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Mary Mace Spradling

Activist, Educator, Editor, and Young Adult Librarian

Mary Mace Spradling, Martin Cohen, Shirley Miller. Undated Photo from KPL Archives

The following text is taken from a brochure printed for the dedication ceremony of the Mary Mace Spradling African-American Book Collection held on October 7, 1998 at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Arcadia Commons.

Mary was born on December 31, 1911. In the 1920’s and the years following when Mary was growing up in Kentucky, remnants of slavery survived. Black citizens were not permitted to check out books from the community’s public library. However, Mary’s mother found a way to expand her daughter’s educational horizons. Mary’s mother helped support the family by doing laundry for genteel white women. Many of these women were supportive of her dream to educate Mary and smuggled books to the laundress amidst the soiled clothes. Mary’s passion for books never dimmed after her introduction to the written word. She began collecting books, even sacrificing meals in order make a purchase. In 1957, Mary applied for a librarian’s position at the Kalamazoo Public Library. She was offered the job and the challenge of developing the library’s Young Adult Department and organizing the Powell Branch Library. During her Kalamazoo years, Ms. Spradling realized the difficulty students had in finding reference material about African-Americans. She began compiling a list of resources that detailed the achievements and activities of blacks. Eventually this list evolved into her 1971 compilation, In Black & White: African Americans in Print. This important 1282 page reference work was reprinted three times. Many of the materials used to compile the text are now on the shelves of this library.

Kalamazoo Gazette, November 21, 1971

Spradling’s personal collection of books, totaling nearly 3,000, were donated to KVCC in 1998. The collection includes books that cover the subject areas of: African American history, Michigan history, civil rights, poetry, African American Michigan authors, and books on jazz and blues music.


Young Adult Advocate

Mary Mace Spradling’s revolutionary act of diversifying the library collection is only one part of her legacy as a librarian. Spradling, the library’s first black librarian, was hired in 1957 by then library director Dr. Mark D. Crum, with the goal of invigorating the Young Adult Department, which by the late 1950’s, according to Crum, “consisted of seven shelves in a three-foot-high bookcase in the corner of the Adult Reading Room.” Today’s public libraries invest a significant amount of resources into serving their young adult users, but in the early 1960’s, that was rarely the case. Spradling was dedicated to addressing the challenge of better serving teens through increased access to a more well-rounded collection of titles. Spradling’s active listening to her young patrons, monitoring their book requests and suggestions, led to an increase in library use and circulation. It was this recognition, that young adults were struggling to find titles that interested them, or in the case of young black patrons, spoke to their history, life experiences and cultural heritage, that became the impetus for Spradling’s seminal In Black and White: African Americans in Print.

“In addition to her regular library duties, Spradling also secured authors, including young-adult author Maya Angelou, for various lectures. Spradling also started a relationship with the schools by visiting area junior and senior high schools on a regular basis to encourage student exploration of the library to further their knowledge.” (Western Herald, 1989)

Kalamazoo Public Library Archives Photograph, uncatalogued, c. 1965

Spradling was also a key part in the planning and development of the Alma Powell Branch Library, prior to its opening to the public in 1971, the same year her premier index was published.

“She often went without lunch to save money to buy rare books and books of her interest by and about black Americans, recalled Phyllis Seabolt, a longtime friend.” (Kalamazoo Gazette, January 30, 2009)

Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, March 2022

Sources
Articles

“Spradling Concerned for Young People”, Western Herald, February 27, 1989

Books

In black and white : a guide to magazine articles, newspaper articles, and books concerning more than 15,000 Black individuals and groups, edited by Mary Mace Spradling (H 973.0496 S7664 V.1 & 2)

Local History Room Files

Name File: Spradling, Mary Mace

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