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Book Relief in Mississippi

Book Relief in Mississippi

by BEATRICE SAWYER ROSSELL, Editor. Bulletin of the American Library Association, An Article in The Survey, March, 1935

A YEAR ago Elizabeth Robinson, secretary of the Mississippi Library Commission, was trying to keep the commission going although it was without appropriation and she herself had been without salary since June 1932. When the FERA launched its work program Miss Robinson saw a chance to provide both service and work. On the date set for applications for projects she presented a plan for statewide library service. “State-wide” means an especially difficult order in Mississippi, which ranks second among the states in percentage of rural population and almost last in assessed valuation per capita. Approximately two million people, half of them white, half Negro, are scattered through eighty-two counties. When the library project started, forty-three counties were without a single public library. One county, Coahoma, had developed admirable library service over a period of ten years, including excellent service to Negroes, but elsewhere even such county service as had been attempted was handicapped by limited resources.

Placing a county librarian in every county and two in some of the larger ones was the proposed first step. By approving the plan, the Women’s Division of the Emergency Relief Administration, under the direction of Ethel Payne, gave Mississippi the distinction of being the first state to provide geographically equalized library service. Carrying out a survey with the assistance of nearly 500 CWA workers was the next step; attempting to meet the needs it disclosed, the third. Each step has had the cordial support of the State Board of Public Welfare.

To observe this unique experiment first hand I recently visited Mississippi and saw the work of a dozen or more county librarians. While many in charge of county service have been on the relief rolls or would be there except for this work, their qualifications for the job have been considered.

Making something out of nothing by dint of courage, intelligence and resourcefulness is the record especially of Sunflower, Leflore and Hancock counties. When two county librarians went to work in Sunflower County last June not a library book was available for its 66,000 residents. A county headquarters has been leased from the board of supervisors for five years and today thirteen reading rooms and eighty-five deposit stations are being visited regularly, and 3000 volumes have been begged, borrowed or bought. Like most gift collections, the books include many which few, if any, libraries would purchase. However they also include Treasure Island, Little Women, Five Little Peppers, So Red the Rose, Goodbye Mr. Chips and similar titles. The magazines given in greatest quantity were Good Housekeeping and National Geographic; there are many copies also of Saturday Evening Post, American and Liberty. One of the librarians obtained from her congressman quantities of agricultural bulletins on such subjects as canning, pruning fruit trees and infant care and is distributing them widely. Magazines are taken regularly to 2900 prisoners on a penal farm where they are read literally to pieces. More than $200 for books has been raised by a tag day—the tags were homemade—and further funds by sale of Christmas cards and a bridge tea. One of the prime uses of such funds is to purchase supplementary reading for schools. Some of the novels also are bought and rented for five cents a week until they pay for themselves and can be lent without charge.

“The people are book hungry,” said one of the librarians who has a reading-room in her home. “A little boy knocked at my door at six o’clock in the morning to borrow The Dutch Twins. I passed a house the other day where a little girl was sitting on the porch reading aloud to her family of five people, not one of whom could read. An old man who was once a school teacher and a young girl who loves reading are each walking miles carrying books to share with people who otherwise would be without them.”

Of 1400 homes visited in Leflore County, 432 had no reading material, not even a newspaper. Many men and women could neither read nor write. For some of these people, and for a similar group in Hancock County, current news talks are given by the librarians. Story hours for children also are held. Leflore County has a houseboat library which plies up and down the river, serving Mississippi fishermen. The Greenwood Public Library of 10,000 volumes provides some books for this service, the county gives $35 a month, and money to eke out further is raised in numerous ways, even to selling chickens. Three all-day “schools of instruction” for part-time library workers have been held at the Greenwood library during the last three months.

I found the starkest conditions in Hancock County where two FERA workers, one the librarian and the other a recreational director, sometimes are working sixty hours a week instead of the required thirty to reach people in the cut-over pine-lands behind the coast, where the eight reading and recreational centers are thirty or forty miles apart. Here again not a book was available at the start. Now a bank in Bay St. Louis has supplied headquarters. Nine hundred boors have been bought or obtained as gifts. A rental library, including good up-to-date fiction, has been launched to build up the free collection by rental fees from Bay St. Louis readers and the friendly banker who provides the headquarters transports small loans of books from the state library commission in Jackson. A seven-year-old girl is teaching her mother to read with library primers and goes with her to a night-school in which the mother has been enrolled through the librarian’s efforts. Small but regular contributions to this library are made by local organizations in Bay St. Louis, such as the Parent Teacher Association, and church group.

IN the counties centering about Port Gibson and Vicksburg the character of the book collection and of the borrowers gives evidence of generations of cultural tradition. At the Port Gibson library, housed in a beautiful anti-bellum school building, is displayed a Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Practical, by Henry Hughes, published in 1854,—said to be the first book written on sociology, by a Mississippian who coined the term. At Vicksburg, a charming new children’s room, a part-time children’s librarian, formerly an FERA worker but now employed by the city, and a contribution of $500 from the county board of supervisors to help finance county service in 1935, are tangible evidences of the projects’ affect in expanding an established city service to the county.

Reinstated by the legislature last spring with a modest appropriation for the present biennium, the Mississippi Library Commission itself is reaching 250 communities. By means of its small but carefully selected collection of 4500 volumes, it lent 15,000 books to its county workers and others in the first nine months of the project. In addition, it is finding books for transient centers and CCC camps, and has initiated a book project for the blind so satisfactorily that it has been taken over and extended by the State Commission for the Blind. When the State Board of Public Welfare conducted a four weeks’ institute at Belhaven College last summer, the Commission administered a library in connection with the institute, bought books especially for welfare workers with $200 supplied by the Social Service Department of the ERA, and made up a reading list sent out by the state board to every welfare worker in the state. It now is busy lending and reserving books from the list requested by welfare workers. Almost every loan to a county librarian included some welfare reading. Similar intensive service would gladly be given in connection with adult education, recreation and so on if funds for books were available.

Mississippi’s library experiment shows clearly the crying need for books, even in a county like Coahoma. Further, it shows that to earmark a small portion of relief funds for books and library service would strengthen immeasurably at least nine other important federal or state projects. This connection is demonstrated convincingly in Coahoma County. Here directors of adult education, recreation, nutrition, and home demonstration work—all county units of state projects—a teacher and a Negro principal declared that the library was one of the chief assets in their work. When the headquarters library at Clarksdale was founded twenty years ago the present librarian, Hoyland Lee Wilson, recorded with pride the day she lent twenty-two volumes. Last year an incomplete record of circulation showed that she and her capable assistants had lent more than 187,000 volumes, an average of 512 for every day in the year. One of the most appreciative library users is a planter experimenting with crop diversification—much needed in Mississippi—at whose request the library has sent as far as Africa and China for pamphlets on crop production. This year the Negroes in Coahoma are raising $500 to match a Rosenwald grant of $800 so that the library service to people of their race may be extended. Next summer the Rotary Club plans to give money for books to the library to expand its service to a regional Boy Scout camp.

It would be ideal if a system of county libraries such as that in Coahoma could be locally supported throughout the state. Such a step is out of the question, however, because of the economic inequalities among the counties. What Mississippi leaders have in mind as a permanent plan is some form of state and locally supported regional system continued with federal assistance. This could provide service for several counties from a regional headquarters, comparable to good county service but more economical for sparsely populated areas. It would be in line with the recommendation of the council of the American Library Association that public libraries be federated and coordinated into large systems, each system to serve a metropolitan area, a large county, or several counties. Success in Mississippi, financially one of the most heavily handicapped states, may point the way to solving the problem of rural reading throughout the country.

Source:  Rossell, Beatrice Sawyer, “Book Relief in Mississippi,” The Survey, Vol. 71, No. 3, p. 73. (March, 1935), New Deal Network, (April 10, 2014).

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