Representation matters

One man reflects on the impact of seeing yourself represented in leadership positions at public institutions.

This blog was written as part of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library's Black Lives Matter program initiative. Learn  more about the program and corresponding events here.

I recently snapped a photo of myself and three other Black male co-workers as we were the only staff in the facility at the time. It was a moment of pride — and perhaps reckoning — for me to realize that in the 20+ years that I’ve worked in libraries, this was the only time I could recall working alongside all Black male colleagues. Truthfully, it was my first time working alongside all male colleagues, but the fact that we were all Black men was glaring. It took me back to a conversation I had a few years ago, when a young Black male asked me where I worked. When I told him where and what I did (I referred to myself as a librarian), his response was incredulous. He shared with me that he didn’t know of any librarians that looked “like him.” It was a sad acknowledgment, but not necessarily a surprising one.

From L-R, Kyle Hearns, Reggie Villegas, Kenya Sloan, LaJuan Pringle

Librarianship is one of the many career fields where Black representation lags. As Black Americans make up roughly 13% of the country’s population, 9% of librarians are Black according to the American Library Association, and out of credentialed librarians nationwide, Black male representation among this group is less than 1%. This issue has become well-known throughout the profession. The lack of Black males in librarianship has been well documented in numerous discussions and academic studies throughout the years. Some of the reasons cited for lack of Black males in the profession include:  

  • Black males may not see librarianship as a viable option when they are young. It’s during these years that many of us start to think about what we want to do or who we want to be in life. As I look back on my own story, my first job in high school was a library page. If it hadn’t been for my library work in high school, I’m certain I would have never entertained the thought of becoming a librarian as an adult.
  • Librarianship is a female dominated profession. Over 80% of librarians are women. There’s the belief that because women represent the overwhelming majority of librarians, it’s viewed as “woman’s” job. However, once you get past these stereotypes, librarianship is a great profession for anyone regardless of gender.

The lack of representation of Black males continues to be an issue for the library profession, but on the day we took the picture above, for me, it was a vision of what library staff could look like. In this vision, libraries would employ staff that reflect and, in many cases, look like the communities they serve. If I ever again see the young man I mentioned earlier, I’d like to invite him to West Boulevard for a visit. It would be great for him to see library employees who look like him.

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This blog post was written by LaJuan Pringle, branch leader at West Boulevard Library.