The Problem With Library History

I wrapped up my undergraduate degree in History last month. The capstone paper in my program was a historiography—for those of you who had enough sense to major in something practical, a historiography is like a fancy book report where you summarize the history of the histories written about a subject. For example, you could take a whole stack of books about Abraham Lincoln and compare them to each other, like how some books addressed his economic policies while others detailed his wrestling career. It’s more fun than it sounds—it’s easier than a research paper and you get to request a lot of books through interlibrary loan. Since I am a nerd twice-over, I wrote mine on the history of African Americans and the American Public Library.

Here is a secret regular people don’t know: librarians love to write about themselves. They also love to compile wonderfully organized lists of books. Since they assumed that resources on this subject were scarce, this made impressing my cohort and at least two professors almost too easy. Through a happy accident I even managed to impress myself, because the first book I chose to cover ended up being linked to the last book in a way that looked totally intentional. The story of these two books is interesting, and I share it with you here.

I began with the classic The Southern Negro and the Public Library, written as a doctoral dissertation by Eliza Atkins Gleason and published in 1941. Gleason was the first African American to receive a PhD in Library Science, and her book was the landmark study of a subject that many people were trying hard to ignore. The American Library Association has an award named for her that they issue to the best recent work of library history. Gleason was the first dean of the School of Library Service at Atlanta University, a historically black institution that graduated the majority of African American librarians.

Virginia Lacy Jones was the second African American to earn a doctorate in Library Science, and the second dean of Atlanta University’s School of Library Service. She and Gleason had significant, long-term impacts on the study of library service to black Americans, especially in the South. They encouraged students to write their master’s theses on their hometown libraries, with titles like “A History of Public Library Services to Negroes in Memphis, Tennessee.” This collective body of work is almost all the scholarship on the subject. I learned about this by reading the “Notes on Primary Sources” in the back of The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South by Wayne A. Wiegand, the final book I used for my paper.

Now here’s the point: I had examined a lot of bibliographies in books of library history by the time I got to The Desegregation of Public Libraries and it was the first one since Gleason’s book that had any interest in what black librarians had to say. Wiegand’s book was published in 2018. The library profession is concerned by its own lack of diversity. I don’t pretend to understand all the reasons for this uniformity, but I’m certain that this absence in the history books is a piece of the puzzle. Historical works, like all literature, reflect the culture of the time in which they are written.

On a lighter note, my favorite thing about the study of history is the idea that some insignificant action you take today can have an impact on someone else sometime in the future, and you can’t predict which action that will be. Maybe the thesis you write in library school will sit on a shelf for seventy years, but someday the world will change enough that people will be glad that you wrote it.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of black librarianship, I recommend this website as a starting point.

Cover image is by Bokskapet from Pixabay.

Categories: History

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3 replies

  1. When I studied public library history the classics, Shera and Ditzion, barely mention women or people of color. Have tried to correct in Introduction to Public Librarianship (with Jenny Bossaller,ALA editions). Another connection– Carleton B. Joeckel,who was phd advisor for Eliza Atkins Gleason, laid the groundwork for public library systems. I added this to Wikipedia pages. Please add information to Wikipedia as you develop your research. What you are finding is so important.


  2. Only 68 African American librarians are listed in Wikipedia. A number of these entries have been created or enhanced by me and my students enrolled in my library history class. Most recent from my class are entries for Samuel Morrison and Wanda Kay Brown. Thank you for focusing on the need for many more to be developed. Your insightful essay inspires and encourages.

    Liked by 1 person

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