Strong African-American women have been present for almost all of the pivotal moments in LaVerne Gray’s career–both professionally and academically.
These were the women she wrote about in her doctoral classes at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and for her dissertation, “In a Collective Voice: Uncovering the Black Feminist Information Community of Activist Mothers in Chicago Public Housing, 1955-1970.” But apart from the historical figures who inspired her research, Gray can also point to specific women who were integral in getting her to push past her own limits, and expand her knowledge and education.
It would be fair to say that Gray has pushed far enough that it is now she who students will look up to for advice and inspiration. After successfully defending her dissertation at the end of 2018, Gray will be a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences, teaching Information Access and Retrieval, and Development and Management of Collections for this spring 2018 semester.
But let’s rewind a little bit, to that first African-American woman who inspired Gray to pursue a career as a librarian. It was when she served with the Peace Corps in West Africa. At Thanksgiving, she and other Peace Corps members went to a host family to celebrate, and her host was a woman who worked for the U.S. Foreign Service as an information resource officer, but the host’s background was in academic libraries.
“I talked to her about it then, and it really interested me. Also, libraries were a need that I saw in both of the villages I served in, which was in two countries, Ivory Coast and Togo,” Gray said. “I made up my mind, and when I came back in November 2003, I started library school that next summer.”
Once she graduated from Dominican University in Chicago with her master’s in library and information sciences, Gray’s first library job was also her initial introduction to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville – she was a diversity resident librarian at Hodges Library for two years. After that, she continued to grow her career over the next six years as a librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and then at Texas A&M University.
Gray said there was something within her that drove her to keep challenging herself, and to expand her education. But it was her community of fellow librarians who gave her that extra push into attaining her doctorate.
She participated in the Leadership Career and Development Program through the Association of Research Libraries – an intensive 18-month program for mid-career professionals of diverse backgrounds – and as part of the program was mentored by Lorraine Haricombe, vice provost and director of the University of Texas libraries. Haricombe – another African-American woman who had climbed high in her field – encouraged Gray to take the next step in academia.
Gray gave up her tenure-track position at the Texas A&M University, and dove headfirst into her doctoral journey. She was awarded the American Library Association Spectrum Doctoral Fellowship, which is an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)-funded project, “designed to increase racial and ethnic diversity among our profession’s next generation of LIS leaders,” according to ALA’s website.
Gray chose the University of Tennessee’s program for her doctorate because she already knew some of the faculty, as well as the school itself, after working at Hodges earlier in her library career.
“Also, I remember from my time here that there was something here that embraced diversity,” she said. “And when I first came here, I wanted to study academic librarians of color, or academic library organizational culture.”
After her first semester, Gray’s course load was heavy on cultural studies and sociology. A major turning point was during her second semester, when she took a historical methods class.
“I knew that my grandmother was part of a group of women that tried to get a library in their community, and I wanted to use that as part of my historical methods class, so I wrote my paper on that,” she said.
That began a deeper dive into the work of her grandmother, Frances Cummings, and the group of women who campaigned for a library in their Chicago-area public housing community in the 1950s and 60s. As Gray kept up her research and using it in other classes, and applying the theory she was learning, it became apparent that these women would be the topic of her dissertation.
“It has become something different now, to where I’m looking at the whole community in a way, and I’m also exploring the methodology on how to exam archival evidence. It’s this way of uncovering – who knows about these people? This is from the bottom up, looking at regular working-class poor people, and their lives, so it’s different. I can’t pick up a textbook and read about them,” she explained.
Throughout it all, Gray said she came to appreciate the people around her who lifted her up and supported her academic pursuits. The cohort model at the College of Communications & Information helped her through initial challenges, and she also had another outside cohort through her fellowship. Both of these helped provide support and commiseration as she worked towards completing her doctorate.
Gray also credits the professors on her dissertation committee with providing the information and guidance she needed to successfully defend her dissertation and find a balance of coursework that made sense for her cognate area.
“You don’t take your journey alone,” she said. “I could really see it at my dissertation defense, that these people have been on the journey with me. That was a culminating great experience.”
Those faculty include: Journalism & Electronic Media Associate Professor Amber Roesner, who taught the historical methods class that initiated Gray’s research; Kimberly Douglass, who taught iGovernance and social justice; College of Education, Health and Human Services Professor Barbara Thayer-Bacon, who teaches cultural studies.
Last but not least, Gray said that former SIS Professor Bharat Mehra was right by her every step of the way as her advisor.
Now that her work is complete, Gray is looking forward to what is next. She loves both teaching and research, and said she hopes to eventually attain a position at a research university, teaching students about information and library sciences. She definitely wants to continue developing the black feminist information community model that was started in her dissertation work. And she’ll always be a librarian at heart.
“We have an affinity for one another, most librarians, it’s a great profession,” she said. If there’s anything she could tell others who are considering getting a doctorate degree in information sciences – or really in any field – it’s to not give up, and to never stop learning.
“It’s not easy, but I’m extremely happy. I learned so much about myself, about doing this, about my persistence, about my willingness to continue to be a learner,” she said. “To pursue it for oneself, to recognize that there are gaps in your knowledge, and things you need to continue to learn. It’s not just a checklist – it is more about milestones for self-development. You have to have growth and development in this to make it work for you.”