Tuesday, January 17, 2017

ALA’s Atlanta Conference 1899

Later this week the American Library Association will hold its Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta, GA.  The first ALA conference in Atlanta took place on May 8-12, 1899.  It was also ALA’s first conference in the South.  William C. Lane, Director of the Harvard University Library, was President of ALA.  Attendance at the conference was 215. The conference hotel was the Kimball House (see postcard below).  The rationale for an ALA conference in the South was stated in the conference brochure (see cover illustration above): “It is to be hoped that this southern meeting will be the means of largely increasing the membership [in ALA] from a section hitherto almost entirely without representation.” The brochure included a section touting Andrew Carnegie’s bequest in 1898 for new library buildings in Atlanta. This section which was written by someone with the initials A.W. included the following statement: “The people of the South, perhaps the purest strain of the Anglo-Saxon to be found on this continent, are conservative, intelligent, and need only the educational advantages that wealth can bestow to reach a degree of culture heretofore unrivaled.”  No mention of the African American population of the South. Andrew Carnegie’s bequest, however, did include funds for a separate library for African Americans. The racial climate in the South was reflected in ALA’s planning for the 1899 Atlanta conference. There was an initial proposal for a presentation on “How to Make the Library Do Its Part in Negro Education” by W. E. B. Du Bois.  According to Dennis Thomison in his A History of the American Library Association 1876-1872, a decision was made not to have the presentation “to avoid the risk of angering the association’s southern hosts”. It was not until the 1922 ALA conference in Detroit that an African American gave a speech at an ALA conference. The lineup of featured speakers at this year’s Midwinter meeting shows the dramatic change in ALA’s 21st century outlook on diversity in its programming and membership.

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