When Isiah Harris was growing up, he’d visit the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Gahanna and Main Library branches with his mother.
The African American Fiction Collection, which has its own section, was a favorite spot.
“I have a lot of memories of her perusing the African American section for content and that being a really safe space for her,” said Harris, now 31, of the East Side. “I know that books can be a safe space for Black folks.”
But during the first quarter of this year, readers who have grown accustomed to the library system’s African American Fiction section will have to engage the books in a different way.
Even as the library deals with ongoing staff shortages, it is taking on the task of phasing out the African American fiction label, which is found on books by African American authors, including everyone from Octavia Butler to Terry McMillan. Instead of being shelved together in a separate section, they will be interfiled with other books in the general and genre fiction sections.
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An exception will be made for Urban Fiction books, which the Library of Congress defines as “fiction that features African Americans in inner cities and that generally includes explicit profanity, sex and violence.” Those titles will receive a new Urban Fiction sticker and be shelved in a separate section.
Columbus Metropolitan Library is following trend among public libraries
The Columbus Metropolitan Library did not make this decision in a vacuum. Cuyahoga County Public Library made the same change in 2016, and the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library is currently undergoing this shift.
The Columbus library also said it took guidance from the Houston Public Library in Texas, Kalamazoo Public Library in Michigan, and New Orleans Public Library in Louisiana.
Although the American Library Association doesn’t track the number of library systems that have made this change, the organization confirmed it has been an ongoing conversation among library systems for more than a decade.
The concern for some is that African American Fiction sections are "othering" and marginalizing Black authors, doing a disservice to readers because they do not reflect the breadth of books by Black writers.
Although libraries have said they are committed to highlighting Black authors in other ways, some Black community members fear the books ultimately will be buried in the general collection.
“I hope that folks are still able to find their connection with literature and they're able to have that same sort of magical experience,” Harris said.
History of the African American Fiction label
Multiple library systems have said they began using the African American labels in the 1980s or 1990s to bring awareness to Black writers who were being published less often than their white counterparts.
“There were a lot of really strong Black authors who were emerging, but their work was getting lost,” said Wendy Bartlett, manager of collection development and acquisitions for the Cuyahoga County Public Library. “People like Terry McMillan, Eric Jerome Dickey, E. Lynn Harris, Octavia Butler — and Toni Morrison, even. We wanted to show our communities that we carried these books and that we wanted them there for them to read.”
As more Black authors were being published, the section expanded, especially with the increasingly popular Urban Fiction titles. Bartlett said Black customers and staff began to complain about different types of books being in the same section.
“You can't just pigeonhole people into one label anymore,” she said. “African American is not a genre. Everybody wants to read ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett. So, you're really doing everyone a disservice.”
In August 2020, the Columbus Metropolitan Library formed the African American Collection Review Committee, a diverse group of staff members, which discussed the change and gathered feedback from other employee groups.
The library did not survey customers for logistical reasons, but felt strongly enough about the decision to move forward, said Erica Cherup, collection development manager for the Columbus Metropolitan Library system. But she said the library system will gather customer feedback on improving the collection of books by Black authors.
Cherup said the African American Fiction section, consisting of 20% to 25% Urban Fiction books, was piecemeal.
“We know we can do a better or job of highlighting these books in lots of different ways and not be limited by that label,” she said. “We can put together wonderful book lists and displays in our branches.”
The library system also will train staff to have better conversations with customers about authors of color and examine ways to improve the catalog so that readers can easily search for diverse authors and stories.
‘They really don’t value our place in the collection’
A former Columbus library employee, who is Black, expressed concern about the change.
“If the label goes away, then it's no longer visible, and that makes it easier to not have to spend money on it,” said the former employee, who declined to share their name because of remaining ties to the library.
The former employee also was skeptical about the library’s promise to highlight Black authors following the transition.
“It’s a microcosm (of society),” the former employee said. “We've got white people dictating what should be, from hiring to material on the shelf to the colors of the walls. They're really good at saying, ‘We really should do better.’ Yeah, you really should. Have you done better? ‘Well, no, not really.’”
Catherine Willis, an African American activist, educator and longtime library volunteer, said she was surprised by the change.
“I'm stunned to the point that I really am almost speechless,” said Willis, who lives near Delaware County and is in her 80s. She also founded the Urban Strings Columbus youth orchestra, which often performs in local libraries.
“It makes me feel that they really don't value our place as African Americans in the collection. It doesn't get as valued when it's integrated," Willis said. "That's why we have Black sororities and fraternities. We have the (National Museum of African American History and Culture.) We have incidences where people have to carve out things that are African American in order for them to be valued. It just makes me so angry when I hear this.”
Other customers, like 15-year-old Lania Jordan, feel differently.
“I certainly think it'll be easier for readers to find the books that they love,” said Jordan, who is Black, and lives on the West Side. “I'm into fantasy fiction, so I’m not really in the (African American Fiction) section a lot. I think it'll be a good change. I really don’t think it’s a big difference.”
‘Don’t put my book in the African American section’
Library systems putting Black authors' work with others of the same fiction or other genre have been influenced in part by opinions of African American authors like acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writer N.K. (Nora Keita) Jemisin, who wrote the article, “Don’t put my book in the African American section.” She explained the racist history of the publishing industry, which first assumed Black people didn’t read, and then diminished books by Black writers in the market.
“As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto,” Jemisin wrote. “Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population.”
Writer and Ohio native K. Tempest Bradford said she understood Jemisin's point of view.
“I wouldn't necessarily be offended if a bookstore put my stuff with other African American fiction, but I wouldn't want it to be a dictate from the publisher,” said Bradford, who is Black and in her early 40s, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. She has a novel for middle-school readers due in September, but also is working on a steampunk novel for adults.
“I wouldn't want it to be something that every bookstore does because, in the end, I'm writing a book for people who love steampunk, not necessarily a book just for Black people who love steampunk. In a library, I would just want it shelved with the other fantasy (books),” she said.
Perceptions of the Urban Fiction section
Some readers feel that, by creating a separate Urban Fiction section, libraries are highlighting a singular, stereotypical view of African Americans.
“It's a macroaggression,” the former Columbus library employee said. “Libraries push publishing, and publishing pushes libraries. They're in it together. Publishers are going to find something that's popular, and they're going to push that. It's hard to get something positive out there or something different out there. And the thing about Urban Fiction—it's so shocking and negative from my standpoint. People who want to read that stuff, they are invested in it. They know their authors. They're going to be able to find it real fast if you just put it in general fiction.”
Academic librarian Stacy Collins also expressed concern about an Urban Fiction section, citing a history of whiteness as the “default” or “universal reading experience” in the library system.
“It's a very white way of saying, ‘Here's the Blackness we wish to highlight,'” said Collins, 33, who works for Simmons University in Boston.
“It’s othering and tokenizing at best and downright harmful at worst," Collins said. "And if libraries are not examining the history this genre has and the history that they are perpetuating, then you're not doing a lot of good by having a section, no matter what the intention behind it is.”
Columbus Metropolitan Library said it plans to expand the Urban Fiction beyond the Library of Congress definition by adding books by authors of all backgrounds and with characters of any race—as long as it conforms to the genre.
Books by Black authors in libraries: Looking at the bigger picture
Beyond labels and sections, the Black Caucus of the American Library Association is addressing larger concerns of representation within libraries.
Both the association's president Shauntee Burns-Simpson and vice president Nichelle M. Hayes acknowledged the pros and cons of the changes to the African American Fiction Collection, but stressed the need for more books by Black authors and more cultural programming within libraries.
“The library profession is very much a white female-dominated profession,” said Hayes, who runs the Indianapolis Public Library's Center for Black Literature & Culture. “We have to make sure that our librarians reflect the community. We also have to make sure that we are pressing upon publishers to publish books by and about Black people and Black themes.”
Hayes and Burns-Simpson also said the New York City-based caucus is working to dismantle barriers self-published authors face in getting their books into libraries.
Ultimately, it comes down to holding libraries accountable, Hayes said.
“What it would take is for patrons, the community and the press to follow up and say, ‘How are things going?’ and to let them know, ‘We're going to be looking to see what you're doing moving forward.’”
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio libraries phasing out African American Fiction label, section