Ryan P. Randall bio photo

Ryan P. Randall

Instruction & Outreach Librarian at the College of Western Idaho ∴ Literary, media & cultural studies ∴ Web Editor at In the Library with the Lead Pipe ∴ Sous les pavés, la plage ∴ We are, as always, stubborn, stoked, and petrified - GY!BE

Home Twitter Tumblr Github Instagram Last.fm Goodreads Soundcloud Zotero Academia

Burt, Laura. “Vivian Harsh, Adult Education, and the Library’s Role as Community Center.” Libraries & the Cultural Record 44.2 (2009).

Link (paywall):
WorldCat / Libraries & the Cultural Record


Vivian G. Harsh, director of George Cleveland Hall Branch Library from 1932 to 1958, part of the Chicago Public Library in the Bronzeville neighborhood

She made:

  • Special Research Collection about African American life, history, and culture
  • Book Review and Lecture Forum (author calls it “pivotal” in intro)
  • known her “knowledge of all things African and African American”
  • rich collection of African American resources (234)

She made the Hall a “vital community center.”

The library regularly sponsored debates and lectures on topics important to her patrons, such as African American politics and history. Patrons were encouraged and enabled to debate, question, and process as a community issues such as democracy, World War II, and global politics. Her work to create a {==234/235==} safe space for community intellectual inquiry was vital, as debate over questions such as the rights of African Americans at that time could be regarded as dangerous, especially for her African American patrons. Harsh helped preserve and teach the cultural history of African Americans and Africans, vital to the identity of her neighborhood, and encouraged the development of a sense of community and trust in the library as an intellectual center. Her work left a lasting impact not only on her collection but also on her patrons. (234-5)

Emphasis on community center:

Harsh’s goals for the Hall Library differed from those of white librarians at the beginning of her tenure: while library science literature often focused on the education of individual patrons, the Hall Library’s large displays, publicized debates, and use of space for community groups pointed to education as a community endeavor. (235)

Burt characterizes Harsh’s work as “a pioneering approach to the interconnection between social epistemology and community engagement in the library, which was made possible by her hard work and also through the Hall Library’s unique temporal and physical location” (235)

Really, really, really like this nod to the conditions of possibility, but also to the intervention and labor of Harsh herself. (Certainly one works within history not of one’s own making—but one must really work as well, and it’s important to give credit to those who do rather than make it seem inevitable that someone would have.) What are the current conditions of possibility for libraries, and what can/can’t we help bring about?

Harsh adapted her visions in different ways through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Her work and her approach to libraries’ role in the community significantly influenced the development of community librarianship as well as African American education and cultural studies. (235)

Burt says that two major themes of Harsh’s career are (1) insistence for her (African American) patrons to learn African American history (often not taught in schools at the time {==to me, often still not taught adequately==}) and (2) belief in education as way of patrons improving their lives. (236)

Hmmm. Seems like the second would clearly link up with Progressive, particularly class-based “improvement” narratives, with education as an engine for improvement (not that this link is wrong, clearly, but I also wonder whether/how labor was acknowledged). How different was the focus on history to common Progressive narratives, which might have been more future-focused?

Burt discusses historical specificities of class, education, socio-economic factors of Northern Migration (not named as such in this paragraph) and of Chicago Black Renaissance, which she describes as “a major social and cultural movement that continued the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Historian Anne Meis Knupfer, who studies women’s participation in Bronzeville during this period, defines the Chicago Black Renaissance as a movement characterized by support of and interest in the arts, the growth of interest in the world-wide ideas and views of Africans and African Americans, and social activism. These ideas were echoed in the goals Harsh espoused for the Hall Library, with her Special Research Collection that encouraged study of African and African American topics and the programming she began that stressed ideals of democracy and community education. The Hall Library was one of the foci of the Chicago Black Renaissance, and Harsh may have inspired one of its central tenets: large community educational gatherings. (237)

Fascinated by what these “large community educational gatherings” were like. Church revivals, but for history?

Harsh’s dynamic strategy to connect her research collection to community outreach is in dramatic contrast to the activities of other African American libraries at the time. (239)

Burt discusses difficulties facing most African American libraries at the time: funding during Great Depression, struggle to collect books of interest to community patrons.

One of Harsh’s strategies: “she authored annual reports that both boasted of the use of the special collection and requested more money to purchase books” (240).

Richard Wright used collection, Langston Hughes praised it & Hall librarians in a Chicago Defender article

The Book Review and Lecture Forum (BRLF) was a twice-monthly meeting where Bronzeville residents gathered to hear a book review or lecture given by another community member. Presentations were always followed by a discussion. (240)

What was the criteria for presenting? Did you need to be “distinguished” in some way? Apparently ranged across fiction, nonfiction, and current topics. Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Horace Cayton, and St. Clair Drake all discussed their current works in the 1930s. (240)

Brought wide range of speakers, even when perhaps risky: “In 1939, for example, speakers from the Republican, Democratic, Socialist, Prohibition, and Communist parties each discussed their political philosophies with the Hall audience.” (241)

Bronzeville patrons were given a safe place in the Hall Library to debate these questions at a time when African Americans who struggled for expanded rights or sought information on un-American politics could have been in a precarious situation with the Hall Library’s protection. (241)

Really intrigued by this idea of library as a protective space! This seems importantly different from, even counter to, a simple Habermasian account of the “public sphere” as a non-differentiated space. (Still need to re-read some of dude’s work so I know whether I’m knocking him on account of less-discerning supporters or if he really doesn’t complicate his thought sufficiently to address American situations—or even to German ones, whose complications he might well hollow out in an overly simple narrative of economic interests.) Is this more like a Michael Warner counterpublic? Was it a little more like Vorris Nunley’s “hush harbor”? What were the conditions of participation? How did Harsh & the other participants manage to secure this status of the forums as such an open-minded space? It seems radically different from strains of Progressive thinking that can be very paternalistic and instead like they might have been arguing for a very pluralistic understanding of democracy.

List of wide variety of organizations and events; exhibits, programs, book lists; classes on foreign languages, public speaking, social psychology (p 241-2)

Aha: Harsh reached out to local churches, local papers, community groups in various ways, all “part of a coordinated plan of community involvement.” (242)

Harsh also reported lightly on the content, primarily focusing on attendance and number of events writing annual reports. (242-3)

At the time, LIS generally focused on adult education as a solitary, individuated process for each patron: “Library science literature during the late 1920s and early 1930s echoed ALA president Judson Jennings’s insistence that libraries focus on books and on individual patrons.” (243)

I wonder why Jennings focused so heavily on individuated patrons. What role did programming play in this vision of libraries from ALA? How were communities envisioned?

Burt characterizes Jennings’ view as “top-down” vs the discussions sessions Harsh promoted that seem to build from the knowledge already present in the community {==me: if not necessarily in each individual patron==}. (243-4) Although doesn’t use the Freireian terms, seems to cast Jennings as banking model, whereas Harsh seems much closer to liberation pedagogy model. Not sure if it’s quite problem-posing model, though. Would have to know how the discussions were conducted, I imagine.

Burt points out that Harsh’s forums presaged Alvin Johnson’s calls for lectures, forums, and reading clubs in The Public Library: A People’s University by five years. (244)

1940s had increasing racial targeting of African Americans in Chicago, in part because of white fears correlated to greatly rising African American population in Chicago (245). During war, their library’s “programming often emphasized politics through the lens of race and color, despite the threat of possible sedition charges for those who challenged too fiercely the current state of the country” (246). Programming around how the US was failing to live up to democracy for everyone, plus other “political, social, and economic problems” (246).

The Hall Library also advocated the idea of equal rights through promotion of new books in its collection. For example, in 1943, in a column in the Chicago Sunday Bee about World War II fiction, Harsh and librarian Annie Allen wrote that books could help readers, especially Bronzeville readers, envision a democratic and just postwar society. Therefore, they explained, they selected books that advocated a peace that would recognize “the essential dignity of every human being regardless of race, cree, or color and bring to full realization the true meaning of a democratic world.” (246)

Not clear from this whether these “books” were mostly nonfiction or also fiction, and therefore how the librarians envisioned the relationship between fiction and imagining a just world. However, the idea of reading assisting in imagining a more just world links up profoundly with a lot of cultural studies, Afrofuturist, etc. notions of reading as an intervention in the world.

Post-war lots of how-to education, plus discussions of full employment for war workers and opportunities for veterans (247).

Working with other community institutions, i.e. cast of a popular radio show called Destination Freedom performed at the library, including dramatic reading of Langston Hughes’s “Freedom Train,” concert of other songs, mural displayed, etc. (247)

Arna Bontemps wrote that the Hall Library’s staff seeks to “consolidate the advantages of democracy for the benefit of all those who can be reached” (247-8).

That’s such a great phrase, “consolidate the advantages of democracy!!!”

In late 1940s and early 1950s Harsh had increasing frustration with outreach—she asserted that the new migrants northward from the South were unfamiliar with using libraries as a result of their being unavailable to African American in the South (249).

“Community-centered library outreach movement is not attributed to her [Vivian Harsh] in any way (250-1). Yet clearly Burt’s article shows that Harsh did lots of programming centered on her community, involving them in it profoundly.

Burt sees both conditions of possibility (including contemporaneous Chicago Black Renaissance and “the fact that the Hall Library was a part of a large northern urban public library system that supported her or benignly ignored her at other times”) and Harsh’s own gifts and assessment of community needs as reasons why Harsh succeeded (251).