For Washington, D.C.,-based book collector Joanna Banks, one of the proudest moments in her life was when she received her own library card. Now, her connection to libraries has reached a new level with Banks’s gift to the Penn Libraries of her collection of works by and about African Americans, a major trove of over 10,000 books, periodicals, recordings, and photographs.
“This is an exciting collection,” says Lynne Farrington, senior curator in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Penn Libraries. “It complements our current holdings in children’s literature and cookery while simultaneously expanding our holdings of works by African-American women, many of which were from publishers outside the mainstream and for that reason not widely collected.”
The Joanna Banks Collection concentrates on three specific areas: works by and about Black women (over 3,000 volumes), including fiction, poetry, biographies and autobiographies in genres from history to social science to art, children’s literature (approximately 1,000 volumes), especially picture books highlighting Black children, and African-American cookbooks (over 400 volumes). Significant African-American periodicals, some quite rare, cover a wide range of topics comprise another major component of the collection. The works were primarily published between the 1970s and the present day.
Banks began her collection in 1965 with the Book-of-the Month Club book The Langston Hughes Reader. Reading Hughes built a desire in Banks to find the work of Black writers and it was the thrill of making new discoveries in used and new bookstores that fueled her decades-long collecting journey.
“It was such a thrill to look through the stacks at places like Estate Books and The Drum and Spear and find another Black author I hadn’t heard of before,” recalls Banks. “I don’t remember all the ways I discovered their names, but collections like the The Negro Caravan by Sterling Brown and the periodical Negro Digest were very valuable for my search. For me, the hunt was exciting!”
In the 1980s, Banks also began documenting African-American literary culture in Washington, D.C., filling albums with her photographs of authors like Alice Walker and James Baldwin at readings, book signings, and conferences.
The decision to donate her collection to an institution arose out of a confluence of events. “The Washington Post ran an article ‘When an Inheritance is a Burden’ around the same time that my niece and nephew paid me a visit and my niece declared that she would sell every book for a dollar each,” says Banks. “When she wasn’t dissuaded even after I showed her two copies of Romare Bearden’s first book The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, which rare books gave a suggested price of around $1,400, I knew I needed to find my books a safe place for when I could no longer be a steward for them.”
Banks credits Barbara Savage, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought in the Department of Africana Studies at Penn, with helping place her collection at the Penn Libraries. According to Banks, “the University of Pennsylvania was an excellent choice and my books have a good home there.”
“Penn students and faculty, as well as scholars from around the world, will be the real beneficiaries of this generous gift,” says Savage, who is currently the Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Queens College, University of Oxford. “And helping to bring this collection to Penn means so much to me personally because Joanna and I met in a reading group for Black women in Washington, D.C., in 1984. That group helped me find my voice and gave me the courage in mid-life to study to become a scholar of African-American history. Joanna’s generous gift brings our friendship full circle, resting as it always has on a shared love of books by and about Black people.”
A major exhibition highlighting parts of the collection is scheduled to open in the Penn Libraries’ Kamin Gallery in early 2020. A symposium exploring aspects of the collection and literary culture of the late twentieth century in Washington, D.C., is being planned for late February 2020.