ISR, partners conduct first national study of public libraries’ Black History Month programming

Black history month library programming

The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR)– in partnership with the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) and the Public Library Association (PLA)– is embarking on a three-year project that will be the first systematic, national study to assess the content, scope, and factors influencing offerings of Black History Month programming in public libraries. 

Black History Month was founded nearly 100 years ago as “Negro History Week” by the historian and activist Dr. Carter G. Woodson. It was intended as a correction to American history instruction that had routinely omitted and degraded Black people in its curriculum. In his words: “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Black History Month was first expanded to a month-long celebration in February, 1976 by the organization Dr. Woodson co-founded, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH). With ASALH’s leadership, Black History Month took root through the actions of generations of teachers, communities, and librarians, and has become a nationally entrenched, widely recognized observance. 

The 21st century has occasioned some conversation and debate over whether Black History Month remains needed and relevant; Ta-Nehisi Coates has voiced concern that hero worship in history celebrations can obscure important human truths, and some argue it’s detrimental to confine the observance of African-American history to a single month. But research also shows America is far from achieving the ideals that Black History Month puts forth as a call to action. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice project has found schools are failing to teach the hard history of African enslavement, and its 2014 report on “Teaching the Movement” gave 20 states a failing grade for their coverage of the Civil Rights Movement. 

With a $750,000 applied research grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the research team will conduct a national survey of public libraries to reveal the state of Black History Month programming and index the complexity of offerings that might range from a single book display to a robust calendar of events. The study team will develop a statistical model to understand how library organizational factors, service area demographics, and individual librarians influence Black History Month programming and their scope. They’ll also create a beta toolkit to provide resources to librarians who are not implementing Black History Month programming.

The work is building on a previous IMLS-funded planning grant to BCALA, whose preliminary findings are based on a convenience sample. Principal investigator on the current grant, Dr. Deborah Robinson–  a research investigator for the Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD) and assistant director for international projects at RCGD’s Program for Research on Black Americans– says she was surprised by their initial finding that 13% of the district library systems and 22% of the branches do not conduct Black History Month programming at all.

The first round of investigation found a variety of barriers to implementation– librarians feeling unsure how to offer a program, and in some cases, “lack of interest,” lack of African Americans on staff or in the community, or a complete rejection of the celebration.  One respondent cited the “white supremicist mindset of library administration.” The fielded questionnaire also found that 86% of branch-level librarians had never heard of the Black History Month theme issued annually by the ASALH, which provides related resources for librarians and others.

Other preliminary findings included the percentage of libraries’ yearly Black history programming that takes place in February– about 61%– and the historic time periods covered by libraries during Black History Month. Especially striking is the reporting that 74% of Black History Month programming in branch libraries had “Never” focused on Africa or ancient African kingdoms. “That’s really concerning to me,” said Dr. Robinson. “We never talk about our history prior to 1619, meaning our history only starts here with slavery. There’s no connection to who we were and our contributions before we were enslaved and forcibly taken to this country.”

ISR’s efforts on the grant (Developing a Model of Black History Month Programming in Public Libraries- LG-252300-OLS-22), will involve RCGD, the Survey Research Center, and the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). Dr. Grace Jackson-Brown, library science professor of Missouri State University’s Libraries’ Research and Instruction Unit, is serving the grant as the BCALA project director. 

The 2023 ASALH Black History Month theme will be “Black Resistance.” 

For more information about the project, visit BCALA’s website on Black History Month that includes the planning grant findings: