Archived newspaper articles and other City of Chicago artifacts recording her grandmother’s neighborhood activism set School of Information Studies Assistant Professor LaVerne Gray on a path of discovering more about her heritage, and ultimately, her own new career path and professional calling.
Gray’s passion for genealogy was boosted when she found an article in the Chicago Defender, a 1955-era African-American neighborhood newspaper, during her master’s degree program at Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The news piece detailed her grandmother’s efforts confronting city officials, organizing committees, and staging protests to force the city to put a library in her migrant settlement-house neighborhood.
Library Committee Henry Booth House, Harold Ickes Public Housing, 1963. Personal Family Archives. Frances Cummings, Gray’s grandmother, is second from left standing. Photo courtesy of LaVerne Gray
“I was able to look at meeting notes, planning documents that included what the women and parents in the community were doing, what priorities were set, what type of leadership training they got, and all of their many activities. My grandmother was a housewife, but that community work became her job,” Gray relates.
Ironically, uncovering her grandmother’s library advocacy formed a parallel career path that Gray herself would follow. Gray began to think more deeply about how libraries serve their communities, how information systems develop, and about information location and value in marginal community spaces. Those ideas became central to her award-winning doctoral dissertation, which would take shape more than a decade later.
Gray had written about a range of library topics during her LIS academic program and those interests continued after she graduated in 2005, then worked as a diversity resident librarian at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and several years as a reference and learning outreach librarian at the University of Illinois Chicago and Texas A&M University.
In 2013, Gray decided to go back to school. She received an Institute of Museum and Library Services funded Spectrum Doctoral Fellowship from the American Library Association. She entered the doctoral program at the University of Tennessee School of Communication and Information, and graduated with her Ph.D. in May 2019, 15 years after first becoming aware of the impact of her grandmother’s library advocacy.
The questions her inquiry raised in 2004 were still on her mind, and they formed the basis of her doctoral research, an award-winning dissertation titled, “In a Collective Voice: Uncovering the Black Feminist Information Community of Activist-Mothers in Chicago Public Housing, 1955-1970.” Her work took second place in the 2019 Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) doctoral student poster competition and won the 2019 University of Tennessee Knoxville College of Communication and Information Outstanding Dissertation Award.
Innovative Research Model
Gray’s research goes well beyond raising questions of how libraries can serve communities. She innovatively developed new research methodologies employing qualitative analyses of archival documents and introducing elements related to the complexity of information environment, culture, and community. She calls her new model, “evidence inquiry and analysis.” The system combines theory, discourse analysis, and ethnography, she says, and there are seven steps to the analysis process and five meta elements: voice, space and place, information, belief systems, and mobilization.
“It demonstrates an information environment and structure from within, rather than one imposed from the outside. That [Chicago] community had their own information system; I called it the Black Feminist Information Community (BFIC) framework,” Gray relates. “I just took it from just the story of the library and the protest, to looking at these women in the context of their community, and not just them wanting access to information through a library, but what did information look like within the structure of their mobilization, of them coming together to protest.”
Her grandmother’s history and its emergence in formulating a research question “is very connected to me personally,” Gray says. “It’s my ancestral community; it’s where my mother grew up. My grandmother was able to grow as a parent in that capacity and I really think it helped her to see her leadership potential as an individual. She was an older mother at the time – into her 40s with younger kids – and it enriched her life. It has helped enrich mine, too,” she adds.
Just as her grandmother’s story influenced Gray’s professional path, the assistant professor, who joined the Syracuse University iSchool in August 2019, uses her research interests to form a unique direction in her teaching.
“What I’ve started doing in my teaching is to think from a developmental perspective, to see the value in the community’s library service, and to portray the community of service common to all librarians. I’m taking out the paternalistic nature of what libraries can represent. I’m projecting them as institutions not from an administrative voice, but from the bottom up. You have to understand the community and the concept of a community of service,” Gray explains. “As a librarian, like a Peace Corps volunteer, you just don’t come in and make changes; you have to look at the community itself. That was one of the models of the settlement house (Henry Booth House) – helping neighbors help themselves, with the participants actively part of the democratic process in their space.”
With her first official teaching semester now under her belt, Gray looks eagerly to the future to help future librarians form unique perspectives on their profession, the way they enact their responsibilities, and how they approach their work with inclusiveness as a core practice. She also looks forward to developing future courses that combine her interests in social justice, community engagement, and information feminism.
Before her library studies and work, Gray earned a master’s degree in education (2000) from Northern Illinois University, and a bachelor’s degree (1993) from Wilberforce University. She also served a term in the Peace Corps, working in West African communities in Ivory Coast and Togo.