Highlights from the National Conference of African American Librarians

From rebounding attendance to amazing site visits to a surprise visit from a United States congressman, the tenth National Conference of African American Librarians (NCAALX) offered attendees excitement, motivation, and unity of purpose.

BCALA Past President Andrew P. Jackson AKA Sekou Molefi Baako (left) shakes hands with U.S. Congressman John Lewis at an NCAALX reception at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History in Atlanta.
Photo courtesy of Andrew P. Jackson

This article has been updated to include additional award recipients. From rebounding attendance to amazing site visits to a surprise visit from a United States congressman, the tenth National Conference of African American Librarians (NCAALX) offered attendees excitement, motivation, and unity of purpose. The theme of this year’s conference, organized by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA), was “Beyond Library Walls: Innovative Ways to Engage Our Communities.” Held in Atlanta, GA, from August 9–13, NCAALX drew 511 attendees according to preliminary numbers (an official tally was not available at press time). That would be the largest NCAAL attendance since the fifth NCAAL 15 years ago and almost double the number of attendees at the last NCAAL, held in St. Louis, MO, in 2015. A highlight for many conference goers was a previously unannounced appearance by U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-GA 5th District) at the Opening Reception and Literary Awards Ceremony held at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History. Lewis is no stranger to BCALA, having been a keynote speaker at the closing ceremony for the eighth NCAAL in Cincinnati, OH, in 2013. When I arrived at the Auburn Avenue site for the reception, the chow line—while lengthy—did not have everyone’s attention as I would normally anticipate. I was told by my colleague and good friend Langston Bates that Lewis had once again taken time out of his schedule to visit with black librarians, this time in his own district. Many of the others attending the reception managed to snap a picture with the party-crashing congressman and quickly uploaded their snapshots with the civil rights icon to their social media accounts.

Conference attendee Cherese McKnight poses in front of the NCAALX conference theme: Beyond Library Walls: Innovative Ways to Engage our Communities.
Photo courtesy of Cherese McKnight

While Lewis’s surprise appearance may have generated the most attendee buzz, plenty of other events noticeably enthused and invigorated the crowd. One of the most powerful moments of the entire conference came during the Gospel Brunch Closing Session on August 13. The keynote for this event was Bernice King, daughter of late civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. King delivered several moving statements during her closing address, but perhaps none more powerful than when she told the audience that “Everybody is somebody in the library.” King demonstrated an impressive command of the mission of libraries and how they should situate themselves in the current politically polarized environment. She discussed the role of information in shaping people’s perspectives, but noted that most people will not change their perspective due to new information; rather, she explained, it takes actual life experiences, and she challenged libraries and librarians to create these experiences for people. There were many other impactful events throughout the conference. Many attendees were excited to listen to a panel on “Creating Stories Black Boys Read,” facilitated by award-winning young adult author Jason Reynolds. Reynolds had quite a few secret admirers in BCALA, based on comments I heard before and after his session. Tom Joyner, who hosts one of the most popular syndicated morning radio shows in the country, tickled the funny bones of nearly everyone able to hear his opening session keynote. BCALA, as usual, honored some of its own with awards. Winning the Demco Excellence in Membership Award was Kelvin Watson, immediate past president of BCALA and the new Broward County Libraries, FL, director. The 2017 Advocacy Award went to Tamika Barnes of Georgia State University. Winning BCALA Appreciation Awards were Eboni Curry Njoku of D.C. Public Library, Michele Fenton of Indiana State Library, and Gladys Smiley Bell of Hampton University. Tiffany Duck of Norfolk Public Library, VA, won the Dr. John Tyson Leadership Award. Additionally, an honorary membership award was bestowed on Jessie Carney Smith of Fisk University, Nashville. Other award recipients included: Brian Hart of Greensboro (NC) Public Library, who won the BCALA Leadership Award; Cassandra R. Allen of the National Library of Medicine, who won the BCALA Professional Achievement Award; Elizabeth Jean Brumfield of Prairie View A&M University, who won the Distinguished Service to the Library Profession Award; and ayo dayo of Prince William County (VA) Library, who won the Distinguished Service to BCALA Award.

Left to right: ALA President Jim Neal, University of Delaware Libraries Director Trevor Dawes, ALA President-Elect Loida García-Febo, and Julius Jefferson of the Library of Congress.
Photo courtesy of Loida García-Febo

It would be difficult to say that any particular theme or topic stood out and dominated happy hour or dinner discussions. The conference planning team, led by conference cochairs Dot Guthrie and Carolyn Garnes, as well as BCALA president Denyvetta Davis and president-elect Richard Ashby, made sure that there were diverse options for breakout session topics. From youth services to environmental justice to community building to dealing with workplace microaggressions, it seemed that the programs committee covered every possible base. And, to my delight, there were not one but two cultural heritage site visits included in the regular NCAALX registration. We were hosted—and fed—during receptions at the aforementioned Auburn Avenue Research Library and at the Atlanta University Center, Robert W. Woodruff Library. Both of these provide crucial services to black students and other residents of Atlanta. BCALA members now turn their attention to Tulsa, OK, where the 11th NCAAL will be held in 2020, marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of BCALA. If this year’s conference is any indication, 2020 is likely to bring new faces, new energy, and reengage existing members in the indomitable spirit of the conference’s founder, the late E.J. Josey.
Jason Alston, Ph.D., is an information literacy librarian at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.

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