Culture Brief

The Purdue Black Cultural Center is focused on the past, present and future. Through the Culture Brief research series, we present a closer look at the people, places and events that have impacted the African American experience.

Number 14, Summer 2016

Social Activism and Black Librarianship

Jamillah R. Gabriel

Since the beginning, Black librarians have always played a role in social activism, reaching as far back as Egypt and the Library of Alexandria. But in modern times, Black librarianship has impacted pivotal events such as the Civil Rights and Black power movements. In fact, the national body of Black librarians, the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, was formed in 1970 out of a need for Black librarians to mobilize against systematic racism embedded in the profession as well as the greater social landscape.

Ingrained within Black librarianship is the idea that "The professional duty of black librarians is not separate from our cultural responsibility as people of African descent. An essential part of our mission is to help empower black people throughout the African Diaspora, and this undertaking is critical…" (Gethers, 2012).

So it is no wonder that many Black librarians embody this ideal in all that they do and have demonstrated that activism comes in many forms.

Librarians such as Regina Anderson Andrews (1901-1993) had to overcome many obstacles, including racial discrimination within the workplace, particularly the New York Public Library (NYPL) where she worked for more than four decades. In 1938, Andrews became the first African American supervising librarian in NYPL history, and waged a fight, along with the support of the NAACP, for equal pay and opportunities for promotion within the NYPL system.

While Andrews' social activism manifested in the form of dedicated pursuit of racial equity in the workplace, Dorothy Porter Wesley's (1905-1995) form of activism was more subtle. Wesley is most notably known as the researcher and librarian at Howard University and driving force behind its collections at the Carnegie Library and the Moorland- Spingarn Research Center. Her primary contribution was in the collection, preservation, and dissemination of Africana materials. In a time where African American history was actively excluded from the national cultural record, Wesley efforts to both preserve our cultural knowledge and act as a bridge to information exhibit activism through library service.

Finally, another example of social activism emerges with the story of Marta Terry Gonzalez (1931 - ), an Afro-Cuban librarian whose involvement in the Cuban Revolution ultimately led to her appointment as National Librarian under Fidel Castro's rule. Her underlying motivation has been to transform libraries from institutions exclusively serving the elite to institutions that serve the general public, a majority of which are workers and farmers. At the heart of this is Gonzalez's inherent responsibility as a librarian to insure access to information that will allow for the creation of an enlightened community to drive civil society and public discourse.

Each of these librarians embody social activism within Black librarianship, and represent collective and individual callings to positively improve the lives of people of color in the communities they serve.


Alkalimat, A., & Williams, K. (2015). Roots and flowers: The life and work of the Afro-Cuban librarian Marta Terry Gonzalez. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.

Gethers, T.D. (2012). The 21st-century black librarian: Renewing our commitment to liberation and cultural activism. In A. P. Jackson, J. C. Jefferson, Jr., & A. S. Nosakhere (Eds.), The 21st-Century Black Librarian in America (pp. 223-227). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Sims-Wood, J. (2014). Dorothy Porter Wesley at Howard University: Building a legacy of black history. Charleston, SC: History Place.

Whitmire, E. (2014). Regina Anderson Andrews: Harlem Renaissance librarian. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.


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