In Their Own Words: Black Librarians on Making a Difference

SLJ spoke with five school librarians about how they came to the profession, the work they do each day, and their connection with students.

SLJ spoke with five school librarians about how they came to the profession, the work they do each day, and their connection with students.

Here are their stories.

Eboni Henry

Media specialist, Truesdell Elementary School, Washington, DC

I’ve been at Truesdell for the past five years. I was an English major at Tuskegee University when I got a work study job in the library. A lot of the librarians there encouraged me to consider becoming a librarian. So the summer of my junior year, I started looking at schools to apply for my library science degree.

I got a full scholarship to attend Louisiana State University and went there for a year, but the school wasn’t really for me. The average age of the MLS students there was 35, and I was 22. Coming from an HBCU, it was also a bit of a culture shock. So I transferred to the MLS program at Clark Atlanta University and finished my studies there in two semesters by doubling up on my classes. Unfortunately, that program at Clark Atlanta no longer exists. But it was a great experience for me.

My first job was as a children’s librarian in a public library in D.C. I stayed in that job for 14 years and left as a branch manager. Right before I left, some libraries had started training librarians in administering Narcan to prevent overdose deaths, and that was a sign that I needed a change. I had a friend who was the director of school media specialists in the district who encouraged me to apply there. I lined up an interview immediately after leaving my position in the public library, and less than 24 hours later, I was offered my current job.

About 65 percent of my students at Truesdell are Hispanic, and around 30 percent of them are Black.

It’s important that we have Black librarians because it gives kids an opportunity to see other ways Black people can be successful. Everybody’s not a rapper, a singer, or an actress. You can be a librarian. You can be a teacher. You can be a construction manager. For Black History Month, Hispanic History Month, and Women’s History Month, I bring in my friends who are professionals to show my students the possibilities for them.

I grew up in New York City and lived in public housing. Getting a college education was my ticket to a better life, and I’m always looking for ways to give back to the community.

Many kids at my school come from low-income families, and my service to them goes beyond putting books in their hands. I don’t see myself as a traditional librarian. My role here is more comprehensive. I make sure the library is a welcoming space for students and teachers alike who need to decompress. I play relaxing music. I make sure the space smells nice. I stock toiletries like soap, deodorant, sanitary pads, toothbrushes, toothpaste, bobby pins, and leave-in conditioner.

Representation and diversity are so important. I always scream from the top of my lungs that I want my collection to reflect my students. I often use my own money to purchase the books.

I travel to Mexico every year for the Guadalajara International Book Fair to buy books for my students to make sure they have authentic Spanish materials to read. If I have to spend $700 to buy a ticket to Mexico for four days so that my students can have books that represent them, that’s what I have to do.

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Christopher Stewart

Librarian, Bell Multicultural High School, Washington, DC

I’m a social justice librarian. That means I advocate for peace and love in action. I strive to empower all of the students I serve and promote positivity and truth. My goal is to see systems change for the benefit of all.

I got my first experience working in a library as a student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. It was a work study position, and I absolutely loved it.

After changing majors from biochemistry to political science, I took some time off from school and found work at a public library. When I returned to school, I continued working at the library. After graduation, I went to seminary school, but I didn’t give up my job at the library. I actually started working on my library science degree while I was studying divinity. When all was said and done, I had three degrees: my undergraduate; a Master's in divinity and theological studies from Wesley Theological Seminary; and an MSLIS from Catholic University.

From there, I started working as a school librarian. During my time at the public library, I created a father-and-son book club. I knew that young men read less than young women, and I wanted to create an environment where they felt comfortable with literacy.

The part of my job that I enjoy most is developing relationships with my students and their families. We hear the concept “whole child” all the time, but I’m concerned with the whole family. I want to help my students develop a love of reading, but I also want their parents and grandparents and cousins to have what they need.

I created the Bell Library brand ambassador program that brings students into the library to work for a few hours a week. The students make $20 an hour. Twenty percent of that is set aside for college or trade school. Another 20 percent is held for a down payment on a home, and 10 percent goes to charity. Every other week, the students are paid the remaining 50 percent. I took on a second job to cover the costs.

The ambassadors learn all aspects of librarianship, including collection development. Most of my students are Brown or Black. My hope is that this program will get some of them to consider a field they may not have thought about because they rarely see themselves reflected in it. People often tell me I’m the first Black male librarian they’ve ever met. That used to really amaze me, but now it just makes me sad.

It’s important that we have Black librarians because we represent this society and our world. When we’re not represented in the field, our voices aren’t heard, and our stories aren’t being told. The recent backlash against materials written by Black authors about our nation’s history of racism has made me more intentional about raising awareness of the need for students to get a comprehensive view of U.S. history.

I teach my students about Black Wall Street and prominent African Americans in business, like Robert F. Smith and Sheila Johnson. We need to tell students about these people who are doing amazing things. I want them to say, ‘I can do that because so-and-so did it.’

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Marva Hinton hosts the ReadMore podcast.


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Black Librarianship Today

Five Trailblazers in Black Librarianship

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