Black people. Teenager Michael Brown had been murdered, and the nation watched the aftermath unfold with protest, militarized police presence, and the failure to indict his killer.
In 2015 we wanted to encourage people that if they could just make their way to the conference, we knew that by being in community together, we could offer a respite, a balm to ease the racial fatigue. I am very proud of that conference, not because I helped organize it but because it had an impact on attendees.
Stanton F. Biddle: I have attended and played a key role in the planning of all 10 national conferences. Each has been unique, with a special local flair.
In Birmingham, Alabama, in 2010, for example, we visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the 1963 church bombing.
While in Covington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati in 2013, we visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
In St. Louis in 2015, we visited the Ferguson (Mo.) Public Library and the site where Michael Brown was killed. In fact, BCALA purchased a memorial tree that later had to be replaced because of local vandalism.
The historic tour of Atlanta in 2017 took us to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, as well as the Atlanta University Center, home of Spelman and Morehouse colleges.
The unique contribution of NCAAL is the opportunity it affords African-American librarians, their friends, and supporters to get together and spend several days focused on our specific concerns as librarians and the ways in which we can be more effective within the profession and in meeting the needs of society, especially our African-American communities.
Many of us work alone or as one of a handful of Black librarians in our institutions. At our national conferences, we are reminded that we are part of a much larger national community of African-American librarians. None of us are fighting the forces of racism and discrimination alone. We have allies.
Em Claire Knowles: The first NCAAL [in 1992] was significant because it drew so many people of color together, not just librarians but also other ethnic group members who serve African-American populations. This type of conference spurred other ethnic affiliates to establish their respective national conferences, which has been a great fundraiser for each organization.
What does the 50th anniversary of BCALA mean to you?
Andrew P. Jackson (Sekou Molefi Baako): I reflect on the history of progress made through the courage and strength of its founders, leadership, and members. I celebrate our founding members who stood tall and straight in the face of serious challenges to their agenda—their commitment to bring to ALA Council issues and concerns for needed change and to improve the climate within ALA. BCALA challenged the selection process for Midwinter and Annual Conference and demanded new standards that allowed growth and upward mobility of all qualified library professionals.
At the same time, this 50th anniversary serves as a reminder that with all the accomplishments made, there is still much work to be done for true equity, equality, and justice in our profession, our libraries, and our communities in the 21st century. It is painful to reread the writings of E. J. Josey and see how similar the issues and conditions of the 1970s are to 2020. Our work is not done. [Read our interview with Renate L. Chancellor, who recently published a biography about Josey, who cofounded BCALA.]
Simmons: BCALA throughout its 50 years has been nothing short of a family for those who have had the privilege to call themselves members. In a country as large as the United States—and for a people who make up a relatively small percentage of the population—the organization has allowed many, including myself, to have a place to call home. Its members come from all walks of life, with open hearts and minds, with a willingness to teach and learn. The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” couldn’t be better exemplified than in the confines of a BCALA membership.
Dolores Brown: The anniversary means that despite the overwhelming whiteness of the profession, Black librarians have found a way to use their strength in community to support and uplift the profession through many different times when all the cards were stacked against us.
What are your hopes for the future?
Rhonda Evans: That we continue to work to diversify the profession of librarianship. According to a recent survey, more than 83% of librarians are white, which obviously does not represent the population of library users. Looking back at the contributions of librarians of color and librarians from other marginalized groups, we have diversified collections, fought for equal access to library spaces, practiced counter-cataloging to improve access to information, and so much more. Also, as with most professions, a lot of work still needs to be done to promote equal pay and more equity at the management level. I truly hope we can continue to work hard to make these improvements and to promote the profession to a diverse group of people.
Shaundra Walker: I’m really excited about the leadership of our current administration. BCALA President Shauntee Burns-Simpson has a bold vision for the future. The organization is exploring creating round tables or interest groups, for example.
I’ve been amazed at what she, [BCALA Vice President] Nichelle [M. Hayes], and the board have been able to accomplish during their administration, which started just in July. I hope we will be able to grow our membership.
I’m a part of an IMLS grant that focuses on Black MLIS students. Building a welcoming and inclusive community is even more important now that so many students are earning their degrees online. There is a lot of value in bringing together librarians around the different specializations in the profession and having equity-focused conversations.
Libraries have been putting out public statements and fostering conversations. How do they also do the work needed?
Jackson/Baako: Libraries are a microcosm of the inequality of opportunity that is America. Libraries will change when America changes. Our goal must be to set a new standard across faculty and library leadership and in library organization, policy, and hiring practices.
Evans: ALA recently put out a statement taking responsibility for past racism. I believe that acknowledging the past and understanding the history of systemic racism within libraries is an incredibly important first step. When studying the historical periods of Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and even the Black Power movement, the fight for library access has been largely ignored. Many public library systems did not allow people of color into their spaces, and many library professional organizations did not allow library professionals of color to become members. For example, until 1965, the Georgia Library Association allowed only white librarians to join. To act as if the profession is no longer dealing with the ramifications of these practices puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to making positive changes for the future.
Walker: Inequality lives in systems, so we need to look at our infrastructure to really effect change. We should critique our hiring practices, collection development policies, and acquisitions. Library staff throughout the library—not just front-line staff—must maintain cultural competence to best serve their communities.
Brown: Support and incentivize support staff of color to get the schooling and move into leadership roles. Build the leadership from within. Libraries also have to be willing to have hard conversations, to listen to what is being shared, and to act on the outcomes. It must be more than just talk of equity and diversity.
BCALA Leadership Today
I’m truly grateful to be president of this prestigious organization during its 50th anniversary. I pay homage to the trailblazers who came ahead of me. It’s because of them that other people of color and I have a voice within the profession. The Black Caucus is looking at its past while celebrating our future. So first, we will stay true to our roots and continue to focus on collaboration and fundraising efforts that will influence decisions within political, economic, and social institutions. Second, we want to be at the forefront of establishing great reading materials for our communities—creating book lists, working closely with authors and publishers to support diverse books, and helping students gain knowledge through reading. Lastly, we want to support our members in becoming the next generation of leaders within the library profession. Together we are strong, and together we can make a difference.
BCALA president (2020–2022)
As we celebrate half a century of BCALA, I’m honored to be the vice president of this illustrious and hardworking organization. Our caucus is nothing without its members. Incredible strides have been attained over the past five decades. BCALA stands on the shoulders of library giants like Virginia Lacy Jones, Clara Stanton Jones, and Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley. BCALA will continue to honor their legacy by advocating for the development, promotion, and improvement of library services and resources to the nation’s African-American community, and by providing leadership for the recruitment and professional development of African-American librarians. BCALA seeks to recruit a significant number of Black librarians into the profession.
Nichelle M. Hayes
BCALA vice president (2020–2022)