Examining Black History Month Programming in Public Libraries

Deborah Robinson, PhD, joins Michigan Minds to talk about the University of Michigan’s Program for Research on Black Americans (PRBA), preliminary findings from the Black History Month Programming in Public Libraries project, and the importance of understanding the history of Black History Month. Robinson is a research investigator at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD), where she serves as the PRBA Assistant Director of International Projects, and is the Faculty Administrative Coordinator for the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research (MCUAAAR).

Deborah Robinson on Michigan Minds

Established in 1976 at ISR, the Program for Research on Black Americans was developed by an interdisciplinary team of social scientists and graduate students. . Robinson explains the mission of the researchers, who were committed to giving a voice to Black America in terms of research. Sharing the ways in which PRBA has been a leader in creating new and innovative research methods in African American communities, Robinson discusses the research foci of the program.

“We look at discrimination and racism, physical and mental health disparities, aging and human development, politics and political participation, and identity and migration. And in terms of training, PRBA has had a long history of training doctoral students, graduate students through the work of PRBA, but also through summer workshops that focused on research on the African American population.”

One of Robinson’s current research projects, #WeGlobal: the African American Living Abroad Research and Education Project, examines the circumstances and stories of African Americans currently living abroad. The other project in which Robinson serves as the principal investigator, is the Black History Month Programming in Public Libraries project. Robinson explains how her work on #WeGlobal inspired the Black History Month Programming in Public Libraries project.

“And an interesting way [these projects] are related: I was giving talks at libraries and museums about #WeGlobal in a way to share this information but also to utilize the participants and patrons that came because they may know—they may have a cousin, a relative, a friend—somebody they know who’s African American currently living abroad because there’s no list. But it was through that work [that] I joined the American Library Association and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and basically proposed this project looking at Black History Month programming in public libraries.”

Robinson partnered with the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) and the Public Library Association on this three-year research project, which will be the first systematic, national study to assess the content, scope and factors influencing offerings of Black History Month programming in public libraries. The project, led by researchers at ISR, recently received a $750,000 grant awarded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, to examine 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.

“So in this grant, we’re really trying to develop a model of Black History Month programming. In terms of service area factors, we’re looking at things such as region, urbanicity and the percentage of African Americans in the service area. In terms of library organizational factors, we’re looking at the budget, the number of full-time staff they have, whether there’s an African American on the staff. And in terms of individual librarian factors, another previous study identified nine key programming competencies.”

The Black History Month Programming in Public Libraries research team recently published preliminary findings. Public libraries were asked if they facilitated Black History Month programming. The study found that 22 percent of the respondents from branch libraries and 13 percent of respondents from district/county system libraries did not conduct Black History Month programming. The preliminary findings also found a variety of barriers to the implementation of Black History Month programming. Robinson comments on these barriers, and offers suggestions on how libraries can make improvements in their Black History Month programming. 

“There are some solutions in which these barriers can be overcome. First, it’s important for people to know about ASALH [the Association for the Study of African American Life and History], go to their website and understand what the theme is for the year, and they have a lot of resources on their website.” 

Reflecting on the importance of learning about  Black History Month, Robinson notes that recognizing the contributions of Black Americans is as important today as it was almost 100 years ago. 

“So we look to now, 2023, we continue to see wealth, health and education disparities in the United States. The Census Bureau has projected that the United States will become a majority minority country by 2044, meaning that at that time, non-Hispanic whites will comprise less than 50 percent of the US population. So therefore it’s very important to learn the history and contributions of all Americans.”