Dr. Jessie Carney Smith

By Reginald Stuart

NASHVILLE, TN — When Fisk University this week rolls out its red carpet for the official inauguration of Kevin D. Rome, its new president, the spotlight will be focused on him. Many eyes will also be on veteran Fisk icon Jessie Carney Smith, an inauguration co-chair who has been the right hand of the 150 years old institution’s leaders for more than 50 years.

Smith is a part of the glue, Fisk staffers and watchers say, that has helped keep the institution in tact over its oft-time bumpy years.  She joined the Fisk library staff in 1965 as an assistant to then chief librarian Arna Bontemps, himself an archival legend among librarians dating back to the his days of affiliation and work with legends of the Harlem Renaissance. Bontemps served as Fisk librarian from 1943 until 1965 when Smith was chosen to succeed him. He died in 1973.

“Her (Smith’s) career has been amazing as a librarian, researcher and author,” said Dr. Reavis L. Mitchell Jr., the Fisk Class of 1968 graduate. Mitchell, who has looked with fascination and admiration at Dr. Smith’s achievements, has served as Dean of the School of Humanities and Behavioral and Social Sciences for the past 10 years and is co-chair of this week’s inauguration.

“She has set a standard for research and commitment,” said Dr. Mitchell, echoing others, as they ticked off highlights of the growing list of achievements of the Greensboro, North Carolina native. She has been an avid fan of history since her childhood days when her tiny community library was showered with materials from the Julius Rosenwald Collection and she met a librarian named Arna Bontemps.

Indeed, Dr. Smith, a twin who counts being elected Miss North Carolina A & T University in 1947 among her credits, earned four university degrees during an era when it was –and still is—unusual for a Black person to earn one college degree. In addition to her bachelor’s degree in economics she earned from A&T, she earned a Master’s from Michigan State University and George Peabody College, and became the first Black woman in America to earn a Ph.D. in Library Science. This was earned from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, considered  one of the top library science institutions in the nation.

Credentials aside, Dr. Smith is well known for her research and writing, most of which has focused on the history of Black women and men. Among her noted works are the three volumes of Notable Black Women and two volumes of Notable Black Men.

“She continues to make a difference,” said Dr. Linda Smith, executive associate dean of the University of Illinois School of Library Science.  She has worked for the school of library science for 41 years, a tenure that have given her a good yard stick for measuring achievements and changes in the library field.

Becoming a top rated librarian is no easy task, Dr. Smith at Illinois notes. Earning a doctorate is a demanding challenge too, despite the low wages librarians receives. There are only some 60 institutions nationally that award graduate degrees in library science, she said. There are only about 20 granting doctorate degree. It takes about five years of study and research to earn a Ph.D., she explained.

Dr. Smith, at Fisk, recalls those academic challenges and says they were worth it. She also recalls the administrative challenges of running a library and how the broader job has changed to that of facilitator from its historic role of gatekeeper.

Over the years, she said in a recent interview, experience has help her increasingly appreciate the priceless value of the collection of literature and art that Fisk possesses and how challenging it can be, at times, to hold onto it.

For example, she talked briefly of her efforts to block “removal of files” from the university’s well regarded Race Relations Institute by a departing colleague who wanted to take the collection papers to another institution.

“I’ve had to do this several times with researchers who want to disregard your policies,” said Dr. Smith, now Dean of the university library. In the final days of life for literary legend Jean Toomer, Dr. Smith recalls facing off with Yale University over who Toomer wanted his works to go to, there being no written will. Yale won the lawsuit, despite challenges from Mr. Bontemps who had worked with Toomer and other writers, artists and photographers during the Harlem Renaissance period.

Yale questioned “Why is that Black collection in your (Fisk’s) school,” Dr. Smith remembers Mr. Bontemps telling her.

The Toomer experience and others prompted her as librarian “to get deeds on all collections I have,” Dr. Smith said. Today, Fisk has deeds on more than 160 collections, she said. There are more pending.

As for using the volumes being gathered, Dr. Smith acknowledges library use has changed dramatically since she first began using libraries as a child. Her small neighborhood library in Greensboro was nurtured by the Julius Rosenwald Collection. Rosenwald, who worked his way up from stock room clerk at Sear Roebuck department Stores to succeeded his father as chairman of Sears, founded a fund in his name that provided books and funds to stock libraries for Blacks, in the racial segregation era, with reading literature, paintings and other art.

In those days, she remembered, libraries relied on a card catalog (Dewy Decimal) system to track and find books. Silence in a library was the rule, she recalls. Librarians knew how to find things and keep the library and the people inside it in order.

The Fisk library today, moved under Dr. Smith’s guidance in 1969 from historic Cravath Hall to a modern air conditioned structure, has far fewer visitors since more work than ever can be done on-line, she said. With conversations allowed and lap-top computers clicking away, the library is nothing close to a quiet study chamber.

As for librarians, they indeed still have a key role to play for researchers and students who want to study hard or complete assignments at the last minute. Librarians, now help people plow throw the volumes of information available on-line and in print and help people sort out the fact from the fiction across the spectrum of non-fiction, fiction and inflated versions of facts and so-called “fake news.”

“You can find information so quickly,” said Dr. Smith, acknowledging use of libraries is down. “They (students and researchers) think everything is on line. It’s not,” she said, noting the digital services can provide volumes of information, yet are unable to help a person sort through its value.

“People don’t know how to use a library” today, said Dr. Smith. “To get the maximum use of information that’s available, you need both,” the building with books, pictures and, hand written or typed papers, and the person to help one understand how to sort through it, she said.

Noting libraries are in a use transition age, Dr. Smith says she still feels strongly about them.

“I want other people to feel good about libraries,” said Dr. Smith who, in addition to being Fisk’s chief librarian is the Camille Cosby Distinguished Cahir in the Humanities. “The collection is so rich, so interesting,” she said, saying there are so many valuable clues to everyone’s history on the library’s shelves. “I’m still in awe of our collection.”

As for working in a library, Dr. Smith said, “I really think the libraries are more exciting than ever.”

That’s expected to be part of her message during a planned visit to the University of Illinois this spring to talk with library science students in the graduate school there.

Regarding Dr. Rome, the new Fisk president, she meticulously jokes in her familiar tone of humility that she has told his half dozen predecessors “You may be President, but that’s (libraries) not your field.”  The implication from the mild mannered library executive is that the message to Dr. Rome is the same.

Fisk Presidents Who Have Served With Dr. Jesssie Carney Smith

Steven Wright 1957-1965

James Lawson- 1967-1975

Walter Leonard 1977-1984

Henry Ponder  1984-1996

Rutherford H. Adkins 1997-1998

John L. Smith 1991-2001

Carolyn-Reid Wallace  20001-2003

Hazel O’Leary 2004-2012

H. James Williams 2013-2015

Kevin D. Rome 2017–