Tracie D. Hall is current ALA executive director. This article appeared in the February 2007 issue of American Libraries magazine, when Hall was assistant dean at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.
My family is from the Deep South, a small town the size of a speck on a Louisiana map. By the early 1950s, my grandmother and grandfather and more than half of the 16 siblings they shared between them had relocated to the West Coast. It was a move precipitated not as much, I am told, by burgeoning job opportunities for blacks as by a certain incident between my grandfather and a white carnival ride operator who’d called my mother and uncle, then grade-schoolers, names inciting a vicious fight that ended with the operator clutching a near-severed ear and my grandfather hopping the first train out of Grand Cane and riding it to the end of the line.
By the time my grandparents purchased what my grandmother referred to as an “old folks home”—a big white house on a corner lot that they converted to a single residence with an added-on barber shop where my grandfather reigned as emperor—their house seemed palatial compared to the series of single rooms and garages they had rented for a family grown to include four children and random young relatives similarly seeking to escape choking racial segregation in the South.
Long before I appeared on the scene, the neighborhood my family called home had become synonymous with poverty and dysfunction, a status exacerbated by the riots of the mid-’60s—chaos that would claim my eldest sibling and that would permanently mark and define our town. When I was growing up, we didn’t have grocery stores, just high-priced corner stores where breakfast cereal sold for black market prices. The hospital where I was born had been condemned and replaced by a health clinic comprised of a set of permanent trailers. If you got sick and needed to get to a real hospital—or worse, if you got very sick and needed an ambulance to get to that real but distant hospital—then heaven help you.
No grocery stores, no hospitals. What we did have were churches, lots of them. But even dearer to me (though I would not admit this to my preaching uncles) was the library. Anti-theft bars covered every possible point of entry. Not a haven by any means, its two reading areas one for adults and the other for children were each no larger than my grandparents’ sitting room. The building itself was eclipsed by the adjacent police station and neighborhood jail. It was painted a yellowish color that, depending on how the sun hit it, read from pale canary to drab mustard. The real world peeked in through the windows and waited for little kids near the bathrooms. But it was our “yellow palace.” My grandmother would take me to that library weekends and summers and sit quietly with me in the children’s area, where I obsessed over the one book she would let me take home. She was terrified of accruing fines and returned my books as religiously as she attended Sunday services. The only book I had ever seen her read was the Bible, but she held our little branch library in the highest regard. “We didn’t used to have nothin’ like this at all,” she’d say on our slow walk home. I never asked her why.
Around the time I reached the 4th or 5th grade, I’d realized that although they were both highly intelligent blessed with quick wit and preternatural common sense, neither of my grandparents had much formal schooling. My grandfather had to be shown where to place signature on my school forms. My grandmother relied on her children and grandchildren to “read her bills.” I didn’t know anything about literacy rates or segregated schools back then. I just knew that my non-driving grandmother, who rarely took her 70-year-old self anywhere besides church and the doctor’s office, was willing to walk long blocks through the neighborhood to the library to watch me fret for two hours over one book. This simple act, exciting to me, was for her a kind of reparation.
My contentment with the yellow palace was challenged by a visit to a branch in a wealthier neighborhood in my 5th grade year. It was one of those “let’s pretend to be pro-integration” exercises that post–Brown v. Board of Education schools engaged in back then. Loaded onto a bus, our class was whisked away to experience a school on the other side of the tracks. Not only did we get a chance to visit their classrooms, but we also paid a visit to their public library, a gleaming white, newly blue-carpeted edifice to self-learning. I was speechless. Not one burglar bar. Instead, rows and rows of reading materials and soft chairs. The other students lounged on beanbags, which were then all the rage.
I seethed silently. We were told we could borrow books if we held city library cards. I was confused. How could this library be part of the same lending system? My understanding of library borrowing privileges was nonexistent then, but I knew instinctively that something was wrong. I thought of the yellow palace, of the weekly hajjes my grandmother and I made, and understood finally a Southern expression my relatives would often utter in moments of disgust when they perceived that someone was settling for less than their due: “Satisfied with nothing.” I thought of the yellow palace’s early closing hours as if it were racing the streetlights, of how the cramped quarters spilled over with children all talking and reaching at once, and of how the clamor frustrated the librarians and shortened our storytimes.
At the white cathedral, the multiracial library staff smiled and talked in quiet voices and seemed to like children. I was so impressed and unsettled that I begged my mother to locate the library and to drive my grandmother and me there. I must have been convincing because my mother, who was always working or always on her way to work or recovering from it, complied.
On the day my mother drove us to the library across town, I remember my grandmother’s face, her look of silent surprise. She is not here anymore to ask how many libraries she’d visited in her lifetime, but it was clear that the white cathedral had taken her voice away. Though I’d excitedly turned my library card over and over in my hand all the way to the library, and though my mother announced that I could check out more than one book because she didn’t have time to bring me back midweek for another, the shock on my grandmother’s face dampened my appetite. The inequities between the two libraries had restated our insignificance. “There is something inferior about the people who live over there,” the white cathedral seemed to be taunting.
I left the library without checking out one book. My mother, who had probably spent her time reading the newspaper, noticed my empty hands and exclaimed her incredulity at driving all this way for nothing. But even her scolding couldn’t soften my resolve. That would be my last visit across the tracks to a library. Some time after that, the pilgrimages with my grandmother to the yellow palace tapered to an end. Even when I was old enough to walk there by myself, I didn’t.
Memories filed away
Long before I stepped behind a reference desk as a librarian, public libraries had become the site of the most personal socioeconomic inequities I had experienced outside of schools. But I rarely let myself think about that. In the effort to believe that libraries offer the greatest hope for social reconciliation we have today and to work toward that end, there are some memories I keep filed away.
Like so many other library workers and advocates, I want to believe that the library is unerringly socially progressive, occupying some sacred dimension that sets it apart, above. But the truth is, there is no such vacuum. More often than not libraries mirror rather than oppose local politics and socioeconomic stratifications. As the song goes, Them that’s got shall get / Them that’s not shall lose / So the Bible says and it still is news.
In the West and East Coast libraries in which I have worked and in the many libraries I have visited as the former director of the American Library Association’s Office for Diversity, I have seen evidence that libraries can and do serve as vanguards for social justice. But I have also been disheartened by the reification of institutional racism and classism. I remember making an instant enemy of a librarian who, in trying to rationalize a branch’s low circulation, explained to me after a tour of the facilities her disappointment that the largely black, mostly working-class community simply didn’t read. When I remarked that perhaps the community didn’t find the collections or the furnishings compelling—the books sagged and leaned on the shelves and probably would have self-ejected if they could have defied the laws of gravity and ended up on the ceiling instead of the spotted and threadbare carpet. Her glare told me that what she had stated as a final pronouncement I had misinterpreted as a conversation-opener.
As a speaker and trainer facilitating library diversity and customer-service workshops, I have been inspired by the lengths to which some libraries are going to make their services relevant to the lives of their users. But I am also increasingly dejected by libraries that, intentionally or not, detach themselves from their surrounding communities, rationalizing gaps in service by claiming the incapacity of their resources to accommodate their users. Even in the language used to describe these would-be, could-be users I sense a cover-up. And behind this thinly veiled discourse I can clearly see the outline of an elephant tucked behind the curtains. I, who welcome the word “diversity” for the necessary inclusivity it offers us 21st-century beings wearing our layers of identity like an onion wears its skins, have come to agree with education advocate Jonathan Kozol’s conclusion in Harper’s Magazine (September 2005) that the term “diverse” in schools—and I would add, libraries—has become “no longer a proper adjective but a euphemism for a plainer word that apparently has become unspeakable.”
Looking for change
Last summer I had the chance to revisit the yellow palace for the first time in almost 30 years. I had returned home for almost a week for our family reunion, my longest stay since leaving for college. A decade of passages—my grandparents, my mother, uncles, cousins, in relentless succession had cast urgency on such gatherings. My aunt, who now lives in the big white house alone, had requested that I spend more than my usual three-day weekend. I tried explaining the limitations of my adult schedule, but she wasn’t having it. Clothes were an afterthought as I packed my laptop. I had deadlines to meet, lines of communication that needed to remain open. I was sure my world would implode if I were offline for more than two days.
Just 18 hours after landing in L.A., after a night of remembering and not remembering family stories, then a day chasing down helium tanks and stewing peaches for cobbler, I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed internet access. I tried in vain to explain this urgency to my aunt, who had balked when we replaced her rotary phone, and grabbed my laptop bag and headed for the library. Her parting words to me were, “Be careful.” Walking those long blocks for the first time in years, no rental car windshield between me and the graffiti and “Beware of Dog” signs, it was obvious that the neighborhood’s disenfranchisement and desperation had remained constant. And though I held my laptop bag too close at first—forgetting that I was home, that I had not too long ago been on the other end of the stare—there was something about that walk that revived my hope in the social realities and divides that this profession is uniquely positioned to confront and perhaps transform.
By the time I made my way to the new iteration of the yellow palace—now relocated, expanded, and situated across the street from a thriving shopping plaza that features the wonder of all wonders, a grocery store—my head was swimming with possibilities. My euphoria was short-lived. Inside the library the large majority of children and adults gathered around a bank of computer terminals each waiting for their precious hour of allotted time. Inquiring about wireless service, I was dismayed to learn that although wireless access was available at some locations, it was “not available at our branch.” At my request, I was given a list of libraries in neighborhoods as removed from ours as the white cathedral. I took the librarian’s advice and entered my name to the list, resigned to the two-hour wait ahead. In order to access my time I was advised that I’d have to sit at a designated table. If I were out of my chair when my time approached, I would lose it.
Afraid to wait 120 minutes in vain, I fastened myself to my chair and took out my laptop, more for distraction than anything else. My open laptop attracted the four children and one man who waited with me at the table. “Oooh, she got her own computer,” one of the kids exclaimed. “Yeah, but I don’t have the internet,” I answered. “Ahh,” they collectively commiserated. The man smiled and shook his head understandingly. Always a librarian, I asked them what they were waiting for, hoping that maybe my webless machine could be of service to someone else. One girl no more than 11 or 12 explained that she had come from Texas to visit her grandmother, and now that the summer was winding down she needed to get online to print a copy of the electronic ticket that her mother had purchased for her return home. She nodded towards a crumpled piece of a paper bearing a penciled code. “My grandmother don’t have a computer,” she trailed off. I told her that she looked like a pro, but to let me know if she needed help. She smiled into the note on her lap. The other children mentioned games and websites, some of them new to me. The man, who identified himself as native of Jalisco State in Mexico, hunched his shoulders as if in apology. “No money to call,” he said.
There we were, in an era where time has become the ultimate commodity, waiting for access, my wireless-ready laptop a privilege made useless there on the wrong side of the tracks. But to localize that moment, to act as if as it belonged to that one specific library, would be too simple. Rules that unintentionally compound and redouble social exclusion, economic isolation, and, inevitably, race and class lines abound in libraries. There is no indemnity.
Glued in place I thought again of the libraries I have spoken and trained in nationwide. I thought of the libraries in which I have worked as front-line service provider or manager and of all the times I had been complicit in or had failed to confront decisions that had similarly served, though certainly not by design, to dis enfranchise groups of users. I knew that had I picked up a phone to call some administrative office to protest what I saw as a kind of de facto discrimination there would be a voice at the other end of the line to offer a hundred theoretically legitimate reasons why things were the way they were. How many times had I been that voice?
Our policies and rationalizations do not drive the bus, we do. Yellow palaces and white cathedrals exist because we who work in libraries create them as well as the distances between them. We want to believe that libraries are politically neutral and colorblind. To sustain this belief we close our eyes as we steer. But who gets run over in the process?