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Library and Information Science


This work examines twelve public libraries from the American South and how they served as learning and community-making spaces for African Americans in the age of Jim Crow. These libraries opened between 1908 and 1924 in Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas—and one northern state, Indiana. Some served as branches within larger, whites-only library systems; others, though publicly funded, were governed exclusively by African American boards. All were managed by African American librarians and staff. These twelve served as models, in many ways, for countless other “negro public libraries” opened in the South from the 1910s until the mid-century. Their original construction had been funded by Andrew Carnegie, the famed steel king from Pittsburgh, whose philanthropy largely supported the development of free public libraries in the United States and other parts of the world. To Carnegie, free public libraries were the great leveler of industrialism because, as he believed, they offered common people a chance to educate and advance themselves. Yet these twelve “colored Carnegie libraries,” as they were called, served purposes far beyond their original, book-lending mandates. They helped users develop not just intellectually but also as a community—and, in certain contexts, enact forms of social resistance. In fact, these libraries were often one of the few—if not only—civic forms of public gathering space in their communities. With some exceptions, past research has paid little attention to these libraries; no existing book, article or dissertation has yet focused on all twelve at once and, until now, little previous work has considered their role as community spaces. This monograph attempts to fill that gap. It serves as the final report for the Roots of Community project: an historical study about these twelve libraries the author completed from 2016 to 2019. It identifies the specific mechanisms by which these libraries helped create a sense of shared identity and a wider sense of belonging among their users. It further considers the implications of these mechanisms for today’s libraries.


Copyright © 2019 Matthew R. Griffis.

This publication may be downloaded freely from the Aquila Digital Community. However, no part may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, except as permitted under Section 107 or 108 of the 1976 United States Copyright Act, without the prior written permission of the author.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, RE-31-16-0044-16. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this monograph do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.