Women’s History Month at CALS
March is Women’s History Month—offering CALS a chance to celebrate the women who have made libraries what they are today in the state, nation, and world. Nationwide, 84% of librarians who are employed as degreed professionals are women. And in our modern times, stereotypes of the matronly, shushing librarian are being thrown out the window. In 1972, Zoia Horn, who was born in Ukraine, became the first United States librarian to be jailed for refusing to share information as a matter of conscience.
At CALS, the system’s history is laced with powerful women from all walks of life. There is a two-decade chapter of CALS history referred to as the “Vera Snook Years.” A librarian who successfully doubled the circulation of her hometown library in Ottawa, Illinois, Snook looked to take on a greater challenge. She found such a challenge with the Little Rock library in the 1920s. She spent much of her time fighting politically to help support the library. Her efforts resulted in private donations, passing a millage in 1941, and, ultimately, a financially viable library system in Little Rock.
Of the 15 library branches, six are named after notable women who have influenced not only libraries but learning in general. Esther DeWitt Nixon Library (located in Jacksonville) is named in honor of the librarian who served as the branch manager from its inception until her retirement in 1986. Amy Sanders Library was named for a longtime city clerk for the City of Sherwood when it opened in 1989; a new library building that opened in Sherwood in 2018 kept the name. In July 2013, CALS’s new children’s library was named in Hillary Clinton’s honor to recognize her work on children’s and educational initiatives during her time in the state.
Millie M. Brooks served as a long-time alderman in Wrightsville. Brooks had been a proponent of having a CALS branch library in Wrightsville, and when a decision was made in 2012 to renovate a space between the Wrightsville City Hall and the city gymnasium into a CALS library, the city decided to name the new facility in her honor.
Sue Cowan Williams Library was named for an African American teacher who became well known for winning a landmark case against the Little Rock School District. She taught at the Dunbar School across from the library that bears her name. “I feel honored to manage a library named after the amazing, Sue Cowan Williams. From what I’ve heard, she was a fierce educator who always took the opportunity to let her students know the significance of them being able to receive an education,” said Latina Sheard, Manager at Williams Library.
Adolphine Fletcher Terry, born in 1882 to a wealthy and prominent family in Little Rock, was the personification of the causes championed by CALS. She used her position to improve schools and libraries, start a juvenile court system, provide affordable housing, promote the education of women and women’s rights, and challenge the racism of the Old South. Terry pushed for social change in the early years of the civil rights movement and may best be known as the leader of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC) during the desegregation crisis at Central High School in the 1950s.
“I was the branch manager of the Adolphine Fletcher Terry Library for six years and hearing the story of Mrs. Terry’s remarkable life and how she championed the causes of women’s rights, civil rights, and human rights makes me proud to have been a small part of the history of that branch,” said Leslie Blanchard, Collection Development Manager. “It is through the efforts of women like Mrs. Terry, working at the grassroots level in communities all over the country, that doors have opened for the women who came after them.”
As the public library has evolved, so have the roles women play. “Libraries create space for all people to make an impact on their community,” said Rachel Tanner, Tool Library and Maker Space Programmer at Dee Brown Library. “CALS saw the skills and abilities I had to offer and gave me the opportunity to curate our diverse tool collection. I hope to inspire a generation of makers to embrace some of the many different facets of creating from sewing to sawing.”
“CALS’s workforce is mostly women, from housekeeping to administration,” said Lisa Donovan, Executive Deputy Director of Library Operations and Director of Literacy & Learning. “We have a wonderful staff, so I don’t want to diminish what the men on our team provide, but women often shape culture and play a key role in helping libraries continue to move forward.” Donovan went on to share that she wouldn’t be in the position she is in if she hadn’t been supported by women within CALS: Linda Bly, former deputy director, and Bettye Kearns, who was instrumental in expanding library programming for children. “Bettye pushed me to go to grad school to encourage me to move up. She was a strong advocate for women advancing and leading.”
CALS is honored to have so many strong and important women as part of its history, and so many accomplished women as part of its staff. Throughout the month of March, CALS is hosting a wide variety of female-centered programming. Whether it’s watching the recording of the Legacies & Lunch lecture exploring the Women of Frontier Arkansas; tuning into the talk with artist V.L. Cox or the presentation by Kyra Schmidt: “‘Hello Girls’ on Strike in Fort Smith, Arkansas”; checking out one of CALS’s myriad of books or other resources on women’s history; or picking up a grab & go craft from Thompson Library to make a suffragist rosette, we invite you to celebrate Women’s History Month with CALS.