Toni Morrison and the Library

From a small town girl to a big city woman, Toni Morrison had a deep, enduring connection to libraries. As a teenager, after school, she did housework for a white family. Complaining about the treatment she received, her sister helped her get a job shelving books at the Lorain Public Library. This experience was the beginning of a lifelong connection to libraries.  “[The] Lorain Public Library,” she says, “was so important in my life. And the reason it was important was not only because much of the time I worked there and made a little change. But basically because it was the place I spent long, long hours reading and it was a place where a group of women were  very careful with avid reading children,” Morrison said.

Libraries are instrumental to the growth and development of literary minds! This was no easy task for African Americans in depression era America. Lorain, Ohio’s community of European Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans and others insulated the young Morrison from harsher realities. She did not face the stark reality of “not being able to go into the library” or being subjected to the cast off, out of date and damaged books of the Negro libraries she discovered when she traveled to the south and found herself among people for whom the library was Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow.

Using public libraries and academic libraries, Morrison honed her intellectual skills and knowledge. While she is celebrated for her writing, the foundational experiences and practices that brought her writing to light, the ghost stories and tales her family told and endless books read are not as widely discussed.

Two public libraries honor Toni Morrison. They represent the world of the girl and the woman. The Lorain Public Library houses the Toni Morrison Room and Archives. The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture installed one of the The Bench by the Road benches gifted by The Toni Morrison Society.

In 2010 the New York Public Library presented NYPL Live, Angela Davis and Toni Morrison:  Literacy, Libraries and Liberation.  For little over an hour a lively conversation takes between the two iconic writers and friends. They share memories, insights, make pronouncements and disperse wisdom from their long public careers.  Like the professors they are, the two women teach as they speak to a very receptive audience. Long before she became a New York Public Library Lifetime Trustee, Toni Morrison understood the value and place of the library in her endeavors as a writer, editor, professor, woman of letters and citizen of the word.

The resource list Toni Morrison: A Literary Legacy includes fiction and nonfiction works as well as works Morrison has edited. This list, also, features several EVIDEO interviews from the library’s Access Video database and the DVD of the documentary recently released Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.

The library continues to be a key partner in the creative process of writers. Given historical barriers to the literary world as well as educational institutions, the library has been, especially, significant for African American writers.  August Wilson, Jacob Lawrence and others, plied its resources, returning again and again to a place where myriad tomes offered entrance into the universe of the mind.  While we mourn her passing, we readers know how essential Toni Morrison’s writing has been and the role the library plays in that mysterious magical journey we take into written worlds.

~posted by Chris

3 thoughts on “Toni Morrison and the Library”

  1. I have the luck and the honor of helping care for the Toni Morrison Reading Room at the Lorain Public Library in Ohio. Just came across this blog as we are preparing for the rededication of the Morrison Reading Room on her birthday this year. The reading room is the honor Toni herself chose to receive from the city and county of Lorain when she won the Nobel Prize.

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