Afro House library dedicated to Helen Lemme Reading Club

After discovering and cataloguing a collection of materials belonging to the Helen Lemme Reading Club, the Afro-American Cultural Center is dedicating its library to the historic organization.


Reba Zatz

The Helen Lemme Reading Club Library opens to the public at the Afro-American Cultural Center on May 2. The collection is made up entirely of works by African-American authors.

Katie Ann McCarver, News Reporter

Established in 1984 and continuing through the 1990s, a group of University of Iowa community members met once a month to discuss African American literature in a primarily white environment. The group was known as the Helen Lemme Reading Club, after an Iowa City-born civil-rights advocate.

Almost 30 years later, the UI Afro-American Cultural Center is celebrating the grand opening of its new Helen Lemme Reading Club Library, a collection of materials dedicated to the organization that combated the isolation of African American individuals in literature and on the UI campus.

“In essence, it was to try to find a place where they could be together in a predominantly white environment,” UI Specialist Librarian Katie Hassman said. “Every month, they would send out a meeting announcement, and it would say what they were reading.”

Hassman discovered a collection of materials belonging to the Lemme Reading Club in the women’s section of the UI Special Collections & Archives, when doing research for the history of the Afro-American Cultural House. Immediately, she said, the team began thinking about how to bring it back to life.

“I created a bibliography of everything that club read,” Hassman said. “As I got thinking about how the project connected to the theme semester, we thought it would be important to have both the historical titles that the [Lemme Reading Club] actually read, and then also contemporary titles.”

The UI spring theme semester “American Dream,” opened up an opportunity for Hassman to apply for a supplemental grant for the Lemme Library, so they could return the historical books to the students.

The Lemme Library was installed on Tuesday, and it will be dedicated on the evening of May 2. Hassman said she hopes community members come together to browse through the books.

“Whenever a project kind of wraps up, there’s always this excitement, like it’s out now in the world,” Hassman said. “I hope that the right book finds the right student at the right time. Part of the reason we preserve the literary record is the hope that people find what they need.”

Hassman said the library had been in the Afro-House beforehand, and several books either donated by faculty and alums still require cataloguing, so that will be the next step for her team. She wants the library to purchase additional books each semester, she said.

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Everyone collaborating on the project was phenomenal, Hassman said, and team member Arika Allen agreed, saying the library took a village to bring forth. She said the library shows how the Afro House is a safe haven for such issues as underrepresented literature.

“Reading is essential, and reading helps people to understand their places in the world, and how the world works,” Allen said. “To understand how interesting history is pretty amazing to me, and to be a part of that history is awesome.”

Allen said she hopes the library continues to grow in the future and be used, because she believes that reading and learning is true education. Librarians for Social Justice Co-Chair Micaela Terronez said she was inspired to volunteer by the history of the project.

“I think access is a huge social-justice area that we try to cover,” Terronez said. “Access in libraries, there’s always going to be a lack of, so building upon that and trying to provide further access for these types of materials.”

Terronez said the renewed collection of books took 10 hours to process, and co-chair Laura Michelson said they hosted catalog parties to get the work done.

“The Helen Lemme Reading Club itself is such an interesting part of history on the campus, with engagement and activism overlapping with areas that librarians are interested in,” Michelson said. “It’s been a really great project.”

Michelson said that the grand opening of the Lemme Library is just the beginning, and she believes that the scope of its collection will continue to grow in coming semesters.

“I think that this really exemplifies what we’re trying to do as a group — as student librarians, we’re trying to always get hands on knowledge,” Michelson said. “Just to see it in the house was really exciting, to see what we were working on come to fruition.”

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