Monday, August 28, 2017

Cheryl Knott Receives 2016 Lillian Smith Book Award

We think about public libraries as places of education and culture that are open to all – among the most democratic institutions in our society. Cheryl Knott helps us to understand that in pre-civil rights America and in the South in particular, there was a massive exception, as millions of African Americans were excluded from their communities’ white libraries. Librarians understand library segregation as undermining intellectual freedom more than any other factor in the 20th century. But the history of segregation in public libraries also has been a significantly under-told story in the larger struggle for social justice in America. Imagine barring citizens from public libraries, forbidding their access to the knowledge that they need to learn and to improve their lives, solely on the basis of their race .

Our jury selected Cheryl Knott and her Not Free, Not For All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow for a 2016 Lillian Smith Book Award. Dr. Knott is an Associate Professor in the School of Information at the University of Arizona. Her book helps us to understand how Southern public libraries developed in a pattern dictated by a segregated society and the ways in which African Americans pushed against institutionalized racism to create educational opportunities for themselves and for their children.

In accepting her 2016 Lillian Smith Book Award, Dr. Knott observed as follows:

Thank you to the Southern Regional Council, to its president Charles Johnson, to the Chair of the Selection Committee Mary Twining Baird and to all of the Selection Committee members. This award means a lot. I am also especially thrilled to be able to have this award presented by Toby Graham, who has been an inspiration to me. His own work on segregated libraries in Alabama has won numerous awards and it’s really his interest in the shifting sands of information access that continued to motivate me as I was working on this book. I also am especially pleased to be able to accept the award the same year that Dr. Minion K. C. Morrison is receiving one of numerous awards for his books. I was happy when I read his preface where he talked about this massive work taking fifteen years to do. My own work took longer than that to bring into print and yet in his fifteen year time period he also wrote another book. So I need to get busy.

I am truly inspired by the people that I’ve met and who are involved in this book festival and this book award. I think of everyone here as readers. And when I’m writing I think of scholars like Dr. Morrison and Dr. Graham who have set a very high bar , so it’s their fault that it took me so long.

But there is another category of reader, and those are the readers who are committed to the life of the mind, active public library users, and book festival goers. Those of us who are public library users love to read and reflect and enjoy, but I think sometimes we may take public libraries for granted . We don’t think of their histories of their past practices and policies.

The last time I went to the Houston Public Library to use the archive s to do some double-checking on some of the records regarding the Carnegie colored library, as it was called, the library was celebrating its founding with an exhibit. Front and center in the exhibit was a huge photographic print of the women who had taken a leadership role in transforming an existing private fee-based collection in to an important public library in a major city. They were instrumental in securing Carnegie funding for the building and convincing city officials to earmark tax money for maintenance of the building and the collection. The exhibit was in the lobby of the library and between the front t door and the archive where the records were stored. The exhibit as in a position so that you had to walk through it to get to the archives reading room and, as I walked through past this huge photo of these white women in the 1890s to get to the archives it struck me as ironic in effect that they stood between me and this archive - this hidden record .                

There is no question that these women accomplished something significant and major. They created a municipal institution that still exists today that serves its community well and that is important and they did that twenty years before they had the right to vote . At the same time I think they missed an opportunity - to put it the most charitable way possible – to acknowledge and support a key American value, and that is information access . Their library, like so many across the South (including in Atlanta), was not open to African-Americans . Houston’s African-Americans went ten years more without access to a public library and then lived forty years with segregated branches and small collections. And it was at the initiative of African Americans that the library system finally desegregated .

I grew up in Houston . I didn’t learn that the library I grew up loving was part of a segregated system until I was in my thirties and had moved far away. In fact, it was a mention somewhere else that set me on the path of learning more about this system, not only in Houston but in lots of other southern places. As one of my colleagues said, I was attempting to do local history in a lot of different locales. But I think it’s important to learn from the past, not only to try to not make the same mistakes but also to help us think critically about our own practices and policies in the present .

When I began this work, it never occurred to me that I would spend so many years trying to document and tell this story. And it never occurred to me that Not Free, Not for All would be given the Lillian Smith Book Award.

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