Black Collections Matter: Call for a 10% Library Budget Pledge to Support African-American Academic Publishing

Systemic and institutional racism is an enormous problem in academic publishing, and this thoroughly infects libraries as well. Charlotte Roh’s 2018 CARL presentation and accompanying slides should be mandatory reading in this regard, and her citations lead out to lots of other important and relevant scholarly articles and reports. So if you haven’t read Roh’s work, please stop and do so now.

In specific regard to percentages of African-American representation in various areas, Roh’s slides and citations note the following:

  • 1.66% among Scholarly Publishing Professionals
  • 4% in the Publishing Industry overall
  • 5.4% of Higher Education Library Professionals
  • 5.46% of Full-time University Faculty

Budgets reflect our real values, even our unconscious ones. Library budgets may be complicated, but they largely boil down to three main areas: Staffing, Buildings, and Collections-Publishing.

Diversifying Library employees (especially Administrators) is still a major area for improvement in most academic libraries. While it is not nearly enough, at least academic library employees basically reflect the same levels of diversity as among university faculty, and university administrators and librarians are increasingly aware of the problems and committed to do the work of diversification. Anti-discrimination laws, which are aimed to promote equal protections, also limit the means and speed with which academic libraries and universities can achieve their goals for employee diversification. Diversifying Library buildings is a great topic for discussion, but it’s not the focus of this call.

Diversifying Library academic Collections and Publishing, by contrast, has received scant attention. The Children’s Book world is far ahead of academic publishing, with about 7.6% depicting African-American characters. African-American authorship and subjects in academic publishing is far lower, likely around 1%-2% by my estimation.

Money is not the only form of power, but it is one of the most significant, especially when it comes to incentivizing and realizing big structural change.

What would happen if US Academic Libraries collectively announced a commitment to spend 10% of their Collection and Publishing budgets to support African-American academic publishing?

  • Collection Development teams and Subject Librarians would start considering racial justice in their daily analyses and acquisitions choices
  • Publishing aggregators and indexers would start to insist on demographic data from publishers to enable libraries to make educated, informed decisions
  • Publishers and editors would proactively seek out authors who are African-American and conceive of new book and series ideas devoted to African-American topics and experiences, and they would proactively assemble database packages and collections featuring African-American authors and topics
  • Librarians working in Scholarly and Library Publishing would work to support, fund, and produce African-American scholarship from members of their campuses and members of the community
  • Librarians working in Archiving and Oral History would have the resources necessary to gather and organize a significant breadth and depth of African-American material and digital history

An African-American friend of mine recently finished her PhD with a specialization in Carceral Studies. Such specializations in Carceral Studies are increasingly appearing in academic degree programs and teaching positions. My friend reminds me that African-Americans represent around 13% of the US population, but 40% of the US prison population. That’s right. The US Prison system—holding 25% of the world’s prison population, most of them persons of color, in a country with about 5% of the world’s population—is so egregiously racist and exploitative that it has called into existence a whole new academic discipline in response: Carceral Studies. Think about that for a while.

I’m reminded that some of the world’s most profound publications came out of prisons: Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dietrich Bonhoffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Mahatma Ghandi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote, Nelson Mandela’s Prison Letters, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Even Plato’s Apology of Socrates details his teacher’s last words, imprisonment, and trial in Athens.

How many Kings and Bonhoffers, Solzhenitsyns and Ghandis, de Cervanteses and Mandelas, Boethiuses and Socrateses are waiting in prison to tell us their stories? How many books and series and collections and curricula and courses could be created if we gave these voices a microphone and impressed their words, stories, and experiences upon pages both physical and digital?

I’m also reminded of the African proverb, that when an old person dies, it’s as if a library has burned.

The elderly are dying in disproportionate numbers. The imprisoned are dying in disproportionate numbers. Every day African-Americans are dying in disproportionate numbers.

Academic Library buildings aren’t being targeted for riots and looting, but every day Black Libraries are being turned to ash, and most of us librarians, myself included, with all of my education and privilege, aren’t really doing a damn thing about it.

Let me conclude on a personal note of hope. My pale-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter Simone (named after Nina Simone) is about to have her first digital art lesson this afternoon with one of CSU Fullerton’s most gifted BFA digital artist alums, Leah Simone Metters (also named after Nina Simone). Leah’s work reflects a beautiful diversity of characters. I’m so excited that my daughter will learn from the best.

Update June 7: Changed the post title from Black Voices Matter to Black Collections Matter to give the idea a unique brand for social media sharing. #blackcollectionsmatter