Campuses have been in the news lately as students come together to express concern about racial injustice. I was particularly interested in a recent protest at Amherst College, which was held in the Robert Frost Library. It was very reminiscent of a story that I heard when I interviewed Janice for this blog (click here to read an earlier post that introduced Janice). Decades ago, she was employed by the Amherst College library system. At that time, a group of African American students staged a protest to demand that the library’s collection be more inclusive. In response, the college administration entrusted Janice with the task of diversifying the school’s library collection. Nearly sixty years have passed since she was called upon to address this concern. Once again, we are reminded that the process of change can be very slow.
In the 1960s, Janice and her family moved to Massachusetts. Her husband accepted a faculty appointment at Amherst College, thus becoming the first minority member in the college’s mathematics department. In three short years, he was tenured and the family happily made Amherst their permanent home. Janice had been very interested in pursuing a career in libraries – she had started graduate studies in library science prior to arriving in Amherst – and she was pleased to land a job in the College library system.
At that time, the college had just over 100 black students and a nascent black studies department. A group of minority students staged a sit-in to demand that the main library more adequately serve their community. To understand the scope of the situation, the college administration asked Janice to assess the library’s collection. They wanted to know how many books were written by African American authors and/or dealt with issues pertinent to this community.
These were the pre-technology days, and Janice did not have access to an online database. Unable to do a quick scan of the inventory, she manually inspected each of the many bulging drawers of the card catalogues. This was the only way to precisely determine the composition of the library’s resources.
Janice’s findings substantiated the students’ position. Her thorough review produced just three books in the entire Amherst College library that met the criteria. Janice was given a directive, and a budget, to enlarge the collection.
Today, Janice speaks with pride as she recalls the years that she spent fulfilling this important mandate. She succeeded in laying the foundation for the college’s Black Cultural Center Library and a substantial endowment to guarantee the ongoing growth of the collection.
Because of Janice’s efforts, it was never again possible to search the stacks of the Amherst College library for resources about the African American community and find only a meager number of books.
At the time of her retirement, the college recognized Janice in a most meaningful way: the endowment book fund was named in her honor.