Libraries and Information Key for Little Rock Nine Member

August 7, 2010

"It was the Little Rock Public Library's [then] small Ivory branch for colored people that helped me to begin to process information," Terrence Roberts said during the opening session John Tyson Lecture, August 5 during the Black Caucus of the American Library Association's (BCALA) seventh National Conference of African American Librarians in Birmingham, Alabama.

Roberts, an author,  psychologist in Los Angeles, and CEO of Terrence J. Roberts and Associates Management Consulting Firm, is part of the group called the Little Rock Nine, the African-American students who desegreated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 amid intimidation and threats from those who opposed integration of the formerly all-white school.

He told the audience that he was like a "wino who has to be at the liquor store at 3 a.m." in his goal of being the first one to read new books at the library. "I knew that information was key; if I had access to information, I had power," Roberts explained. "I began to learn things that really made sense."

Roberts, who wrote about his experiences in Lessons from Little Rock (University of Arkansas, 2009), said one of the things learned in his hometown library and libraries since then is that "we live with a lot of mythological constructs, such as the concepts of affirmative action and race," explaining that affirmation action is not for everybody "because when you affirm people you give them messages of hope and assurance and provide them with tools for success" and the word "race that was at one time not part of the lexicon,"introduced as a way to categorize replacing people being parts of clans or families.

As far as his Central High experience, Roberts said he learned that "not every single white person was my enemy and not every single black person was my friend. You cannot color code this universe . . . you run the risk of alienating someone who could be your ally."

The conference theme is "Culture Keepers VII: Bridging the Divide with Information, Access, Activism, and Advocacy." BCALA is an American Library Association affiliate.