Making a Difference: African-American Leaders Rap about Libraries

Article excerpt

Six prominent figures tell how libraries have shaped their lives and those of the black community.

Watch Carole Simpson as anchor of ABC's World News Sunday or on assignment covering an important domestic or international issue, and it's hard to imagine that the Emmy Award-winning journalist couldn't find a job when she graduated with a bachelor of arts in journalism in 1962. Simpson, in fact, was the only one of the 60 graduates from her class at the University of Michigan journalism program who didn't.

"All the newspapers I applied to said I had three strikes against me: I was a Negro, a girl, and inexperienced." And she adds, "It didn't help either that I was the only African American in my class."

So the young graduate returned to her old job at the Chicago Public Library while she looked hard for a way to break into journalism. "My library job kept me going through that tough part of my life," Simpson recalls. "I loved working at the Chicago Public Library. From my earliest years, libraries have been a source of inspiration to me."

For Simpson and many other African Americans, libraries have indeed been a source of inspiration. They have made a difference, allowing them to throw off the yoke of poverty, overcome obstacles, and climb the ladder of success in their chosen professions. As syndicated columnist Carl Rowan explained, "Libraries can mold character, giving an individual powerful words to live by."

For this year's Black History Month, American Libraries asked some prominent and successful African Americans to reflect on how libraries have impacted their lives and those of the African-American community, demonstrating the ongoing National Library Week theme "Libraries Change Lives." Are we doing a good job? What advice can they give librarians to help them better serve the African-American community?

Carole Simpson's parents didn't have much money when she was a child growing up in Chicago, so reading material was scarce at home. She devoured the books she checked out from the library, and dreamed. "I always wanted to be a newspaper reporter," Simpson explains. "The only newspaper reporters I'd heard of were Brenda Starr and Lois Lane, and I grew up thinking I was going to be a colored Lois Lane or Brenda Starr."

At age 14, the young girl began working at Chicago Public Library. "As a library aide, I shelved books and put cards in the new books so they could be checked out," the journalist recalls fondly. "That was in the old days when there were no scanners. There was nothing more wonderful to me than hearing the crack of a new book when it opened and smelling the paper. I just loved it!"

Simpson doesn't have much time for leisurely reading today. given her hectic schedule. As a television broadcaster for more than 20 years, Simpson has anchored many live, breaking stories, such as the Persian Gulf War, the fall of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, and the Clarence Thomas--Anita Hill hearings. She was a moderator of the second 1992 presidential debate in Richmond, Va., history's first presidential debate to have a town hall format.

As a broadcast journalist, Simpson depends heavily on libraries. "Often I don't know a lot about the topics I'm called upon to cover," she explains. "Whether the topic is AIDS or South Africa, I begin by going to the ABC research library and getting all the material I can Our research library staff is invaluable."

Carl Rowan helped blaze the trail for Simpson. The well-known syndicated newspaper columnist has spent 45 years working as a journalist and is one of his profession's most honored practitioners, garnering more than 45 honorary degrees.. Rowan wrote the biography of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Dream Makers, Dream Breakers, and has spent 25 years as a panelist on Inside Washington, a popular local public-affairs TV show in the nation's capital.

Remarkable achievements, given that as a youngster Rowan was forbidden, because of his race, from entering the public library in his hometown of McMinnville, Tenn. …