Community, Identity, & Citizenship

By Samuel Huff

An article from The Chronicle that addresses the importance of the WPA to library development. 

A central theme of McKittrick’s is the notion that “social practices create landscapes.”(8) Understanding the ways in which these new spaces were interpreted by the general culture and society that excluded African Americans will help us establish the environment that northern Virginians, black and white, interacted with in the 1940s. In other words, by probing the general perception of white society, we can better understand the value and meanings they associated with libraries as ideological spaces and subsequently dismantle narrative notions that segregation was simply excluding personal geographies (bodies) from "transparent spaces."(9)

First and foremost, the newly ubiquitous access to public libraries in Northern Virginia facilitated stimulating entertainment and intellectual advancement in communities like Fairfax. Considering their origins as an investment in national civic literacy, library administrators understood their role as “part of the government's educational structure.”(10) The American Library Association tied the government’s interest in preserving democracy to an educated populace when it explicitly stated its goals in 1939 to facilitate "something of a renaissance of critical inquiry."(11) Northern Virginia libraries took on the initiative by trying to reach as much of the public as possible; new books, both fiction and non-fiction, became staples among newspaper ads and the circulation of literature throughout the region’s libraries was immediately impressive.(12) Libraries quickly became places where one could expand their mind, experience other worlds, and escape from their reality through the vast array of literary resources that libraries provided. But more importantly, access to intellectual resources empowered communities to stay engaged and aware of contemporary affairs which fulfilled the libraries mission to mediate the “confusion and hopelessness” that characterized the era of warfare.(13)


An article from the Fairfax Herald alerting the public to new books and a local sale.(12)

The value and meaning that communities imposed on these edifices extended well beyond their bookshelves; libraries also became town centers that streamlined community engagement. In an era before television had become a staple in the typical American home, the library was a means of entertaining families and establishing strong social bonds to the community through events, meetings, and casual interactions. Libraries became venues for virtually every kind of communal interaction, including society teas, club gatherings, garden shows, art fairs, citizen’s association meetings, and children’s story hour.(14) Library events were hosted by both the faculty as well as external private entities and provided communities the chance to mingle, engage with culture, and associate with those who have common interests.(15) Whether it was the pertinent work of a citizen’s association meeting or the laid back conversations of a women’s club gathering, the library was a central site in the community that fostered a sense of belonging. 


In addition to empowering residents to connect with their local community, libraries also enabled them to incorporate themselves into the national citizenry. Libraries quickly developed as spaces in which Americanism and identity was negotiated.(16) Part of their purpose as it was understood by their administrative staff, was to promote the “American democratic system” and as America embarked in yet another world war, communities relied on public libraries to offer them a means to demonstrate their patriotism.(17) As the US began planning its entry into the second World War, libraries began laying the foundation to support the war effort. Whether it was collections for the Victory Book Campaign or signing up to volunteer for service, libraries were the place for patriotic Americans to demonstrate their love of country.(18) Residents could connect and collaborate with others to stay up to date on developments, hold drives to support relatives of those in service, and tie the community as a whole into the larger fabric of American society in libraries across the region.(19)

An ad in the Fairfax Herald advertising a community social event.

The next section will analyze the distinctions between these spaces and those separate spaces erected for African Americans, but one thing has become clear: to Northern Virginia’s white communities, libraries were spaces to formulate and reconstruct one’s identity as an intellectual being, as a member of the local community, and as a patriotic citizen of the United States. In excluding black individuals from these centers of identity formation, and erecting alternative structures for Black Americans, white society is imposing a distinction between their identity as individuals, community, and patriotic citizens, and that of African Americans. Here we have begun to expose the manner in which the geographic landscape, through the spatial disconnection of white and black spaces, presents a geographic manifestation of social disenfranchisement resulting from social hierarchies.

8. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, xiv.
9. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, xv.     
10. Patti Clayton Becker, Books and Libraries in American Society During World War II : Weapons in the War of Ideas (New York: Routledge, 2005), 33-35.
11. “Rural Libraries,” editorial, Southern Planter, January 1, 1939, Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive. Becker, Books and Libraries, 33.
12. “Fairfax Town Library Notes,” Fairfax Herald, November 16, 1945, Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive. 
13. Becker, Books and Libraries, 3.
14. “Art Fair Planned Latter Part of Nov.,” The Sun. October 25, 1940, Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive. “Country Club Hills and Golf Manor,” The Sun, June 24, 1938, Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive.
15. Wayne A. Wiegand, “Community Places and Reading Spaces,” in Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth-Century America, ed. Christine Pawley and Louise S. Robbins (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), 29, 31.
16. Joyce M. Latham, “A Liberal And Dignified Approach,” in Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth-Century America,  ed. Christine Pawley and Louise S. Robbins (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), 112-113.
17.  Becker, Books and Libraries, 33.
18. “Your County Library,” Fairfax Herald, January 23, 1942, Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive. 
19.Becker, Books and Libraries , 73-75.
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