Librarians issued a clarion call for substantially more Black males in their field this past weekend at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Anaheim, Calif.
Black men make up a dismal 0.5 percent, or 572 of the 110,000 of the nation’s librarians. And about 1 in 10 Black librarians are men, according to figures in an ALA diversity report issued last year, which were discussed in the ALA conference panel “An Endangered Species: The Black Male Librarians.”
“The need for Black male librarians is crucial given the lack of diversity of our library organizations,” says panelist Dr. Alma Dawson, the Russell Long Professor in Library and Information Science at Louisiana State University. “There is a great need for Black males as reflected in crime statistics, low levels of literacy, and other areas. Black male librarians can make a difference.”
The stereotype pervading American society that a librarian is an old White woman with glasses steers Black males away from the profession, says Damon Austin, agricultural sciences librarian at the University of Maryland and one of the experienced Black library professionals who participated in the panel.
“The profession is seen to be a White female dominated profession,” adds Julius Jefferson, a researcher at the Library of Congress who organized and chaired the panel. “And the profession is not necessarily a lucrative one. It is a profession that is not seen as very sexy in terms of high-profile professions like being a lawyer.”
Another reason is Black males may not know that librarianships even exists as a career option for them, Dawson says.
Austin didn’t begin to see it as a career option until he was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, taking semesters off because he had to put himself through school.
“Those semesters that I was not officially enrolled I went to the library every day like it was my job,” says the researcher in Maryland’s College of Agricultural and Natural Resources. “I just educated myself on things that I found interesting and I learned the entire theory and structure of how libraries are constructed. That was really the start of it.”
He went on and earned his master’s of library & information science (LIS) from the University of South Florida, ending up in a profession where people like him are rare.
“I focus on the goal and not the circumstance,” he says. “I know I’m in a field that is dominated by White women. I know I’m in a field that when you get up into administration then it is dominated by White men.”
Austin’s goal: making the wealth of information in libraries more accessible to Black students.
The legendary librarian, bibliophile, activist and historian Arthur Schomburg had a similar goal in amassing literature for students of Black history and culture. Schomburg’s life as a bibliophile and cultural keeper and his famed Arthur Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture is what inspired Jefferson to become a librarian, he says.
“All of us Black males have different stories and have taken different paths leading to a career in librarianship,” Jefferson says. “But Schomburg, in terms of history and presenting history, has had to have had an influence on many individuals in this profession.”
In order to get more Black males headed down that path to being a librarian, Jefferson says there has to be an early recruitment effort.
“We have to start early in recruiting, as early as kindergarten, in making sure that children know that being a librarian is a viable career option,” he says. “We need to let them know that there is a library career behind whatever you want to do in life. If there’s a Black child, who has aspirations of being a professional football player, that Black child may not become that, but he may make it to the National Football League library.”
When Austin speaks to young Black males, he identifies himself as an information specialist, he says.
“That’s what we are,” he says. “That sort of helps to alleviate the stigma of the librarians — the old image of the White woman with the bun in the hair and the glasses.”
We need to find a way to somehow gleam young Black men to understand that they are social information scientists already,” Austin added. “It’s just becoming manifested in music, its becoming manifested in other socio-cultural things that are being invented by young Black males and their culture.”
Role models are also needed, Jefferson says. He not only had Schomburg as an inspiration, but he had two Black male role models at Howard University when he was studying to be a librarian, one of which was Dr. Thomas Battle, the director of Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
“I was fortunate to have some individuals around me that pushed me in that direction,” Jefferson says. “As Black male librarians, we have to continue to mentor these younger students in undergraduate and high schools as we direct them towards a career in librarianship.”
Dawson is hopeful that there will be a renewed and aggressive recruiting campaign coming out of this past weekend’s panel to diversify the profession of librarianship.
“There are some national initiatives that all programs can apply for assistance, but ultimately it comes down to individuals who care about this issue and LIS programs, and libraries at the local level to make Black male library recruitment a priority,” Dawson says. “The potential benefits will be great for all involved.”
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