When Vivian Fisher was tapped 20 years ago as the first manager of the African American Department at Enoch Pratt Free Library, there was no physical space for the department.
“There was not a building,” recalled Fisher, who now works as deputy chief of Central Library. “There was only the parking lot in the back of the building.”
Fast forward to 2023, and the Eddie and Sylvia Brown African American Department, including the Juanita C. Burns Memorial Reading Room, has grown into a premier resource of fiction and nonfiction titles, among other works, focused on African history and culture.
At a time when some conservatives are waging an attack on the teaching of Black history in America, Fisher and the library on Friday will celebrate “20 Years of Excellence: The Pratt African American Department.” The day will include a conversation between Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who oversaw the completion of the project, and Pratt CEO Heidi Daniel.
In addition to a ribbon cutting for the refreshed space, new artwork by artist Chris Wilson will be displayed in Central Hall.
“The Pratt is one of just a few libraries in the country with a designated African American Department,” said Fisher, 69, a Baltimore native who has undergraduate and master’s degrees from Morgan State University and a master’s in library sciences from University of Pittsburgh. “I’m so proud to see how much this department has grown over the past 20 years, and I’m thrilled about the investment being made to continue preserving African American history into the future.”
Although the department at the library, which is due in large part to the financial efforts of the Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Family Foundation and Juanita C. Burns, was formalized in the 1970s, the library began fundraising for the department in the early 2000s.
In advance of the library’s anniversary celebration, The Baltimore Banner asked Fisher a myriad of questions about the department and other aspects of African American history. Her responses have been edited for clarity and length.
What does the department consist of?
The department consists of four employees, who ... collect materials by and about African Americans throughout the African diaspora. The collection contains more than 55,000 books — including fiction and nonfiction titles. [It also includes] a vertical file with over 57,000 items [such as] playbills, political campaign materials, institutional brochures that highlight people of African descent. The picture and ephemera collections contain photographs, posters, postcards and other types of illustrative materials. Other resources include our microfilm/microfiche collection, funeral programs, African American databases, theses and dissertations, and African American digital collections.
What was the process of creating the department?
In 2001, construction began on the annex that now houses the African American Department, as well as several other departments. The project was spearheaded by Carla Hayden. When I came on board, staff-wise, I had one librarian for AFM and one office assistant. A few years later, the Pratt added a librarian for the Special Collections Department. Initially, the African American Department and the Special Collections Department were under me and it was called the African American and Special Collections Department. Eventually, Specials Collection would become a separate department in the building. The process involved creating policies and procedures, deciding if we should have reference and circulating materials. How can we expand the collection? How many staff will we need to hire? Should we move the 19th century materials to the Special Collections Department? Hence, the process entailed creating a full-fledged department including research interests and programs. None of it would have been possible without the generosity of Eddie and Sylvia Brown as well as Juanita C. Burns. They truly helped make this dream of a new department a reality.
What are your two favorite aspects of the department?
My two favorite aspects of the department are the historic collection and the artwork that graces our walls. This is a premier collection containing books, microfilm, theses and dissertations, journals and databases that we have acquired. We went from a collection of 13,000 to one that is roughly over 55,000 books with numerous collections of microfilm and microfiche. We have a microfiche collection that has many of the major works of 19th century books by and about African Americans. The artwork created by two renowned artists, Sam Gilliam and Shinique Smith, were a welcome addition to the department.
What is the most important new addition to the department?
The most important new addition to the department, in my opinion, is the major artwork that was commissioned by two national and international artists. The first piece acquired was by Sam Gilliam called “The Listening,” and the second piece is by Baltimore’s own Shinique Smith called “First Born of the Child Sunrise.” These two pieces are beautiful and gives an ambience to the department that is awe inspiring.
How has the department changed over the years?
The department has grown over the years by including more programming for our customers in the city and throughout the state. Pratt’s state role as the Maryland State Library Resource Center is very impactful to library communities that do not have many African American resources at their libraries. We provide information, programs, and training for library staff across the state. Also, our public programs have become very successful and popular over the years, including the Brown Lecture series which just hosted Misty Copeland and Jada Pinkett Smith.
With today’s attack on accurate Black history, why is the department more important than ever?
The department is more important today because of the attempts to dismiss, sanitize, or eradicate the accomplishments of African Americans and their descendants of their history and influence throughout the world. During the Black Power movement, when many African American students at colleges and universities were fighting for the right to have Black Studies and Black history courses taught at their institutions. We should not go back to an era where a people’s history is not taught because it makes a small group of people uncomfortable. We have numerous resources including many primary and secondary resources that are used daily by students and scholars who research topics about the history and culture of African Americans. We must continue to support facts and correct the records with factual information. When it comes to the history and culture of African American people, departments and collections such as this are invaluable and necessary.
How do we better prioritize Black history?
Black history, or what I prefer to call it, African American history, is American history and diaspora history. The contributions made by so many free and enslaved African Americans not only in the U.S. but across the world should be taught to everyone. We can better prioritize it by teaching about it, learning about it, and not eradicating it from school curriculums or whitewashing it because many aspects of this history [are] not comfortable. Moreover, support is always needed for museums, monuments, etc. that continue to tell the story of the African American experience.
What do you see as the future of the department?
I see the department adapting to new and exciting changes as we prepare for the future of libraries. We will see more programs that continue to educate and entertain our customers. As technology changes we will continue to assist customers with their information needs including the use of new databases.
What can guests expect at the 20th anniversary?
Guests can expect some exciting programs with authors, performances, and a panel discussion throughout the month. We have programs for adults, teens, and children. On Nov. 3, we’ll host our official 20th anniversary celebration with a discussion between Daniel and Hayden. We’ll also cut the ribbon on the newly refreshed African American Department that night and dedicate new artwork by artist Chris Wilson in Central Hall. It starts at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. Music will fill Central Library on Nov. 4 when we welcome the youth choir, the Singing Sensations at 2:30 p.m. They’ll be singing historic African American songs. And we will wrap up the month on Nov. 30 with an artist panel discussion between Baltimore’s Shinique Smith and Derrick Adams. It will be a really special month of celebrations.