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An Overview of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library


The Africana Library was founded along with the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) in the fall of 1969. Its budget and resources came directly from ASRC until 1986, when it came under the management of Cornell University Library. That year, the first professional librarian, Thomas Weissinger, was hired and the library was renamed the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library. The renaming of the library was significant because it connected it with a prominent scholar who epitomized Africana Studies, Dr. John Henrik Clarke. Dr. Clarke was most known and highly regarded for his lifelong devotion to studying and documenting the histories and contributions of African peoples in Africa and the diaspora. He is also often quoted for the following statement:  


“History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they have been and what they have been. But most importantly history tells a people where they still must go and what they still must be.”


In essence, this quote is the foundation of the Clarke Africana Library. It is also a reflection of the Black Studies Movement of the 1960s, which, in part, helped birth the ASRC. A key aspect of this movement was that there were Black students on college campuses across the United States who demanded the formation of a program that would include them in the study of history, rebuff racist stereotypes, and challenge the notion that Blacks were minor players in history.


One of the tipping points of the Black Studies Movement at Cornell University took place in the spring of 1968, when a group of Black students from the Afro-American Society, led by Bert Cooper, Marshall John Garner, and Robert D. Rowe, disrupted a class taught by a visiting economics professor from the Philippines, Micheal McPhelin, who had said that people of African descent never contributed anything worthwhile to history or the sciences. The disruption of McPhelin’s class by Black students was an expression of outrage and can been seen as a catalyst of protests on Cornell’s campus. Cooper, Garner, and Rowe had been in McPhelin’s class and had experienced what they considered as racist remarks directed at Blacks throughout the semester. They and other Black students later made a series of demands and pushed the Cornell administration to take progressive steps toward acknowledging the contributions of Black peoples in world history. The creation of ASRC would eventually be the response against Father McPhelin (and others), and the Clarke Africana Library would play a major role in collecting resources to dislodge myths about peoples of African descent.


It is worth emphasizing that the leadership of ASRC understood the importance of the library. In an essay published in 1973, the founder of the ASRC, James Turner, wrote:


“One of the most important references or indicators used to assess the quality of institutions for college education, after the quality of the faculty, is the size of the library. The library is an indivisible factor in the equation determining the pride, prestige, and success of most colleges and universities in this country. But libraries seldom receive the second honored position when it comes to making financial appropriations. In these matters libraries are treated as if they are only marginally important to the quality of learning a student receives.”


When Dr. Turner is referring to the size of the library, he is speaking to its content and the importance of building a collection to support the educational aims of its programs. One can say that a strong library in an academic setting will attract scholars to teach and students to study. Thankfully, today, institutions have invested more financial resources in libraries than they did in the 1970s and have a better understanding of the role that they play in the educating of their citizens.


For the Clarke Africana Library, it has always seen itself as a center in the learning experience at Cornell. Another way of looking at it is seeing the library as a lab where students and researchers do self-directed study to expand on what was learned in the classroom. For the original Africana Library to meet the pedagogical needs of faculty and the educational needs of students and researchers, pragmatic planning had to take place. Given its limited staff size and budget, the library needed not only to be connected to the ASRC, but also to support the educational goals, objectives, and curricula of the university.


The Clarke Africana Library has two key partners in helping it build a library that provides a specialized collection concentrating on the history, culture, and social and political dimensions of peoples of African descent. The first and maybe the most important one is the faculty of the ASRC. The library needs to have a clear understanding of the research interest of the faculty of ASRC and what is taught by them. In part, this is so that resources can be attained to help them reach their goals and objectives. But perhaps most important with a limited budget and staff is gaining focus on what items to attain. The other partner is the expertise of subject librarians within Cornell University Library. The reason why this is so important is because this allows the Africana Librarian to collaborate with other librarians in the selection and acquiring of resources. As we are now in the Digital Age, this collaboration has added even more important aspects to collection development in helping the Clarke Africana Library address its mission.


The mission of the Clarke Africana Library is not only to build a special collection, but also to address the demands of those earlier Black students who wanted higher education to break from its Eurocentric approach to teaching that places European, or White, history and culture at the center of the learning experience while marginalizing all others. In the spirit of Dr. Clarke, the library is making sure that its clock is running correctly so that people can know “what time it is.”



Film: Agents of Change.

Film: John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk.

Clarke, John Henrik Clarke, My Life in Search of Africa.

Turner, James. “The Library in the Life of Black People.”

Altschuler, Glenn C. and Kramnick, Isaac. “Race at Cornell,” Cornell: A History, 1940-2015. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2014. Pp. 155-203.

Shapiro, Seth. “Movement for Academic Freedom Stirs Campus.” Cornell Daily Sun. April 9, 2009.


–Kofi Acree