Documenting Black Librarianship with Selena Lee and Katie Perry
“Having Selena as a partner in this research made it 1000 times easier and better and it made it easier to accept the help, too. So really lean on your partners in your internship and your learning experience and your research. This research is going to help define our careers in the future.”
Katie Perry, ‘23 MLIS
Selena Lee, MLIS (expected May 2024)
MLIS student Selena Lee and graduate Katie Perry joined the iSchool for unique reasons.
While attending law school, Selena discovered her path to librarianship. She took on a role as a library assistant at Alliant International University Hurwich Library and quickly decided to follow that path to pursue her MLIS.
For Katie, she had always been interested in working with scholarship and information dissemination – but it wasn’t until she had the opportunity to work as a clerk at Long Beach Public Library that she decided to change her focus from nursing to public (and later academic) librarianship.
Katie and Selena researched library schools and ultimately came to the same conclusion: SJSU was the school for them.
While Katie and Selena have different MLIS pathways, both students were brought together for a special opportunity at the iSchool: working to help focus on a project dedicated to understanding Black prospective students and their needs and priorities.
Getting Started as Interns
“I think that their end goal here,” Katie said, “is to create a setting within our school within SJSU that allows Black students to thrive. Beyond just throwing money at it, and saying, ‘Okay, we’re gonna hire more Black advisors,’ Tracie wanted to understand the ebbs and flows of Black Librarianship.”
While libraries are having lots of talks about diversity and inclusion today, Black Librarianship has continued to dip since its height of 9 percent in the 1990s.
“You see certain minority groups increasing like the Hispanic population,” Katie explained. “In 2006, they were at like, 2 percent. And now they’re at 7 percent. So they’ve more than doubled, and we have not: we’ve dipped, and then we’ve stalemated.”
Part of their goal was to discover the history of Black librarianship and to better understand why it is where it is today, to secure a better future for Black students in library fields.
Selena expressed how challenging it can be to narrow a research focus, as they did, into Black LIS education. “Sometimes I don’t color within the lines, and restraining myself is very hard. However, I still followed the research results that I was getting. And so what has evolved for me, is an additional paper outside of Black LIS education, into [Black] law librarianship and opened my eyes to a different research tangent for me.”
Selena is based in Los Angeles, which means she can utilize the LA County Library’s Black Resource Center for some of her research.
“We learned that there’s a Negro Teacher Librarian Program, and I found an author for a dissertation in 1944 which is very instructive of the wider lens,” Selena said. “There’s lots of information that just abounds. I found a specific article for the first Black librarian, Edward Christopher Williams, that’s instructive for the poster presentation and also the project that we’re working on for Tracie to fill in his information about who exactly he was and what contributions he made to Black librarianship.”
Katie expressed her agreement, adding, “One of the hardest parts is for both of us and something that Tracie had taught us is you know when we’re doing this research, is to go deep, not wide, because I get lost in a lot of it.”
It was also an experience of learning to work with different organizations and people that have different needs and coming together to focus on one thing.
“A lot of the job postings that I see when looking for even just a part-time job or a clerk or page job, say they’re looking for people who want to learn, who know how to work in a team,” Selena said. “So this is good instruction on compromise.”
As someone that hopes to go into academic librarianship, Katie knows that research is a part of that job, especially when looking for tenure-track positions.
“I think we both lucked out because as Selena said, she wants to be a law researcher, so for both of us we just fell in at the right place. And I don’t know that we were expecting it, but luckily enough, we were both very happy to dive into what research involves.”
Selena and Katie met weekly along with a few of the other internship students in VR and UX, which allowed them to participate in some of the updates for the iSchool web app, too, which has led to opportunities to participate in even VR poster presentations, also.
Katie has expressed her gratitude for her experience with this new media and technology that they might need to use in the future. Even law libraries might use VR one day, Selena said, to help people prepare for their time in court, and it is great to get that practice now.
After their dedicated time to researching Black librarian academia and scholarship, it came time to gather the results.
“There were no bombshells going in,” Katie admits. “It’s all stuff that you can imagine to be true from the Black American experience. We can start with a broad literature search, right? But then it’s also digging into archives. It’s digging into master’s theses and dissertations from other people’s research and seeing what we can find. There’s still a lot of information that we can’t find, which is the hardest part – when you want that piece of data, and you’re emailing all of these archives and nobody’s answering…going back to 1890 until the present day.”
Going back to Edward Christopher Williams, the first Black person to get a professional library education, showed Katie and Selena that a lot of Black LIS has taken place in the American South.
“We’re always thinking of the North as a more contemporary place that was nicer to African Americans and to Black people, which was generally true,” Katie said. “But as far as schooling goes, there were practices of non-admission. And so they might take somebody one year and not take another Black person for five years.”
It’s also important to recognize that the Black students that were accepted to these programs were white-passing (a term that means that their mixed heritage might have allowed them to blend more easily in with white people), Katie pointed out, as letters they have read have so much as stated.
But when funding came for professional library schools for Black students, they were concentrated in the South – for example, Clark Atlanta which has graduated more Black LIS students than any other school has, with a 99 percent success rate at finding LIS careers after graduation.
“When that school closed because it did, did that contribute to the lack of Black Librarianship in general? Was one school really holding the numbers up or is there something else going on? There are all of these questions that are coming out of the research, but no real bombshells – the more you learn the more questions you have. So even as focused as we are in library education, it’s so vast, there are so many different areas to study just within that one topic.”
Selena read a case study that discusses that two of the key factors needed to recruit and retain Black MLIS students: financial aid and mentorship.
“Financial aid is very important because [many] Black students can’t finance themselves through education without help, fellowships, or some type of residency program. You have to give people a chance to learn their craft or learn their profession. And you can’t just say ‘Okay, you’ve taken all the classes now, graduate, and be good librarians.’ You have to give them a pathway to success.”
Advice For The Future
Katie recommends that students interested in research internships: “be ready to make the deep dives and explore tons of information and different avenues. You’re gonna ask questions to other people who are working in different fields, questions like, ‘How can I get a hold of this information?’ It might not lead anywhere, but it might lead somewhere, and you’re always going to be finding more.”
“Keep all your notes. Whatever you find, don’t throw it away,” Selena recommends. “Be open and flexible. I never thought when I was sending in my resume that I would be attending and presenting at conferences. Be open to accepting those little breadcrumbs that will take you down another path.”
According to Katie, leaning on your partners and experience is key. “Having Selena as a partner in this research made it 1000 times easier and better and it made it easier to accept the help, too,” Katie says. “ This research is going to help define our careers in the future.”
Both Katie and Selena have also stated how nice it is to know that Dr. Chow and Tracie Hall have both offered themselves up as continued mentors even beyond the internship, They further noted how they have been able to network with other researchers and LIS professionals as well, thanks to this opportunity.
Katie graduated in May, and between this opportunity and her new position as a full-time Research Instruction and Outreach Librarian at Cal State University Dominguez Hills she feels well-equipped with the writing and research skills needed for her new job.
“If you see an interesting opportunity, jump on it, because you don’t know where it’ll take you,” Katie says. “I feel like this is really setting us up professionally in a way we weren’t before this semester. This project has allowed me to highlight all of these [new] skills in a way that I can present to future employers. It has also shown me that it’s something I want to do. Let me totally get lost in research – I’ll be happy if my career allows me to do that.”
Selena hopes to graduate next May but is keeping busy in the meantime, with external professional organizations, as a legal volunteer and doing her own research.
Katie and Selena were invited to present at CLA, and even ALA with iSchool-approved travel scholarships — and both have decided to stick around and volunteer their time for the remainder of the summer. Though the summer and their time with the iSchool will come to an end, their time as LIS researchers has only just begun.
Check This Out
For a fast-paced, interesting, macabre, and informative read, Katie recommends Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom and Living in Data by Jer Thorp for a more technical read.
She also recommends Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble, which she says “found me at the perfect time, and definitely increased my awareness of and passion for social justice in librarianship.”
Selena enjoys mysteries, including the works of Elizabeth George, especially the Inspector Lynley series. More recently, she’s been interested in her personal genealogy project, and learning more about her background and other cultures– including Scottish, Scottish, NW Europe/unincorporated Germany, and Chinese travel to Jamaica.