Profiles in Library History: Dr. Jessie Carney Smith

Profiles in Library History: Dr. Jessie Carney Smith

In her landmark reference series Notable Black American Women, Dr. Jessie Carney Smith collects the biographies of 1100 remarkable women across three massive volumes weighing in at almost 20 pounds. Within the series’ nearly 3000 pages, you can find the life stories of extraordinary actresses and activists, congresswomen and ministers, physicians and poets and librarians. The series features household names like Angela Davis, Josephine Baker, and Octavia Butler, as well as lesser-known trailblazers like Camille Nickerson (aka the Louisiana Lady), a piano prodigy and a collector, arranger, and composer who worked to preserve Creole folk music; or Mary Fields – also known as Stagecoach Mary – a larger-than-life entrepreneur, stagecoach driver, and the first Black female mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, called “one of the freest souls ever to draw breath or a thirty-eight” by actor Gary Cooper. “These forgotten women are the ones I really want people to know,” said Dr. Smith in a 1992 interview with The Tennessean.

Dr. Smith published her first book – a study of Black academic libraries – in 1977, igniting her passion for research and writing. During her work as a librarian, Smith began hoarding “every sliver of information she found about Black women,” gathering research for two decades before publishing the first volume of Notable Black American Women. “As a librarian, you do that” she said in an interview with the Arizona Republic, “because you never know when that information will come in handy.” The first volume of Notable Black American Women profiled an impressive 500 women, and by the time it was published in 1993, Smith had already amassed another 300 names to be included in the second volume. “Black women have always played an important role in shaping the community,” said Smith in an oral history interview for the National Visionary Leadership Project, “but for a long time that role was not honored, not respected, not recognized.” Despite their achievements, many of the women featured in Notable Black American Women were relegated to the margins of – or entirely absent from –  popular encyclopedias and reference titles of the day. There are no entries for Camille Nickerson or Mary Fields in the library’s most recent print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance. As Dr. Smith told the Visionary Project, “I saw the gaps in scholarship and I felt, I need to do something about this. And so I did.”

Notable Black American Women does not claim to be an exhaustive list of exceptional Black women, but there is one important absence within its pages – Dr. Jessie Carney Smith herself. Smith was born in Greensboro, Virginia on September 24, 1930. In 1956, she began working as a clerk-typist at Fisk University, as well as an administrative assistant to noted poet, novelist, and librarian Arna Bontemps. She earned her master’s degree in library science from George Peabody College in 1957, and in 1964 she became the first Black student to be awarded a doctorate in library science from the University of Illinois. Smith would later replace Bontemps to become Fisk University’s first Black female university librarian.

Dr. Smith has written and edited more than 30 books on topics ranging from biography and reference to history and genealogy. Click here for a list of titles in our collection written and edited by Dr. Jessie Carney Smith. You can also visit the Visionary Project website to watch a series of oral history interviews featuring Dr. Smith.


Works Cited:

Davis, Sandra D. “Librarian’s Book Gives Black Women Their Due.” Arizona Republic. February 18, 1992.

Jessie Smith. National Visionary Leadership Project, April 29, 2010.

“Longtime Fisk University Librarian and Dean Jessie Carney Smith Retires.” Fisk University, July 21, 2020.

Straight, Cathy. “Author Finds Surprises in ‘Women’.” The Tennessean. February 18, 1992.