Tag: Carla Hayden

HISTORY: Pioneering African-American Librarians Share Their Stories

Jessie Carney Smith in 1965, her first year as a university librarian at Fisk University in Nashville.
Jessie Carney Smith in 1965, her first year as a university librarian at Fisk University in Nashville. (photo via americanlibrariesmagazine.org)

by  via americanlibrariesmagazine.org

When Jessie Carney Smith arrived at Fisk University in Nashville in 1965, she says many people there did not know about black literature. Smith, the dean of the library, says, “Many scholars were told that blacks had no history.” But African Americans within the library profession have certainly had a long history, with one of the first librarians of color, Edward C. Williams, joining the American Library Association (ALA) in 1896—20 years after the founding of the Association. And today, African Americans comprise roughly 14,250 of the estimated 190,000 librarians in the United States, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

American Libraries spoke with five leading African-American librarians about their careers, the changes they have witnessed over the decades, and the current issues in librarianship. While no two people have the same story, all five interviewees note inclusivity as an important theme. They discuss libraries as safe havens, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the history and future of the Association, as well as their legacies within the profession.

As library professor Alma Dawson says, “Even in this day and age, we still have to tell our own stories.”


Satia Orange
Satia Orange

Satia Orange

When Satia Orange, 75, was growing up in the 1950s, she saw what she described as “the grinding work” of her parents, both librarians.

Her father was A. P. Marshall, an ALA Councilor and director of libraries at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. Orange saw him come “home for dinner and then return to the library until 9 or 10 p.m., doing budgets.”

Orange herself later went on to become director of ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, retiring from ALA in 2009. “I was pulled into the profession kicking and screaming,” she jokes.

She began her career in education, teaching in Milwaukee in the mid-1960s, when she received a call one day from Virginia Lacy Jones, dean of Atlanta University’s School of Library Sciences and the first—and at that time only—black library school. Jones offered her a fellowship, promising Orange that she would be able to work with young children, something she enjoyed as part of her prior experience working in the library in the Atlanta school system.

It wasn’t until she started attending conferences that Orange began to view librarianship as her profession. As she participated in midwinter meetings and annual conferences, she recalled what her father had told her years ago: “This was a profession that has a national and international impact.”


Robert Wedgeworth
Robert Wedgeworth

Robert Wedgeworth

Robert Wedgeworth, 80, knows well about the profession’s impact. Wedgeworth became ALA executive director in 1972, at a time of significant financial challenges, with one library publication suggesting that bankruptcy was imminent. But Wedgeworth said he received “some very good advice from friends in the banking industry”; after analyzing the Association’s finances, “they advised me that ALA didn’t have financial problems—it had control problems.”

Wedgeworth balanced ALA’s budget within two years.

During his 12-year tenure, ALA membership increased by more than 25%, and its annual budget more than doubled. The Association also resolved an ongoing building development issue with the construction of Huron Plaza, which has since brought more than $18 million into ALA endowments, and took over operation of National Library Week from the National Book Committee.

Wedgeworth’s forward-thinking approach is also evident in how he applied what he learned from the 1962 Century 21 Exposition in Seattle. He was one of 75 librarians that ALA chose to work at the futuristic Library 21 exhibit, and he was, as he says, “in the first group of librarians to apply computers to library problems” when he became assistant chief acquisitions librarian at Brown University in 1966.

His career in libraries has spanned decades: working as a 14-year-old in libraries over the summer and continuing throughout his four years in college, where a librarian “influenced me to consider librarianship as a career.”

Since leaving ALA, Wedgeworth has served as dean of the School of Library Service at Columbia University in New York and university librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he is currently president of ProLiteracy Worldwide, a nonprofit that promotes adult literacy.


Alma Dawson
Alma Dawson

Alma Dawson

As Russell Long professor and professor emeritus in library and information science at Louisiana State University (LSU), Alma Dawson, 74, was one of the primary forces in the long-term rebuilding of libraries after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. She led Project Recovery, an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant-funded project to educate librarians in south Louisiana to compensate for staff losses after the hurricanes. “It was important to me to make sure that we were connecting what the students were doing in the classroom to everyday experience,” Dawson says. Students recruited for Project Recovery met LSU graduate school requirements and were then admitted into the library program, and all of them went on to professional library positions.

Dawson has also worked to document the history of African Americans in librarianship. “Even in this day and age, we still have to tell our own stories,” she says. “We can stress the importance of figuring out where people are, the kind of positions they have, and the research they’re doing.”

Dawson was, if not recruited to librarianship early, at least welcomed to the library in her youth. “I worked with a librarian in high school who let me help with the library and helped me get scholarships,” she says. “I was the first person in the family to go to college, and it was all on scholarships.”

She didn’t initially work at the library as a student at Grambling (La.) State University, but she was friendly with the librarians there. She also worked in a segregated public school during the Jim Crow era, in the 1960s. “We didn’t really have the resources for students, so we had to raise all the money to buy materials for the library. It was always my goal to find a way to have the resources that the students needed,” she says.


Gladys Smiley Bell
Gladys Smiley Bell

Gladys Smiley Bell

It was Dorothy Porter, curator of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and the major force behind building it into a premiere collection for the study of African-American history, who encouraged Gladys Smiley Bell, 68, to go to library school. “When I was a student, I didn’t know about ALA and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA), so I try to encourage people to join now,” she says.

She’s also worked to help librarians forge connections through professional activities. Bell cochaired the first Joint Council of Librarians of Color (JCLC) in 2006, the first-ever shared conference among ALA’s five ethnic affiliate associations: BCALA, the American Indian Library Association, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, the Chinese American Librarians Association, and Reforma.

With that conference, she says she “was very excited for how we could change the profession in terms of diversity and how we could come together to serve the people,” Bell says. A second JCLC was held in 2012, and a third will take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in September.

Bell is now the Peabody Librarian of the William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library at Hampton (Va.) University.


Jessie Carney Smith
Jessie Carney Smith

Jessie Carney Smith

Jessie Carney Smith, 87, is not a historian even though some people call her that. “I’m a librarian who has done some historical work,” she says. As dean of the library at Fisk University in Nashville, she has published extensively on African-American history, including three books of biographies of black women and two books of biographies of black men. “I looked for areas that had not been talked about,” Smith says.

After college, she moved to Nashville but couldn’t find a teaching job because of the limited openings in segregated schools. She found a job as a clerk-typist at Fisk University under librarian and writer Arna Bontemps. “I was impressed by his work and the contact he had with other writers and publishers,” Smith says.

She earned a master’s and eventually a PhD in library science, returning to Fisk when Bontemps retired. “When I became familiar with what was then called ‘Negro collections,’ I thought, ‘Why not do some work that would use those materials and promote them to others?’”

And that history is important to having a complete picture. “You may have an interest in one particular topic, and that’s fine,” she says. “But you need to know about the whole of America, not just white but black and Hispanic and other ethnic groups as well.”


Many recent events have been extremely disruptive to communities, ranging from natural disasters to unrest following police shootings or white nationalist rallies. What should a library’s role be in responding to events like these?

Satia Orange: Our Librarian of Congress [Carla Hayden] provided an example of how to respond [as director of Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore]. After the police confrontation, she opened up the library the next day. They were busy because people needed to do what they needed to do but also to understand what was happening in their neighborhood.

In Ferguson, Missouri, the director [of Ferguson Municipal Public Library, Scott Bonner] was brand new, but his training and intuition let him go in and keep the library open and make it the center of the community for information, safety, and resources.

Robert Wedgeworth: Libraries have to be responsive to their constituents, and they need to present themselves as a place where people can find information that helps to explain and understand the current issues affecting their lives. That has been a very important role for libraries over the years, and it will continue to be one. It’s not the social issue itself but that the library can be an active place in helping people to respond to issues as they present themselves.

In the 1960s, librarians were asking what extent they should be active participants in protests and combating certain topics. That continues to be a question raised in the ranks of professionals, and it will always be controversial. Different people will feel different levels of responsibility in dealing with various circumstances, but there will always be a professional role to helping people understand what’s going on in their lives and in their world.

Alma Dawson: First of all, people need information. If they’re just running on emotion, they don’t have the correct info. If we’re talking about Black Lives Matter and other issues of the day, the library has background information that is not just emotional. They have the history right there. When the hurricanes came, people went to the library because that’s where they could connect with family and the community. Librarians can be the right group of people to help.

Gladys Smiley Bell: In my opinion, those protests are political. It’s just appalling to know that things like that are happening today. But libraries can open their doors during times of crisis to provide resources and displays. Schools tend to shut down, but libraries seem to gear up. There is someone out there archiving those events for the future, maybe with the collection of what happens over the years, so that things can be better in the future. Libraries play a role in that because their doors are open to everybody to come and find out for themselves why, who, and what to do about these issues.

Jessie Carney Smith: We have a difficult job to do to help people cope with natural disasters and increasing violence. One has a right to protest, but keep violence out of it. Libraries can help by becoming involved in local dialogue, as we are doing in Nashville. But what works in one community might not work in another. You have to find ways to soften the ugly, tense moments that we have to face. Having grown up in the South, I have seen a lot of ugly and tense moments. We must find a way to deal with the bad as well as the good and let people know that we are dealing with community problems. Continue reading “HISTORY: Pioneering African-American Librarians Share Their Stories”

Author Jacqueline Woodson Named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress

Author Jacqueline Woodson, whose professional accolades include a National Book Award (Brown Girl Dreaming), four Newbery Honors (Brown Girl DreamingAfter Tupac and D Foster, Feathers and Show Way) and a stint as the Young People’s Poet Laureate, has been named the sixth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, for 2018–2019. Her appointment will become official at an inauguration ceremony on Tuesday, January 9 at the Library of Congress, presided over by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. And Woodson will accept the proverbial torch, passed from author-illustrator Gene Luen Yang, who has just completed his two-year term as Ambassador and played a key role in recruiting her.

The National Ambassador for Young People program is sponsored by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and CBC’s charitable arm, Every Child a Reader. The Librarian of Congress selects the Ambassador based on the recommendations of an independent committee comprised of various children’s literature experts including educators, librarians, and booksellers. Among the criteria for the Ambassador post are: contributions to young people’s literature, the ability to relate to kids and teens, and dedication to fostering literacy in all forms.

In a statement, Hayden shared her enthusiasm for Woodson’s selection. “We are delighted that Jacqueline Woodson has agreed to be the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature,” she said. “I have admired Jacqueline Woodson’s work for years, especially her dedication to children and young-adult literature. The Library of Congress looks forward to Jacqueline’s tenure of encouraging young readers to embrace reading as a means to improve the world.”

Woodson says she never saw herself as Ambassador. In fact, she had contacted Yang, a friend, about a year ago to put forward the name of someone else (who she declines to name) she thought would be a great choice. “I had called Gene to put a name in the hat,” she said from her Brooklyn home during a telephone interview. “He told me, ‘Well, we have someone else in mind.’ I figured he was blowing me off.” And even when talk of the honor came up in passing, years ago, Woodson wasn’t sure she would ever be a good fit. “Earlier on, when the position was first starting to get some traction, and Jon Scieszka was the Ambassador,” she recalled, “people were asking me if I would ever do it, and I said, ‘Heck, no! There’s no way I could do that.’” She was busy with her writing and had just welcomed a new baby at that time. Over time, “I kind of had the sense that I had put the kibosh on it,” she added.

But more recently, Yang called and asked if Woodson would consider taking on the appointment. She continued to champion another author (“someone younger!” she joked), but Yang persisted. “He went through all the ways in which he thought I would bring something to the Ambassadorship that was needed at this time,” Woodson said. “I thought about it, I talked to my partner about it, and I was still a bit reluctant. But then Gene said that Dr. Hayden was really into me taking this position. And I love Dr. Hayden.” Woodson explained that one of the rules in her life has always been, “When it comes to Enoch Pratt Library [Hayden’s former library, in Baltimore], I can never say no to them. I did my first reading there way back when Last Summer with Maizon came out, and I have loved everyone there. I thought, OK, if Carla Hayden is asking me to do this, I’m not saying no to it.” On a more philosophical note, she continued, “I think you are often called to do the work you’re not quite ready to do, or willing to do. And for me that’s a sign that I need to push through and do the work that’s needed.”

Woodson has chosen the phrase “Reading = Hope x Change,” as her platform as Ambassador. “I definitely believe that reading can change us and shape us in so many ways, and through it we can be exposed to people and places and ideas that we might not otherwise come across or confront in real life,” she said. “A platform about the importance of reading and having conversations across the lines of books is really important to me.”

Woodson says she will use her message to address something she has been noticing. “Young people are getting labeled ‘reluctant reader,’ or ‘advanced reader,’ and the labels in front of their names begin to try to tell them who they are,” she lamented. “I would like to see less of that and more of just kids who read.” What they read shouldn’t matter and how they read it shouldn’t matter, she said, “just so long as they can have conversations and have a deep understanding of and a deep love for what they’re reading.”

One of Woodson’s foremost goals as Ambassador is to reach young people in areas of the country that are traditionally underserved. “My family and I are going to the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice [acknowledging victims of lynchings] in Alabama this spring. I’m going to stay and try to visit some schools in Alabama and Mississippi in some of the places where they don’t get to meet writers or ambassadors every day,” she said. Additionally, she says she’s looking forward to going into juvenile detention centers and other places “where the underserved can begin to tell their stories.”

Though she’s not exactly sure how kids will relate to her in a new role, she’s excited to find out. “The thing that always brings me the greatest joy is meeting the young people,” she said. “I’m always surprised when a kid’s in awe of me as an author—I think ‘I’m just Jacqueline Woodson and I wrote a few books.’ But they’ve been studying you so long and you walk into the classroom and you’re like this superstar to them. Then you work yourself back to connecting to them so that they see you as a human being and they see themselves as young people who can do what you do. In this position it’s the same. I would love for young people to see themselves as national ambassadors of many things, today and always.” She cites the example of her own family. “I always tell my kids when we go to other countries, ‘You are ambassadors for this family. When you walk out there people are going to have ideas about this family, and how you represent yourself is going to make a difference in how they think.’ ”

The opportunity to talk about reading is another high point she’s anticipating. “I am excited for the young people’s reactions and the interactions that we’ll have around literature, and really talking about reading,” she said. “In the past mostly I’ve talked about my books and my writing process. Now I can talk much more about my reading process and the reading process, and the conversations that can be had where there isn’t a right or wrong. Did you infer from the book? Who cares? I want to know what you loved about the book and what made you mad and I want you guys to agree and disagree and have real true conversations and make amazing text-to-life connections about the book.”

Asked if there’s anything that might be scary or daunting about her new position, Woodson is reflective. “It is a very scary time to be alive,” she said. “And given that, I think of [poet and activist] Audre Lorde saying ‘we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles and we will still be no less afraid.’ I do believe this is all I have—my words, I have the words that I write down, I have the words that I speak out, I have the words that I take into classrooms.” Woodson says she accepts that there will be hatred in general, and hatred online questioning why she would be chosen as Ambassador. “Risk of backlash and people not being kind, but that’s been the risk my whole life,” she said. “It’s not going to keep me from what I’ve been called to do.”

To read more, go to: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/75729-jacqueline-woodson-named-national-ambassador-for-young-people-s-literature.html