Culturally Relevant

How Are Libraries Recognizing Black History Month?

Jessica Pryde

Contributing Editor

Jessica Pryde is a member of that (some might call) rare breed that grew up in Washington, DC, but is happily enjoying the warmer weather of the desert Southwest. While she is still working on what she wants to be when she grows up, she’s enjoying dabbling in librarianship and writing all the things. She can be found drowning in her ever-growing TBR and exclaiming about romance in the Book Riot podcast (When in Romance), as well as on social media. Find her exclamations about books and pho on twitter (JessIsReading) and instagram (jess_is_reading).

In February (the shortest month of the year), we celebrate Black History Month in the U.S. (P.S. I discovered only last year that the Brits celebrate in October.) There are various ways we can celebrate, including attending events (virtually, probably, in 2022), reading books, seeing speakers, holding concerts, and having a meaningful 28 or 29 days of conversation about the existence of Black people in the United States and across the Diaspora.

Many organizations, Black-owned and otherwise, highlight Black history by highlighting spectacular individuals, promoting their Black-associated products, and giving way to Black creators. Most of these organizations are privately owned and are often working to improve their bottom line — whether they’re being sincere or pandering. But there’s still a space where the celebration of Black History Month isn’t about bottom lines: libraries.

Whether public, school, academic, or special libraries, these denizens of knowledge ought to be making some attempt at recognizing and celebrating Black History Month. It can be something as small as a book display, or as grand as a month-long celebration featuring intersecting activity across the library spectrum. If a library in the U.S., with or without a large population of Black users, doesn’t do the bare minimum to celebrate Black History Month (and Latin American History Month, and Native American Heritage Month, and Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month, and LGBT History Month, and…), then they need to reconsider basically everything about their existence. Passive acknowledgement of a group so important to the success of the nation, who still do not have equal rights or equal justice to this day, is not enough.

What are some of the ways libraries are celebrating Black History Month, though?

The last February that it was vaguely safe to meet in person (my brain automatically supplied “last year” the first time I wrote this; maybe 2020 will be “last year” until this thing ends), the library where I work scheduled numerous events celebrating Black History Month. Primarily organized and managed by the library team whose mission is to reach, support, and celebrate the Black community, this month-long celebration included lectures by local historians about the Buffalo Soldiers, a talk by a local Black woman entrepreneur, a discussion with a local elder who could pass down the traditions of messaging in quilts, and other talks about topics of interest to local library users, Black or otherwise. It also included multiple Black Storytimes, led by a Black staff member featuring books by Black authors and illustrators. And yet, not every library in our system even had a book display featuring Black authors. Yes, the goal is to have diversity in displays all year round; but sometimes library users need things spelled out for them on big signs with an arrow pointing to the books. 

Instead of griping, though, here are some ways libraries across the U.S. — public, school, or otherwise, are heralding Black History Month for their users. 

Book Displays

This is it. The basic one. Most libraries have a dedicated shelf for a book display near the entrance of their library, or in some strategic place. Instead of tossing up the bestsellers that people can easily find, pull some books by and about Black folks to feature. School librarians might put up picture and chapter books about famous Black inventors, entertainers, and activists. Public libraries that cater more towards a book club crowd might feature alternatives to familiar white and other non-Black names. Like John Grisham? Read Walter Mosley. And so on. Maybe even do it staff-picks style with little cards. Focus on one person or group who is less frequently recognized, like Bayard Rustin or Ida B. Wells, and do a mini display about them. The possibilities are endless, and some library staff have done amazing things with their physical displays. 

Exhibits (Live and Online)

When I went to see what the Library of Congress was doing in celebration of Black History Month (or African American History Month as their web page celebrating BHM 2021 calls it), the only current attention I could find was an exhibit in the Thomas Jefferson Building (the big one with the stairs and the rococo columns that features heavily in both National Treasure outings) focused on Rosa Parks. But I’m writing this a little after halfway through January; maybe they’re just behind.  

But there are other libraries who are doing great work with exhibits about their local Black communities, or focused on Black history as a whole. As part of their More Than A Month initiative, the San Francisco Public Library is hosting Black Excellence, Black Invention, which features an exhibit on top of other elements. Oakland Public Library is hosting one about Black Superheroes in Comics as part of their Black Culture Fest, which I’ll talk about a little more later. There are a lot of libraries and library systems that have website capabilities to do online exhibits, too, so definitely check and see if yours has the tools and is utilizing them. 

Website Features

The range of library websites is broad. Some are homegrown, while others use various platform companies to build their catalogs, websites, events pages, meeting room booking systems, and the ubiquitous other. No matter what the extent of their offerings, many libraries with websites that go beyond catalog searching and databases might be pulling everything together for Black History Month on said website. The previously mentioned More Than A Month celebration at SFPL has its own page.

a screencap of #SchomburgSyllabus

Libraries not only have a single page highlighting the month, but link out to blog posts about interesting people and moments in Black history, gather events, present book talks, and do things like the #SchomburgSyllabus, a collection of documents curated by staff at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library. They can also link out to library-only resources that people might find interesting. Los Angeles Public Library’s African American History Month page links out to this great playlist on Freegal

Book Discussions and Author Talks

The easiest active way a library can celebrate Black History Month is through a book discussion. Whether it’s an ongoing book club discussing a book by a Black author, or a special event where people gather to offer recommendations of books by and about Black people, it’s a great way to get people not only “in the building” (virtually), but talking about Black literature (in whatever way you might define it). 

Actually, I’m wrong — the easiest active way a library can celebrate Black History Month is by hosting a Black author or scholar to talk about their book or topic of study. Whether it’s the Chicago Public Library hosting a local author in a masked in-person event or Boston Public Library partnering with a local bookstore and the local Museum of African American History to host a virtual talk, libraries are providing opportunities for their users to access the brightest voices in Black media right now.   

Film Series

Another easy way libraries are bringing attention to the past and present of Black life is through film series. Some are focused on specific themes, like D.C. Public Library’s Black Love Film Series. Others are taking a more historical or broad view of film featuring Black people made by Black creators. Some are letting their users do the choosing by creating lists through their own catalog or linking out to digital media resources like Kanopy and Hoopla, who do a lot of their own curating for Black History Month.  

Kids’ and Teens’ Craft Projects

So much of the virtual online world is geared towards adults, but we can’t leave the kids behind. We’re including children’s books in our displays, and we might be holding Black themed storytimes, safely in person or online via whatever platforms we have access to. But kids are also eager to learn, so some libraries like DC and Chicago are offering craft and invention projects for kids to safely do inside or take as grab and gos, things they can pick up in the libraries and take home. These can be coloring sheets, protest signs, quilt pages, inventor kits, paper dolls, and more. 

Local Exploration Maps

This is only something I saw at D.C. Public Library, a city rich with historical sites, but I would imagine there are other places that might be doing something similar. In DC, you can pick up a map of local historical sites that are important in Black history and…explore. It’s presented as a family/all ages activity that is part of the library’s BHM program but does not require people to be indoors. Great for this year, even though it’s winter. 

Black Culture Fest — Oakland Public Library

I wanted to highlight this one specifically because I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s probably got the same lineup of events that most libraries with a heavily Black community would do, but instead of just saying “we’re celebrating Black history this month,” they are putting on a fest. Their virtual events include many of the things spoken of above, including author talks, but also include presentations on music and culture and discussions on Black health and wellness (physical and mental), which is actually the theme for discussion this year. Just that change of language, from a generic page celebrating Black History Month to declaring they are having a Black Culture Fest, feels so different to me, just as a member of the Black community.

It shouldn’t be left to the few Black staff (most of whom are probably not librarians) to be in charge of the initiative to celebrate Black History Month at every public library, but many times, that is the case. What about libraries in communities in which there are no Black people (or at least none coming into the library)? Are they celebrating Black History Month? Whether Black people are going to see this display or not, we should all be both recognizing the horrors of the history of Black people and celebrating the successes and resilience of that same people. It can be a book display, or a visit from an author, or even a discussion of the one book your book club might choose by a Black author that year.

2022 continues to be a rough year as library staff around the country are faced with staffing losses, mask fatigue (in this case, asking every other library user to put on a mask or cover their nose), and the use of their time for things that aren’t their job (like passing out COVID tests with minimal PPE). But it might build a little morale on both sides of the desk to try to present something like normal in the form of creatively acknowledging the strides of Black people in America. 

Or maybe not.

When it comes down to it, the main thing libraries need to do in recognition of Black History Month is to assess their rules and policies, their codes of conduct, and see how the rules directly and indirectly affect the Black people in their community in negative ways. They should require their staff not to treat everyone equally, but equitably. They should be actively antiracist organizations instead of neutral. They should make the Black members of their community — whether 1%, 10%, or 100% of their local population — feel welcome, heard, and celebrated. Until that happens, the other stuff is just artfully designed fondant icing on an underbaked cake.