As someone who checks off the “Caucasian” census box, I make sure that the materials I order for our county libraries’ collections reflect a range of views and cultures. Recently, though, as I was looking back at my past programs, I was dismayed to see that the books I chose to share didn’t always highlight diversity. That got me thinking that most public library programs speak to the broadest group possible, not to the threads of cultures that make up our communities.
Should libraries offer programs geared to one culture? After I spoke with youth librarian Kirby McCurtis, who started “Black Storytime” at Multnomah County Library (MCL) in Portland, OR, it was clear that the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Back in 2012, MCL kicked off its first Black Storytime program. Focus groups with parents and community leaders had revealed that patrons wanted more books and services that would reflect and promote the richness of African American culture and experiences. In addition, a 2011 MCL study showed that the library was underused by the black community.
Fast forward three years, and Black Storytime is thriving. Programs have spread to an additional two libraries in the 19-branch system, with weekly drop-in sessions on Saturday mornings scheduled in two branches and on Sunday afternoons in another.
When it comes to advertising and outreach for the program, McCurtis explained, MCL has a directory of local black-owned businesses, and she regularly sends flyers and updates to them. Residents learn about the programs at hair salons, barber shops, real estate offices, a local bookstore, and other places around the city.
The library also has a great relationship with the Skanner, a local, black-owned newspaper, and KBOO, a community radio station. While these ties help with promotion and publicity, McCurtis seemed most impressed by how storytime attendees publicize the program.
“Black Storytime is being spread by word of mouth,” she said. “I constantly have parents telling me that they have invited their friend, coworker, or neighbor to join in next week, and the program has grown and keeps growing. At each location, there are regulars who are the best advocates and are always speaking our praises, which feels great.”
“There are two types of people who come to Black Storytime,” she added. “One is the group that happens to be at the library on a Saturday morning, notice storytime going on, and drop in. The other group comes more intentionally, seeking out more diverse audiences.” She has also noticed an increase in non-black parents who have adopted African American children.
What makes Black Storytime different from all other storytimes? For one, McCurtis seeks titles featuring African American children, such as Misty Copeland’s Firebird (Penguin, 2014), Marc Tauss’s Superhero (Scholastic, 2005), and Anna McQuinn’s Leo Loves Baby Time (Charlesbridge, 2014). She pairs books with movement activities, fingerplays, and songs, such as Ella Jenkins’s “This-a-way That-a-way” or Ziggy Marley’s “Ziggy Says.” Often, the 30–45 minute session ends with group activities such as block play or a craft activity.
While the target age range for the program is early childhood, McCurtis likes to cast that wider, “controlled chaos” net, advertising a birth through six-year-old range. “It is a smaller group than my weekly preschool storytime group,” she said. “The size of the group at 15 to 20 participants makes the program feel more intimate,” she said.
Indeed, one of the long-term goals of Black Storytime is to create lifelong library users—and perhaps even inspire a librarian or two in the making. McCurtis explained, “I think it is important for children of color to see me in my role as a librarian, because there aren’t many people of color in our profession.” I could hear the smile on her face over the phone as she recalled being recognized in local stores and out in the communities: “You’re the librarian from Black Storytime!” That type of recognition is what any library, or librarian, wants.
But let me circle back a bit. When I was asked to write this article, a follow-up to the SLJ piece about the program when it was launched, I had loads of questions. I was sold on the benefits, and I understood why MCL decided to offer a culturally specific program in addition to those that they offer in Russian, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Spanish. My question was, “Could I, a white librarian, offer Black Storytime?”
“Oh man! No one has ever asked me that before!” was McCurtis’s spontaneous response.
The question probably sprang from the fact that there are far more Caucasian librarians in my own professional network. Yet the communities we serve are more diverse.
Could I try to offer an authentic cultural experience if I’m not a member of that culture?
I understood, after speaking with Kirby, why having the right staff member lead this program was so critical to its success. “I think what people value the most at Black Storytime is the fellowship,” she explained. MCL has been proactive in regard to their hiring process, creating specialty job descriptions around languages and cultures that are represented in the larger Portland community.
“At storytime, there is plenty of time for adults and kids to get to know each other and find common interests—even if it is just in the raising of their child,” she continued. “This happens quite a bit at Black Storytime, because this might be the only time a family [spends time with] another African American family during their week….We’re building community.”
Besides Black Storytime, MCL routinely holds cultural celebrations and festivals that reflect their patrons’ backgrounds. A quick glance at their website calendar found the following:
- Celebrate Crêpes and all Things French!
- Discover the Rhythms of Ghana
- Celebrate Chinese New Year
- Celebrate Lunar New Year
- Celebrate Slavic New Year