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Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow

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Americans tend to imagine their public libraries as time-honored advocates of equitable access to information for all. Through much of the twentieth century, however, many black Americans were denied access to public libraries or allowed admittance only to separate and smaller buildings and collections. While scholars have examined and continue to uncover the history of sc Americans tend to imagine their public libraries as time-honored advocates of equitable access to information for all. Through much of the twentieth century, however, many black Americans were denied access to public libraries or allowed admittance only to separate and smaller buildings and collections. While scholars have examined and continue to uncover the history of school segregation, there has been much less research published on the segregation of public libraries in the Jim Crow South. In fact, much of the writing on public library history has failed to note these racial exclusions. In Not Free, Not for All, Cheryl Knott traces the establishment, growth, and eventual demise of separate public libraries for African Americans in the South, disrupting the popular image of the American public library as historically welcoming readers from all walks of life. Using institutional records, contemporaneous newspaper and magazine articles, and other primary sources together with scholarly work in the fields of print culture and civil rights history, Knott reconstructs a complex story involving both animosity and cooperation among whites and blacks who valued what libraries had to offer. African American library advocates, staff, and users emerge as the creators of their own separate collections and services with both symbolic and material importance, even as they worked toward dismantling those very institutions during the era of desegregation.


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Americans tend to imagine their public libraries as time-honored advocates of equitable access to information for all. Through much of the twentieth century, however, many black Americans were denied access to public libraries or allowed admittance only to separate and smaller buildings and collections. While scholars have examined and continue to uncover the history of sc Americans tend to imagine their public libraries as time-honored advocates of equitable access to information for all. Through much of the twentieth century, however, many black Americans were denied access to public libraries or allowed admittance only to separate and smaller buildings and collections. While scholars have examined and continue to uncover the history of school segregation, there has been much less research published on the segregation of public libraries in the Jim Crow South. In fact, much of the writing on public library history has failed to note these racial exclusions. In Not Free, Not for All, Cheryl Knott traces the establishment, growth, and eventual demise of separate public libraries for African Americans in the South, disrupting the popular image of the American public library as historically welcoming readers from all walks of life. Using institutional records, contemporaneous newspaper and magazine articles, and other primary sources together with scholarly work in the fields of print culture and civil rights history, Knott reconstructs a complex story involving both animosity and cooperation among whites and blacks who valued what libraries had to offer. African American library advocates, staff, and users emerge as the creators of their own separate collections and services with both symbolic and material importance, even as they worked toward dismantling those very institutions during the era of desegregation.

30 review for Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow

  1. 5 out of 5

    Claire

    I'd like to make this recommended reading for every white librarian and aspiring librarian out there, and absolutely mandatory for library school professors, administrators, and board members. That probably won't happen, since it's long and relatively academic in tone and density, but if you're a white librarian or teaching librarians, please, please add this to your reading list. The non-narrative tone and focus on circ procedures/stats, collections, etc, probably means that this isn't going to I'd like to make this recommended reading for every white librarian and aspiring librarian out there, and absolutely mandatory for library school professors, administrators, and board members. That probably won't happen, since it's long and relatively academic in tone and density, but if you're a white librarian or teaching librarians, please, please add this to your reading list. The non-narrative tone and focus on circ procedures/stats, collections, etc, probably means that this isn't going to be hugely interesting or enlightening for non-library readers. It's hard to tl;dr anything about this book, and I can't give it the exhaustive review with highlights for you all that it deserves. If I had to pick the most intense, deeply resonant thing, it's that from the first chapter it's immediately obvious as someone inside the profession how deeply these roots are still present in public libraries... mostly especially the way that as a profession, public librarians spend (and have always spent) a lot of time sharing cookies and patting ourselves on the back while working hard to uphold white supremacist systems, intentionally or in willful ignorance. "The good accomplished is no excuse for the insult offered," W.E.B. DuBois said of the segregated YMCAs, and the author applies the criticism to segregated library services as well. Some of the quotes from those ALA conferences and librarians -- and some of the ways that inquitable policies were established and enforced -- are pretty damn close to what you'd hear now. Fuck, part of it was a perfect parallel to a TedX video about early literacy that I was required to watch for a library school class LAST WEEK. Anyway, non-BIPOC librarians, please read this. Library school professors, please teach it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bean

    If libraries can be associated with intellectual freedom, free public space, and protected access to information, we have Black librarians, patrons, and community organizers to thank for holding these institutions (largely founded by middle-class white women) accountable to their supposed values. This thoroughly-researched book pays homage to those historic figures, and uncovers a startling legacy of anti-Black oppression within the very foundation of public libraries across the country. Though If libraries can be associated with intellectual freedom, free public space, and protected access to information, we have Black librarians, patrons, and community organizers to thank for holding these institutions (largely founded by middle-class white women) accountable to their supposed values. This thoroughly-researched book pays homage to those historic figures, and uncovers a startling legacy of anti-Black oppression within the very foundation of public libraries across the country. Though Knott focuses on the south, her indictment of libraries across the United States (including the American Library Association) is clear: "My focus on the south is not intended to imply that blacks in the north enjoyed unfettered access to integrated public libraries. As Clack has shown, racially restricted library access existed in the north, but much of it was perpetrated under cover. Abigail Van Slyck discusses how library exteriors and interiors can be designed to discourage some people from entering a building or staying in it for long. And there were other ways to discourage use: a stern expression on a white librarian's face, an all-white staff and clients, the request that a black library user sit at a table where white users wouldn't sit. Such methods are seldom documented in libraries' standard archival records, yet they were used in places where African Americans lived..." (Introduction, p. 8). Library workers, reading the excerpt above, might feel their stomachs drop -- too many of the historical realities portrayed in Knott's text are part of our library systems today. This book is a crucial read for anyone who patronizes or works for public libraries, as well as those who want to understand the powerful legacies of Black resistance to racial oppression. A caveat: the author is a white woman, interpreting Black history. The upside: she seems to understand that tension, and (in speaking to the majority-white field of library science) her perspective may pack a punch: "In a history of public libraries that relies on sources generated by whites to reconstruct the past, how do the voices and experiences of black activists, librarians, and readers change what we think we know about libraries as institutions and about librarians as champions of intellectual freedom and democractic participation?" (Introduction, p. 3) TLDR; read this, ESPECIALLY if you spend time in public libraries.

  3. 4 out of 5

    C.E. G

    Only a specific kind of nerd will want to read this book, and I am that specific kind of nerd. The kind of nerd who wants to spend a couple days of their life learning about, say, the circulation statistics of public libraries 50-90 years ago and how those broke down by demographics. There were definitely some parts that I skimmed, but overall, it's a topic that fascinated me. I remember wondering about this topic when I started working in libraries in 2012 and doing a google on it, but this boo Only a specific kind of nerd will want to read this book, and I am that specific kind of nerd. The kind of nerd who wants to spend a couple days of their life learning about, say, the circulation statistics of public libraries 50-90 years ago and how those broke down by demographics. There were definitely some parts that I skimmed, but overall, it's a topic that fascinated me. I remember wondering about this topic when I started working in libraries in 2012 and doing a google on it, but this book wasn't published until 2015. We librarians like to pat ourselves on the back for being an overall progressive profession, but that's often been giving ourselves too much credit. White librarianship is a history of hypocrisy and, at significant times, overt racism, as this book shows. For example, in Montgomery and Danville VA, the city libraries were given court-orders to desegregate their buildings. What did the libraries do in response? They removed all of the chairs in the building, so black and white people couldn't sit together. They called this "vertical integration." Andrew Carnegie and his foundation had an interesting role in the segregation of Southern library services - like, he could have insisted that to accept his money, cities make the buildings open to all residents. But instead, when cities refused, he just funded separate libraries for black people. But the South in general had trouble keeping up with the public library development in the North and West. Of the $41 million Carnegie donated to libraries, only $3 million went to libraries in the Southeast. Southern libraries also spent less on maintaining their buildings: In 1930s, far west spent $1.08 per capita on libraries. Northeast $0.75. Midwest $0.73. Northwest $0.42. Southwest $0.23. Southeast $0.16. It was really amazing to read about those who campaigned for equitable library services, including black librarians, WEB DuBois, Booker Washington (though he was sort of "separate can be equal"), Rosa Parks, and Howard Zinn. Charlemae Hill Rollins and Vivian Harsh are two of my new librarian idols. It's the work of librarians to continue building on the work of those activists. There was a study done in 1963 by an MLIS student on "Public Library Service in Thirteen Southern States", in which Knott says the student declared that her study would "make sympathetic but timid librarians aware that many of their counterparts had already begun to dismantle segregation and that they should do so as well." "Sympathetic but timid" is such a familiar library personality to me - luckily the Charlemae Hill Rollins and Vivian Harsh types are here to keep things uncomfortable and bold.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Samantha Hines

    Should be required reading in library school.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Danielle

    Don't get me wrong, the history in this book is interesting and important. But oof, reading this book was such a slog. Lots of facts with no narrative. I ended up having my computer read to me because otherwise my mind kept wandering the second I started reading. Read for LIS 601 Information: Contexts and Perspectives Don't get me wrong, the history in this book is interesting and important. But oof, reading this book was such a slog. Lots of facts with no narrative. I ended up having my computer read to me because otherwise my mind kept wandering the second I started reading. Read for LIS 601 Information: Contexts and Perspectives

  6. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Noe

    "As the twenty-first century demands new literacies and critical skills... barriers do not disappear. They merely shift with the times." This history, perhaps as this book in whole or perhaps incorporated into existing curriculum, should be required for all LIS students. Our libraries are not the pure, idealized monument to access for all that most people enter LIS programs believing and far too many still believe once they emerge. This book forces the reader to confront the real history of publi "As the twenty-first century demands new literacies and critical skills... barriers do not disappear. They merely shift with the times." This history, perhaps as this book in whole or perhaps incorporated into existing curriculum, should be required for all LIS students. Our libraries are not the pure, idealized monument to access for all that most people enter LIS programs believing and far too many still believe once they emerge. This book forces the reader to confront the real history of public libraries in the United States.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Maggie Boyd

    While the information regarding racism and the use of libraries in this text is vital, the format of the book made it almost unreadable. Taking us not just through the Jim Crow South but showing how Northern libraries often made African American patrons read in separate rooms or use only certain branches, the narrative highlights how cultural racism was reflected within this prized institution. This racism was found at the highest levels, such as when a judge " delayed making a final decision on While the information regarding racism and the use of libraries in this text is vital, the format of the book made it almost unreadable. Taking us not just through the Jim Crow South but showing how Northern libraries often made African American patrons read in separate rooms or use only certain branches, the narrative highlights how cultural racism was reflected within this prized institution. This racism was found at the highest levels, such as when a judge " delayed making a final decision on the case to give city and library officials time to develop a strategy to prevent integration." The few services provided were subpar. "For the most part, African American library buildings were small, with inadequate collections and funding." States like Mississippi "outlawed the circulation of books that portray social equality between Negroes and whites."" almost 2 million southern blacks lived in areas with public libraries that refused them service" and even more unfairly African Americans were taxed "for a municipal service. . denied them." The author, however, combines information regarding African American publishers, authors and patrons with her information on library policies and gives this to us with no coherent time line. You would finish a chapter that included information on the first black patrons checking a book out of the main branch of the Atlanta public library in 1959 and in the next chapter find yourself back in the late 1800s. A more temporally navigated story would have provided a clearer, more cohesive picture of this issue.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    This is a very disturbing book. I read it because of a tweet from @Tuphlos. This is a book, wherever you work in the world, if you work in libraries, you need to read it. It is important history for one location, but it highlights ongoing issues for libraries around the world. It demonstrates that saying your library is welcoming and inclusive are a long way from your library actually being welcoming and inclusive. It also shows the need for effective outreach so that people who aren't using the This is a very disturbing book. I read it because of a tweet from @Tuphlos. This is a book, wherever you work in the world, if you work in libraries, you need to read it. It is important history for one location, but it highlights ongoing issues for libraries around the world. It demonstrates that saying your library is welcoming and inclusive are a long way from your library actually being welcoming and inclusive. It also shows the need for effective outreach so that people who aren't using the library know about what it can do for them. While this book shows legal barriers - segregation - to library use, make sure there are not other barriers in your area. This is a disturbing and important book to read. There was one sentence which highlighted problems "Most [libraries] who reported some move towards total desegregation also acknowledged that African Americans had not been told of these policy changes". Do you ever change something but don't tell the clients about it? Also "Libraries continued to restrict use to whites only...almost 2 million southern blacks lived in areas with public libraries that refused them service". This book continually demonstrated the need for a diverse collection and diverse staff - no excuses.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    I highly recommend this book for librarians and library users to learn more about public library history. I feel like we don't consider libraries when we think about the history of segregation, and yet many library workers are well aware of how white our profession is. Looking back at how intentional libraries as white spaces were and how hard white people fought to keep them separate and unavailable to Black patrons helps us understand why it's so hard to bring diversity to librarianship now. I highly recommend this book for librarians and library users to learn more about public library history. I feel like we don't consider libraries when we think about the history of segregation, and yet many library workers are well aware of how white our profession is. Looking back at how intentional libraries as white spaces were and how hard white people fought to keep them separate and unavailable to Black patrons helps us understand why it's so hard to bring diversity to librarianship now.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Chanelle

    Informative, but execution is terrible. It's full of facts with no narrative and the timeline is all over the place. Despite the poor execution, this is an important book that shows the disturbing (but not surprising) and often unacknowledged history of public libraries. Definitely a must read for library professionals. Informative, but execution is terrible. It's full of facts with no narrative and the timeline is all over the place. Despite the poor execution, this is an important book that shows the disturbing (but not surprising) and often unacknowledged history of public libraries. Definitely a must read for library professionals.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Bentley

    I read this book b/c I noticed it listed for an intro MLIS class at Wayne State Univ. re: Equitable Access to Information, as a theme... for rural public libraries, I can see many cross-over issues as being relevant. Very informative, but sometimes- just sometimes- felt like a chore to read.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Emily Clasper

    Required reading for library professionals. Especially recommended for those with the starry-eyed audacity to declare libraries "neutral". Required reading for library professionals. Especially recommended for those with the starry-eyed audacity to declare libraries "neutral".

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ilana

    As a librarian really enjoyed this book and its many lessons to think about

  14. 5 out of 5

    Rea Scott

    It's a bit dry for pleasure reading but very well researched. It'd be a great resource for a paper, presentation, or professional project. It's a bit dry for pleasure reading but very well researched. It'd be a great resource for a paper, presentation, or professional project.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

    An important, insightful study of the segregation of public library services during the Jim Crow era.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    027.475 K728 2015

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jenna

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jess

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jen Pavlik

  20. 4 out of 5

    Beth

  21. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  22. 4 out of 5

    Frank

  23. 5 out of 5

    SB

  24. 5 out of 5

    Taylor Nasinec

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gigi

  26. 4 out of 5

    Gina

  27. 5 out of 5

    Llysha Patterson

  28. 5 out of 5

    Spenser

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  30. 4 out of 5

    Erin McCoy

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