A Word from the Roberts Library

Three months have passed since my last report. Things have changed—some for the better, and others not.

Sadly, we lost two major figures in the Arkansas history community in the last few weeks: Richard C. Butler Jr. and John G. Ragsdale Jr. They each had a profound effect on the development of the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. We will talk more about both of them in future blog posts.


There is good news: you can come see us again at the CALS Roberts Library. We were closed for almost three months, but the Galleries at Library Square and the Research Room are open again with limited hours. For more information, see RobertsLibrary.org.

I’m choosing to use this forum to introduce Jessica McDaniel, one of CALS’s new Community Liaisons. Her role is to ensure that African Americans in our service area are informed about the services CALS offers and to help them access those services. I feel it is critical that we listen to her voice at this moment in state and national history.

By Glenn Whaley, manager of the CALS Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art

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Jessica McDaniel in the CALS Roberts Library Research Room; photo by Rosslyn Elliott

When I started as a Community Liaison for the Central Arkansas Library System a month ago, not only during a pandemic but also amidst a movement in support of racial justice across our country, there were a multitude of things going through my mind. At the forefront, I knew that my goal would be to make sure African Americans in Central Arkansas were aware of the services that CALS provides and how to best utilize these resources. Promoting literacy is important for everyone, and I truly believe it enriches the lives of all people, no matter their race, ethnicity, or background.

During my long tenure as a patron of CALS, I thought I’d run the gamut on visiting all locations in the Little Rock area, but I was wrong. I was at Main quite often, but I’d missed the building across the street with the large windows revealing art and other treasures inside. When I stepped into the Roberts Library a few weeks after starting my new position, I was floored. The amount of art, research materials, and resources available for public viewing and use is extensive. All the Arkansas history on display made me think about my own family and the gaps in everyone’s overall knowledge of their lineage.

My maternal grandmother was an only child born and raised in Hempstead County, Arkansas. A few years after her death, I got curious about the details of her life. So on a quick stop at CALS to pick up some books, I logged on and found a census record from 1920 that listed my grandmother’s grandfather, who was her guardian until adulthood. Her name was listed underneath his, along with other family members that she had mentioned to me fondly in stories. I was instantly overcome with emotion because, honestly, I never thought of my granny being a small child. There are no surviving photographs of her or her family during that time, so just that small line, “Betty Walker, age 3,” meant so much to me. For whatever reason, I stopped my search at that point. My visit to Roberts prompted me to reflect on why, and I came up with a few reasons: maybe I was intimidated by how to proceed with anything further, or possibly there was a little fear that there would be nothing else to find and my excitement would be dashed by the ominous void so many African Americans feel when they try to learn about their past, confronting history that often reveals what has been lost as a result of slavery in America.

The current state of race relations in our country has illustrated that there is a shift occurring. People are acknowledging the past and using it as fuel for creating a positive future. This movement shows that there is great importance in learning from the past, promoting creativity, spurring new ideas, contributing to community endeavors, and passing on written and oral information before it is lost.

The CALS Roberts Library is a great place to help you start making your voice heard in various ways. The Galleries at Library Square offer opportunities for artists exhibiting their creations and for people who want to use their purchasing power to support Arkansas artists and encourage their talent. To help bring your family’s story to life, you can research your family history and genealogy by browsing photographs, documents, and a plethora of other materials in the Roberts Library Research Room, where there is a team of staff members who will happily assist you in how to begin tracking down the past. With the advances in digital recording technology, the decisions we all make daily, good or bad, are being recorded constantly, but we can’t forget what got us here. Poet and author Maya Angelou, who spent a large part of her childhood in Arkansas, said, “I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”

By Jessica D. McDaniel, CALS Community Liaison




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