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TL v59n4: Fisk University Library
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 59 Number 4



 From Andrew Carnegie to John Hope Franklin:

Library Development at Fisk University


Jessica Carney Smith

Fisk University



Since its founding in 1866, Fisk University has demonstrated its interest in maintaining a library for its studentsand faculty, and has extended service to groups beyond its boundaries. While Fisk is a historically black university, its library development came with the advice and generosity of nationally-known educators and prominent librarians regardless of race. During the 143 years of its history, Fisk has erected three library buildings, each with permanent and historical significance. These are the Carnegie Building and the Erastus Milo Cravath Memorial Library, both among Fisk buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the present John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library.

The Jubilee Singers is a name synonymous with Fisk University. Likewise, the name George L. White, the university’s treasurer, is synonymous with the organization of the Fisk Jubilee Singers; he played another important role in shaping the history of the university. In 1867 White kept in his office, located in an old army barrack that housed the school, a small collection of books to serve and inspire Fisk students who visited him. Thus, it is said that the university library had its earliest beginnings in White’s office collection. White functioned as the university librarian, although he was never officially hired in that capacity. In 1869, Helen C. Morgan, an Oberlin College graduate, came to Fisk to begin preparatory classes and was placed in charge of the library as well. Young men and women withdrew books from the library at different times—a half hour each on Saturday mornings. The length of her tenure is undocumented.

Beyond this, in the early 1870s the university established its first library quarters—a reading room that gave students access to periodicals. The location of that site is unclear; however, the school was then housed in old army barracks and it appears that the library was located on the first floor of one of these crude wooden structures. After Jubilee Hall, a residence facility, was erected in 1875 from monies that the Jubilee Singers raised in concerts, the library quarters were found in a “pleasant and cozy apartment” on the second floor. The small collection was shelved in seven cases. An additional case held the reference books and journals; there were also daily and weekly newspapers. The library remained in this site for many years but became crowded as it expanded in size to meet the curricular growth and increasing enrollment. By 1889, the library had moved to Livingstone Hall, a men’s residential facility.

Carnegie Supports Stately Structure

Around the same time, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie began to fund libraries throughout the United States. In 1901, for example, Carnegie gave Nashville $100,000 for a library building and eleven years later $50,000 for branch libraries in the city, including one for black residents (Wynn). Fisk then appealed to Carnegie for library support and in 1905 he offered to fund a library building for the university at a cost of $20,000. Following Carnegie’s requirement, the Board of Trustees appropriated $20,000 to be invested as an endowment fund; income from the fund would be used to maintain the facility. This plan aroused the interest of alumni and friends who contributed additional funds for library support. On May 22, 1908, the cornerstone was laid for the new building and on February 25, 1909, the building was occupied. The handsome structure, one of the South’s finest, was built of red brick and red tile roof. The interior was built of polished oak and equipped with reading tables of polished oak as well. Reading room floors were cork. Entrance to the building was through a spacious vestibule. Two smaller rooms on either side were used for reference or special collections. Fisk aimed also to give a prominent place to its special collections of works by black authors, thus marking the beginning of what became one of the finest collections of black primary and secondary materials in the United States. The basement was a gymnasium for young women while the second floor consisted of seminar rooms and small rooms designed for student organizations and groups but were then used by women teachers. The library served the “colored citizens” of Nashville under the same rules as it served Fisk students, which meant that they had access to open stacks as well. As enrollment grew and the curriculum expanded, changes were made to the facility between 1914 and 1927. The library was not without its interesting and unbelievable problems. In August 1924 the outgoing librarian wrote for the succeeding librarian: “You will find roomers in the library building. I have insisted upon, and have gotten in the main, silence during the library hours. They will [sic] cook however and toast and bacon aromas will waft down and permeate the whole building at all the hours of the morning” (Memorandum from Fred A. Steiner, as cited in Atkins, 39). The Carnegie building still stands on the campus and is now used primarily for financial affairs.

By now, the new university administration realized that what was once a desirable facility was no more, and that library provisions were totally inadequate. Since Fisk wanted to be recognized among the nation’s leading colleges, it knew that it needed a new library structure. President Thomas Elsa Jones called upon the General Education Board for assistance; later the GEB appropriated $400,000 for a new building, equipment, and endowment of the building. Louis S. Shores, then the university’s librarian; sought guidance from national library leaders such as the library director of the University of Michigan and the New York Public Library and officers of the American Library Association. Ernest J. Reese of Columbia University conducted a library survey for Fisk, which identified its myriad needs and set a direction for the new building. There would be space for undergraduate and graduate students, reading rooms, seminar rooms, and a room to accommodate a special collection of books by and about blacks. Fisk and nearby Meharry Medical College were to use the building jointly. By 1928, blue prints for the building were drawn by architect Henry C. Hibbs, who became architect for a number of landmark buildings in Nashville, including structures at Vanderbilt University and Meharry Medical College. Hibbs also designed the library furnishings, carrying out the stately and enduring impression that the building reflected.

The new building, which still stands, is an imposing structure of modernized Gothic constructed of red-face brick trimmed in Indiana limestone. The plans prescribed a central section with a tower that reached 100 feet upward flanked by two wings each two-stories in height. Reading rooms, work room, classrooms and other activities were to occupy the wings while the tower was to contain stacks. The structure was completed in fall 1930 at a cost of $340,945. Among provision on the ground floor was space for a Carnegie branch library as well as library science classes. Reading rooms, the public catalog, and other activities were on second floor. The third floor housed a Fiskiana room, debating and seminar rooms, a browsing room equipped with two fireplaces, a periodical room and a handsome room to house the special Negro Collection. To send messages and materials from the delivery desk and stacks, a pneumatic tube, a gravity chute, and elevator were installed. 

To further the ambience of the handsome structure, Aaron Douglas, artist from the Harlem Renaissance—a  black cultural revolution that took place in the Harlem section of New York City during the 1920s—painted murals on the walls of the catalog lobby and the two reading rooms. The murals, painted in panels, tell several stories, such as the influence of Greek culture on architecture, female beauty and purity, and the world unknown to man. The seven panels in catalog room, for example, depict Day, Philosophy, Drama, Music, Poetry, Science, and Night. Those in the reading rooms show the transition of blacks from Central Africa to contemporary America. Music, so important in black culture, is highlighted in images representing spirituals—the music that the Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced to the world. Other panels depict thousands of slaves in the middle passage, religion, emancipation, and education. A miniature of Fisk’s own Jubilee Hall, built from funds that the Jubilee Singers raised, is shown as well.

Now with a handsome and functional facility in place, the university began a rigorous campaign to build its library collections—both general and special. The university catalog for 1867-68 documents this effort: “A library of miscellaneous reading has been commenced, and it is hoped that publishers and others will remember us in their liberality” (cited in Gleason, 20). Indeed they did, both before and after the new building. Early efforts at collection development was seen in 1867, when Fisk established a Union literary society, solicited books from Nashville residents, and built a library. Fisk professors and sometimes their families who had no connection to the university themselves secured several hundred books from churches and other places. Professor Samuel W. Chase, who was an early science instructor at Fisk and was later recognized on campus by a science building erected in his honor, collected scientific material for Fisk. In the 1870s, The Fisk Jubilee Singers solicited materials from places they visited in the United States and abroad. Their efforts resulted in about 800 volumes, many rare and expensive, and were enriched by autographs by their donors, including Prince Edward of Wales and England'sQueen Victoria. Various publishing houses in London and Edinburg gave to the cause. Early pleas indicate that the needs of the library collection were “endless” and that one could aid the cause no better than to send “good books to the library.” Since most of Fisk’s students of that period had no books at home, and they demonstrated “a growing love for reading,” the need for a well-selected collection was more pronounced. 

Given the university’s continuing and historic financial struggle, it is clear that collection development resulted chiefly from gifts, many highly selected. Among the donors of the 1930s and 1940s were such organizations and institutions as the General Education Board, the Carnegie Foundation, and Russell Sage Foundation. In 1931-32, Fisk strengthened its relationship with Meharry Medical College and provided space for a medical reading room—the south reading room used at first for reserve books. Meharry brought in its own collection and also paid the salary of a library assistant. The assistant gave library instruction to medical, dental, and pharmaceutical classes. Between 1866 and 1945, fifteen different librarians administered the library program. Until 1925, they were nonprofessionals who carried on other duties along with their library responsibilities, such as director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a football coach, and a student. Since then, however, professional librarians have been in charge. When Louis Shores resigned in 1933, Frances L.Yocum, the former assistant librarian, became acting librarian. She gained national acclaim among early catalogers of black materials, and at the Library of Congress, for the subject heading list that she prepared, “A List of Subject Headings for Books by and about the Negro (H. W. Wilson, 1940). The Library of Congress built upon her list as it expanded subject headings for materials by and about blacks.

As the enrollment increased and the concepts of librarianship saw dramatic changes, Cravath was no longer suitable as a functional library facility. Meanwhile, the need for a new library building was glaring. Fisk’s building needs were legion, as the curriculum and cultural offerings called for a science building, a fine arts building, and residence halls. The university once again set a priority that twice before it had put in place—a new library building. In 1965, Fisk initiated steps to build yet another library facility that would give its students and faculty greater access to materials and with space to accommodate its burgeoning manuscript, archival, and books in Special Collections. To guide the development this time, Robert B. Downs, director of the library at the University of Illinois, was consultant. In December 1969, Fisk moved into its present 74,000 sq. ft -facility. Since 2000, it has been named in honor of prominent Fisk alumnus and world-renown historian John Hope Franklin and his wife Aurelia, who was his Fisk classmate and later a librarian.

Although the building is forty years old, it is, for the most part, still a functional facility that meets the needs of the campus community and visiting scholars worldwide. It was designed to accommodate technological advances that were only envisioned at that time. Like library buildings on many other campuses, it houses other activities, such as a computer laboratory and an art gallery. Works of art are mounted throughout the three and one-half floors. One of its special features, and perhaps the library’s greatest strength, is Special Collections—a handsome room located on the second floor. It houses primary and secondary materials by and about blacks.

The Development of Special Collections at Fisk

Until Louis Shores came to Fisk in 1928 as librarian, there had been made no serious effort to collect and preserve materials by and about black people. Then Fisk embarked on a systematic plan to build such collections and house them separately in adequate space. In 1929, Fisk enlisted the aid of foreign dealers to provide works for its special Negro Collection. This effort resulted on the purchase of twenty-eight pamphlets and manuscripts on the early history of black domestic servants in Europe. By fall 1930, Fisk hired bibliophile Arthur Schomburg as curator of the collection. He was experienced and knowledgeable in the field and immediately began to build for Fisk a collection similar to his own. He acquired a number of unusual and retrospective works that otherwise might not have been gathered. By this time as well, Fisk, through an agreement with the Southern YMCA Graduate School in Nashville, concentrated on collecting works on blacks outside the United States and dated prior to 1865 as well as appropriate materials on blacks in this country since 1865. On the other hand, the YMCA had concentrated on collecting such works published after 1865. Thus, Fisk was able to gather materials on the Negro in the West Indies and Africa, a large pamphlet collection, and two rare and priceless volumes that were, and remain, the choice items in Fisk’s collection. These are the Lincoln Bible, presented to President Abraham Lincoln by the “loyal colored people of Baltimore” and given to Fisk by his son Robert Todd Lincoln; and a Bible especially edited for slaves, with all passages related to freedom omitted. The slave’s Bible, as it has come to be known, is now perhaps one of only two or three known to be extant. As the Depression years came, Fisk was forced to scale down its activities and the library was no exception. Schomburg left before be was able to put in place his buying plan and his ideas for housing the materials that he had purchased.

Arna Bontemps, writer of the Harlem Renaissance era and librarian, headed the Fisk program beginning 1943; he was Fisk’s first black head librarian. Although his budgets were never generous, he was able to build the Special Collections department by gathering the papers of such black luminaries as Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Langston Hughes, John Mercer Langston, Scott Joplin, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and the archives of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, including photographs of the schools that Rosenwald built for blacks in 15 Southern states. Bontemps also brought to his staff professionals who began to process the growing collection of manuscripts and archives and to prepare finding aids for them. Increasingly, scholars began using the collections for master’s and doctoral theses, books, articles, and films.

The library program following the Bontemps era continued to build on the tradition of maintaining a Special Collections department that housed primary and secondary materials by and about blacks. Space for the collections was provided in the present building and, when built, reflected an African motif with floors that resembled ebony wood and African designs in the six window seats. The university’s rich history is preserved among the 200 manuscript collections, 30,000 books, photographs, and other materials collected. 




Atkins, E. (1936). History of the Fisk University Library and its Standing in Relation to the Libraries of Other Comparable Institutions. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

Bontemps, A. (1944). Special Collections of Negroana. Library Quarterly 14, 187-206.

Smith, J. C. (1977).   Black Academic Libraries and Research Collections: An Historical Survey. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Special Collections in the Erastus Milo Cravath Memorial Library, Fisk University. (1967). Nashville, TN.

Wynn, L. T. (1997, February 20). Remembering a Bit of Public Library History. Tennessean. p. A-7.


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