Never Forget the High John Experiment

The importance of diversity and inclusion in librarianship is a common topic in LIS pedagogy today. Not long ago, that was far from the norm. However, in 1967 the University of Maryland’s School of Library and Information Sciences (SLIS) offered a comprehensive program that focused on topics designed to better serve the disadvantaged. It included an experimental library, High John, created and facilitated by SLIS in a predominately African American community named Fairmount Heights.

Laurier Cress head shotThe importance of diversity and inclusion in librarianship is a common topic in LIS pedagogy today. Not long ago, that was far from the norm. However, in 1967 the University of Maryland’s School of Library and Information Sciences (SLIS) offered a comprehensive program that focused on topics designed to better serve the disadvantaged. It included an experimental library, High John, created and facilitated by SLIS in a predominately African American community named Fairmount Heights.

Although I am a Maryland native, it was not until I moved across the country to pursue my MLIS degree that I heard about this program from my mentor. I was immediately intrigued and found as much information on High John I could get my hands on. Due to controversies surrounding the experiment, debates about its validity were frequently published in Library Journal. As time went by, the experiment was all but forgotten. I was astonished to learn that an experiment of this magnitude was not used as a blueprint in LIS pedagogy on how not to engage with a community.

The community High John served was a small area located in Prince George’s County, MD, on the eastern border of Washington, DC. During the 1960s, its residents comprised mostly state-employed workers, clerical professionals, and laborers. Prior to High John, the only source of circulated materials made available to the community was a bookmobile. Of the 14 library branches built and funded by the Prince George’s County System, none was in an African American community. Fairmount Heights was the exception for a short time in the early 1960s. Shortly after erecting a public library within the community the county shut it down due to a lack of interest. Instead of asking the community what type of materials, services or subjects they wanted, the system’s administrators blamed the community for its lack of interest. Lackluster community engagement was also replicated in the services High John offered.

Black student seen from behind with paper
UMD student at work on High John project
Photo courtesy of the UMD Archives

The intended reason behind the experiment was to develop methods to better serve the community, encourage upcoming librarians to want to work with underserved communities and encourage local engagement. The endeavor seemed innovative and progressive for its time, but very little planning and execution were devoted to Fairmount Heights. Much of High John’s services were based on expectations and assumptions about the community made by the experiment’s facilitators. A wealth of articles was published around the time of High John’s implementation, but the most reliable information can be found in an interim report for the U.S. Department of Education, one of the two sponsors, created by SLIS faculty involved in the experiment. In total, SLIS received an estimated $110,000 in funding.

This interim report also confirms information about the library’s goals, its facilitators, services offered, and even how High John’s creators regarded Fairmount Heights residents. Without any evidence, High John’s creators describe the community as composed of high school dropouts, unemployed, illegitimate, culturally deprived, and ghetto inhabitants. In a collaborative article published close to High John’s opening day by Paul Wasserman (SLIS dean) and Dr. Mary Lee Bundy (SLIS faculty member and experiment creator) titled “A Departure in Library Education,” venereal disease is listed as a societal problem throughout the community, again without any evidence to support this claim. Based on my own analysis of documentation written by those involved in the experiment, Fairmount Heights was portrayed as being in desperate need of help. SLIS believed High John could fulfill the needs thus fabricated by the program, even though the participants were outsiders with no knowledge of the community, the residents, or the culture. Due to a lack of effort put forth by High John’s creators and facilitators, a solid relationship between the library staff and the community never formed.

Nor did SLIS students who served as library staff form a fruitful relationship with the community. A total of 12 students took part in the experiment; four of these were hired as research students. Initially, all of High John’s student employees were white until SLIS realized the community might feel more comfortable and relatable interacting with a more diverse staff. An out-of-state African American SLIS student was added to the roster during the second year of the experiment to unsuccessfully fill this void. Students selected to participate at High John only needed to meet a few criteria: a satisfactory academic record with SLIS, interest in the program, an indeterminate level of maturity, and motivation. The research students were granted a $2,700 stipend and a tuition waiver. Students were expected to work four hours a week but found themselves working full shifts as they became more involved.

Student responsibilities included assisting faculty members in uncovering new and effective methods in public librarianship for underserved communities. They were also expected to institute programs of their own design, disseminate information to select groups, lead story time with preschool children, and even recruit children for measles inoculation. There is no documented evidence that suggests any attempts were made on behalf of the library staff to request permission or feedback from the children’s parents. Here was a group of white SLIS students, with no training in public librarianship or familiarity with the culture of Fairmount Heights, involved in an experiment concerning an all–African American community. Of course, this was the late 1960s, so concepts like cultural awareness and sensitivity training were not yet established. However, placing students in any unfamiliar environment and expecting them to form a connection with a community and provide relevant contributions to a community-based experiment is a bit ludicrous.

Because these factors were not considered, some students involved in the experiment felt various forms of stress. One SLIS faculty member’s responsibilities included overseeing student employees at High John, but as the experiment progressed he became less involved. Students reported feeling overwhelmed because of a lack of leadership and direction. Some also reported experiencing cultural shock and feeling “traumatized” from being exposed to a poor African American community. One student even left the experiment prematurely because working with poor people was just too much for her. Of course, the community felt the disdain from the student employees, and this resulted in acts of vandalism and theft in the library. This made the students even more fearful of the community, and thus a continuous cycle of contempt transpired between the staff and patrons.

High John offered a variety of services, but none of them stand out as innovative. Most pertained to activities for children and young adults, because adult residents were very apprehensive and suspicious toward those involved in the experiment. Before High John opened its doors, projected adult services were to include assistance and information on job searching, ideal meals, sewing, car repair, budgeting, childcare, and even poetry writing. However, no effort was put forth to develop these services because High John’s creators stated they did not have the time to garner the trust of adult community members. Services offered that targeted young community members included field trips, stamp club, teen club, video club, and drama club. Field trips included visits to the Washington Zoo, other Prince George’s County library branches, a fashion show, and a museum. Additional in-branch services and resources included a reading center, a “listening and looking” center, puzzles, games, and a large print text collection. These were defined as innovative by SLIS even though libraries established in predominately white communities already offered these types of activities and services.

The only innovative practice I could find was the circulation process. High John was a converted three-bedroom single story house. SLIS thought it was important for High John to have a similar appearance to the environment Fairmount Heights residents were used to in the belief that the physical atmosphere outside and inside the library should mimic low-income housing. Although it is important to ensure the community feels comfortable and welcomed, this assumes that people living in low-income communities are only privy to low-income surroundings and therefore prefer them. The “low-income” residence that became High John was renovated to better serve as a library, but still retained the layout of a house. The circulation desk was in the kitchen. Patrons interested in checking out materials were required to sign up for tokens specific to High John in exchange for their personal information. It is unclear how many tokens each patron was permitted. The patron approached the kitchen and turned in their tokens to check out the desired materials—no tokens, no books. Other than the token system, the library’s circulation methods were fairly standard. All materials were due in two weeks upon checkout with the ability to renew. Patrons who returned checked out materials after their due date received no fines.

High John failed for reasons previously mentioned. However, I believe the experiment made an impression on scholars within the profession that resulted in much needed advancements in community engagement and inclusivity in librarianship. It sparked discussions and debates on how the experiment should have been executed, why it failed, why it was successful, or what it could have done. However, it also violated the trust and privacy of the community it purported to serve. There is no evidence of Fairmount Heights residents granting SLIS or High John their consent to be part of the experiment. This is why the story of High John should serve as an example in LIS pedagogy on how not to engage with communities. The High John experiment was a trailblazer in what ultimately evolved into topics about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS, but it was at the expense of one African American community in Prince George’s County, MD.

Laurier L. Cress is a second year masters student, from Baltimore, MD, in the University of Denver’s Library and Information Science program. Her interests include medieval and early modern European history, art history, digital collections, and equity in information access.

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