- Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crowby Cheryl Knott
In Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow,Cheryl Knott explores the world of racially segregated public libraries, institutions that have been long overshadowed by schools and other public accommodations yet are essential cornerstones of modern democracy, education, and civic life. Knott draws four primary conclusions about Jim Crow libraries: they were routine in the South; middle-class white women's efforts ensured that libraries were mostly white spaces; African Americans created their own libraries and thus often helped reinforce segregation; and desegregation happened in an uneven, decentralized manner, often quietly, alongside the creation of new segregated libraries. Ultimately, the book challenges the heroic narrative of white librarians in the history of intellectual freedom, which Knott calls "a hollow promise as long as it focuses on what's in the collection and ignores who has access to it" (pp. 6–7).
This well-researched book examines the subject through both chronological and thematic chapters, starting with the transition from fee-based libraries and reading clubs to so-called free libraries at the turn of the twentieth century and the role of philanthropy by Andrew Carnegie and others in financing and designing these buildings. Carnegie provided a fraction of what he spent across the country to build libraries in the South, and nearly all for white facilities. In contrast to other philanthropists, Carnegie routinely deferred to local racial customs and only insisted that local governments commit to long-term building maintenance. As education funding in the South declined, African Americans established private libraries that often became segregated public branches. But by the late 1920s, only about 10 percent of African Americans in the South had access to a library, mainly in urban areas. Later chapters focus on how supply and demand affected black libraries, including pitifully small book budgets, relatively low literacy rates, and a general unevenness of collections' and librarians' attentiveness to patrons' needs. Most books in Jim Crow libraries were privately donated or discarded from other places. Knott delves deeply into a range of sources, noting the limits of circulation numbers, for instance, and what scholars can learn from detailed accession and borrowing records—mainly that larger patterns are difficult to discern because collections were extremely individualized.
Perhaps the book's most satisfying moments reflect "African American agency in both the creation of Jim Crow libraries and their demise" (p. 4). Sprinkled throughout Knott's analysis are brief stories of African Americans who acted. For instance, Judith Ann Carter Horton's private Excelsior Library [End Page 452]in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and Aaron McDuffie Moore's collection at the White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, became public libraries. Other African Americans challenged segregated facilities through lawsuits and direct action, as early as 1928 in Charleston, West Virginia, and with increasing frequency by the 1940s. The book ends in Atlanta where activists, professors, and students, including Irene Dobbs Jackson, Whitney Young Jr., and Howard Zinn, successfully pressured the library board to open access in 1959.
But the book may have limited utility for those most interested in the freedom struggle because there are not enough of these accounts, and not enough black voices more generally, to understand the importance of these libraries. Other than one brief section on Richard Wright's and Ralph Ellison's use of libraries—the latter of whom used a white person's credentials to access a wider range of books—Knott relates few accounts about how these institutions influenced black thought and community. One wonders if Knott might have consulted existing oral histories on life during Jim Crow to help enrich her analysis. Despite these limitations, Not Free, Not for Allremains an important contribution to the histories of Jim Crow, education...