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Hayes: Black librarians play integral but unseen role in helping community

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Currently, I serve as the vice president of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA). Last year BCALA reached 50 years of service to the community in the form of librarianship. Due to COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine, we were unable to celebrate this milestone fully. Thankfully, this year we will be able to celebrate, albeit virtually at the National Conference for Librarians of Color XI that runs from July 27 to Aug. 1. This will be a time for celebration and learning. Nigerian playwright, Nobel Prize recipient and author of the upcoming novel “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,” Wole Soyinka will be speaking as well as famed authors Nikki Giovanni, Zakiya Dalila Harris, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Charlamagne Tha God, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and Jason Reynolds. Librarians and educators are encouraged to attend, and continuing education credits will be provided. Registration discounts are available for BCALA members and current college students. 

BCALA is the oldest of the National Associations of Librarians of Color (NalCos): The other NalCos are American Indian Library Association (AILA), Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), Chinese American Library Association (CALA), REFORMA The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking and The Joint Council of Librarians of Color.

The mission of BCALA is to serve as an advocate for the development, promotion and improvement of library services and resources to the nation’s African American community and provides leadership for the recruitment and professional development of African American librarians.

The idea of a Black library association started when Effie Lee Morris met with several colleagues at the 1968 American Library Association (ALA) annual conference to discuss gaining a bigger voice in the operations of ALA. In 1970, BCALA was founded at ALA Mid-Winter by Effie Lee Morris, Dr. E.J. Josey, Thomas E. Alford Sr. and a few others.  

For the last 51 years BCALA has served to support and expand Black librarianship and the communities they serve. This is achieved by encouraging and supporting Black library school students, creating programs, purchasing books and promoting Black authors. The members and affiliate network deserve a great deal of appreciation for this important, tireless and often overlooked work.

Librarianship has been dominated by white females in modern times. The media’s depiction of the librarian has supported that vision. Cue the music. From stage left enters the usually middle age or elderly white woman with her straight hair pulled back in a bun. The truth is that there have been librarians of color since at least the 1920s. According to local Black librarian Michelle T. Fenton, in “Stepping Out on Faith: Lillian Haydon Childress Hall, Pioneer Black Librarian,” Hall, from Evansville, became the first formally trained Black librarian in the state of Indiana in 1915. Later she moved to Indianapolis and became the first Black branch manager at the public library. Once historic Crispus Attucks High School opened she became the librarian there. She served in this capacity until her retirement in 1956. Hall is an extraordinary figure who should be studied. She’s another example of someone who has contributed much but has faded into the shadows over time.  

Librarians or information professionals are experts in accessing and distributing information. Librarianship is vital in creating and maintaining an informed citizenry. Now more than ever the ability to access high quality and accurate information as well as to utilize critical reading and thinking skills is vital to our community’s ability to solve the many and varied social problems that are currently plaguing us. 

I personally encourage people to explore librarianship as a career, especially people of color. There are many industries that utilize the skills that are learned in library school beyond public libraries. Career paths are available in the corporate setting, academic, school (K-12), special and archives. The profession is experiencing challenging times like much of our world; however, there are many opportunities to grow personally and make a difference in the community.
 
Nichelle M. Hayes is a native of Indianapolis. She is an information professional, a genealogist, civic leader and a life longlearner.

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