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

by Cheryl Knott. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. 312 pp. $28.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-62534-178-5; 177-8.

Cheryl Knott has written a fine history of black public libraries and their users in the first half of 20th century America. She uses theoretical models from outside the strict library world to deepen her and her readers’ understanding of how America not only practiced but also endorsed segregation for so long, not just in the South but also to some degree throughout much of the USA. She clearly and firmly sets Southern library practice within the larger stream of American librarianship. Nonetheless, the focus is on the South and on the core years of 1900-1950s. University of Massachusetts Press is to be commended on publishing this book in its Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book series. It well compliments Wayne Wiegand’s recent Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.[1]

Long a leading student of this field, Knott casts her research net wide but still misses some relevant local and state examinations unless they focused just on blacks or segregation. Nonetheless, this will be the definitive account for a long time. Hers is not just an institutional study but also a psychological one of how literacy and the presence or absence of books impacted black life. More could have been said, however, about the lives and education of black librarians themselves.

Public libraries began to appear in the South in the 1900s during the height of Jim Crow segregation, and so, naturally conformed to the prevailing and very dominate social, economic, and legal ethos of racism in restricting access to black Americans. Black schools were themselves only reluctantly accepted and never in any sense became equal, and the like was very true of black libraries. Northern philanthropy was wary of antagonizing the entrenched civic powers. Even when black libraries were built, the results were often more important “symbolically than literary useful” (152).

Training varied, funding was low, book stocks usually inadequate and rarely added to, these were crippling problems not only for the public libraries but black schools and colleges too. In the few large communities that did establish black branch libraries, the white librarians in charge of book selection “tended to rely on facile generalizations [about black book preferences and needs] rather than concrete evidence” (173). Overall, Knott provides an exemplary analysis of collection development although evidence remains rather thin. My own thought about the Carolinas at least is that black librarians did more and better but said little in public. Their collections, until absorbed by larger institutions after full integration, showed a keen appreciation of black scholarship startling in small libraries. Black communities were often very proud of their efforts and commitment to providing avenues to literacy.

Just as the practice of segregation varied immensely from place to place, requiring many individual and community accommodations with changing situations across time, so the process of desegregation was far from simple and seldom reflected in official records or newspaper accounts. David Battles’ The History of Public Library Access for African Americans,plus additional research by others, therefore remains important for any understanding of the situation.[2] 

Studies on black use of public libraries have advanced far in recent decades. More remains to be done in examining the role of small rural libraries and especially of measuring library impact on the lives of individuals, but Cheryl Knott has shown the way forward in a sophisticated and comprehensive work written with care and charm.


Patrick M. Valentine

A Social History of Books and Librariesfrom Cuneiform to Bytes (2012)​

[1] See my review in the previous issue, Information & Culture,

<[2] See my review of David M. Battles, The History of Public Library Access for African Americans in the South, or Leaving Behind the Plow (Lantham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2009), in North Carolina Historical Review (2010).