NCAAL Opens in Atlanta

Tenth conference for African American librarians addresses community engagement, outreach

August 11, 2017

Radio host Tom Joyner addresses the crowd at the 10th National Conference of African American Librarians in Atlanta on August 10.
Radio host Tom Joyner addresses the crowd at the 10th National Conference of African American Librarians in Atlanta on August 10.

The National Conference of African American Librarians (NCAAL) kicked off in style August 10, as drummers from the Giwayen Mata ensemble led a processional of library professionals and honored guests toward the main stage for the opening session. In this 10th gathering coordinated by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA), hundreds of librarians gathered in Atlanta to discuss innovative ways to engage with their communities both inside and outside the library.

After listening to opening remarks from BCALA President Denyvetta Davis and an invocation from Reverend Lorraine Jacques White, attendees rose to participate in an a capella performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the “Negro National Anthem.” The lyrics urged listeners to “march on till victory is won,” and this line in particular embodied the spirit of persistence and hopefulness expressed in many of the day’s presentations.

Several prominent librarians and public officials then offered greetings to the crowd, including American Library Association (ALA) President Jim Neal, who spoke about ALA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who thanked the crowd for the love and respect librarians exhibit toward their profession.

But it was keynote speaker Tom Joyner who delighted the audience with his comedy and commanded their attention with his practical understanding of the work librarians do to meet their communities’ needs. Joyner, a radio host, comedian, and philanthropist, told the story of how he met and courted his future wife in the library of Tuskegee University, and with a smirk he added, “We all have a good feeling about something that happened in the library.” Though humorous, this story of young love in the stacks sheds light on an important purpose of today’s libraries. Libraries have always served as community hubs where people could meet and interact, and it is this community-focused model of librarianship that Joyner praised in his speech. According to him, librarians, like comedians, have a responsibility to “super-serve” their communities, that is, “to learn who their audiences are and what those audiences want from them.”

Two presentations from earlier in the day exemplify librarians’ commitment to doing just that. Several New York City libraries, including branches of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Queens Library, and New York Public Library, coordinate and participate in the TeleStory video visitation program, which allows incarcerated people to have video visits with their families. Brenda Bentt-Peters, community outreach supervisor of BPL, explained that her department identified marginalized groups in transitional populations, such as veterans, the homeless, and incarcerated people, and designed an outreach plan specifically to suit their unique needs.

Similarly, Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, noticed that African-American program attendance was low at its main library. So celebrating black history year-round was written into its strategic plan, with at least one relevant program per quarter. Staffers quickly surpassed that goal to create a robust schedule of programming aimed at engaging black communities, from celebrations of Black Music Month and Jazz Appreciation Month to community forums titled “I Have a Problem with That,” which focus on social justice issues like criminal profiling and wrongful convictions. As a result of this deliberate attempt to engage the black community, Richland Library’s Film and Sound Manager Quincy Pugh reports improved staff morale, increased diversity in programming, and higher program attendance.

In his conclusion, Joyner described libraries as “platforms for learning and love.” They are places where librarians can act not only as culture keepers but also as culture creators, building spaces where people can come together to fall in love with a book, a place, or maybe even a person.