Librarians have superpowers. It was true in the late ’90s when Marvel’s original Spider-Woman was a Black librarian named Valerie — and it was true in 1905 when the son of two formerly enslaved Black people opened the first library in the United States that served and was fully staffed by Black Americans, bringing new resources and opportunities to the community.
And it’s true now, as Black librarians across the country go into work every day, either at public libraries or school libraries. Books that tell the truth about America’s history of racism — or that are written by Black folks — are being forced off the shelves.
The restriction of literacy is a painful part of Black history in this country, and it’s a critical piece of history for Black librarians in understanding their roles, says Tracie Hall, the executive director of the American Library Association. Before Emancipation, Black people in most Southern states were severely punished (fingers or toes chopped off, for example) for reading or teaching others to read, and white people could be fined, whipped, or imprisoned for giving them books.
“The whole idea of limiting who has access to reading material is typically and particularly something that a Black librarian has to mobilize against. We have to,” Hall says. “That has to be part of our work in the field — to protect the right to read.”
Why We Need Black Librarians
Representation matters, period. But civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis once said that internet access would be the civil rights issue of the 21st century. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey on library usage found that “library users who take advantage of libraries’ computers and internet connections are more likely to be young, black, female, and lower income,” with 42 percent of Black library users accessing those resources.
As a librarian, Hall believes Lewis was “really honing in on” information access in general.