When nine students from Tougaloo College considered a location for a civil rights protest in 1961, they concluded that sitting in at the Jackson Public Library would serve their goals. First, the public library was a government institution, and the state had for years said access to reading was a citizen’s right. Further, the idea that access to books should be open to all people celebrated reading’s potential for encouraging new ideas.
Mississippi has had libraries almost as long as it has had Euro-American settlers. Organizations such as Natchez’s Mississippi Republican Society and Mississippi Society for the Acquirement and Dissemination of Useful Knowledge, the Library Company of Gibson-Port, and the Adams Athenaeum in Washington began lending books in the early 1800s. In the 1820s Liberty, Franklin, Yazoo, Tchula, and other places had debating and lecturing societies that also had small libraries. The rise of religious colleges, the organization of the state law library in Jackson, the beginning of the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and the rise of Sunday schools were landmarks in the start of organized libraries for specific groups. According to the US census, by 1870 Mississippi churches were home to more than five hundred Sunday schools with libraries.
Efforts to begin free public libraries began in the late 1800s and accelerated in the early 1900s with the assistance of women’s organizations. The State Federation of Women’s Clubs supported libraries, and individual groups frequently crusaded on the county level. For example, as soon as Bolivar County’s Daughters of the American Revolution chapter formed in 1916, it began to work to create a county library. In 1924 Starkville Woman’s Club leader Mena Blumfield told her organization, “This town should have a library. I want every one of you to give me a dollar and a book.”
The Mississippi Library Organization formed in 1911 and held its first meeting at Houston High School. In 1926 the legislature created the Mississippi Library Commission to offer professional leadership to local groups, set standards, and clarify laws about books and library access. Ten years later, the group started its newsletter, Library News. Funding for new libraries often came from the Andrew Carnegie fortune, and the Works Progress Administration helped build and improve libraries in the 1930s. A 1926 survey found that Jackson, Clarksdale, Meridian, and Greenville had the public libraries with the largest collections of books, while some counties with poorly funded libraries had fewer than one thousand books.
By the 1940s Mississippi State College for Women (later Mississippi University for Women) and Mississippi Southern College (later the University of Southern Mississippi) had library science programs, and Tougaloo College and the University of Mississippi offered library science classes. By 1949 the state had thirty-one county libraries. In 1950 DeSoto, Tate, Panola, and Lafayette Counties in northern Mississippi created the state’s first regional library system. By the following decade, every county had some kind of public library, though many librarians had little training.
Moreover, African Americans were not permitted to use most of these facilities. In the 1920s Coahoma County started Mississippi’s first “book wagon,” a service that sometimes made books available to African Americans. A 1916 study found that of the state’s twenty public libraries, only Meridian Library No. 2 served African Americans. A 1950 report concluded that Mississippi’s African Americans had access to only eight public libraries. Though African American churches and colleges often had books, public schools for black children almost always were deficient in this arena. In fact, discussions of Mississippi schools before and after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision often mentioned libraries as especially vivid signs of inequality. State law required libraries only in public schools that offered multiple English classes, and the great majority of such schools were for whites only. Civil rights activists teaching in Freedom Schools beginning in 1964 were consistently troubled by the lack of books in African American schools and worked to bring new reading materials to their students.
Library building surged in the late 1960s, partly as a result of the Public Library Construction Act of 1964, which offered federal funds for the enterprise. Forty-two new public library buildings opened in Mississippi between 1964 and 1971. Subsequent initiatives to improve the state’s education and quality of life have consistently included libraries.
In recent years, the state’s libraries have focused on improving access to Mississippi’s civil rights history. Tougaloo College is home to the Mississippi Civil Rights Collection, and the University of Southern Mississippi’s library hosts the Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive; the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has a wide range of materials on the civil rights movement and massive resistance and has made many of them available online; and other colleges and universities have become central locations for civil rights research.
Mississippi’s twenty-first-century libraries reach far into the life of the state. A 2010 survey found 285 public libraries, including branch establishments, 58 academic libraries, 61 special libraries, and dozens of school libraries. Public libraries play many roles, lending books and other materials, offering computer access, hosting programs for children, housing adult education services, and serving in many ways as community centers.
- Whitman Davis, The Library Situation in Mississippi (1916)
- Mississippi Library Commission, Directory of Mississippi Libraries (2010)
- Mississippi Library Commission, Long Range Program for Library Development in Mississippi (1972)
- Mississippi Library Survey, People without Books: An Analysis of Library Services in Mississippi (1950)
- Margarete Peebles and J. B. Howell, eds., A History of Mississippi Libraries (1975)
- Public Library Buildings in Mississippi, 1964–1971 (1971)
- Augusta B. Richards et al., eds., Libraries in Mississippi: A Report of a Survey of Library of Facilities (1949)
- Wayne A. Wiegand and Shirley Wiegand, The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism (2018)