February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Honoring Librarian Henrietta Smith, Long-Term Diversity Advocate


Image courtesy of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

Henrietta Mays Smith has been a librarian since before many of us were born. The spry, witty 92-year-old, who received her B.S. in Library Science in 1946, an M.S. in 1959, and a PhD in 1975, has been a staunch advocate for diversity in children’s literature ever since. On September 18, in recognition of her advocacy and mentorship, Smith will be one of four recipients of the 2014 Carle Honors, administered by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

From early on, Smith was among the librarians who saw the need for more diversity in children’s literature. Smith became an inaugural member of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Task Force in 1979, a crucial step in getting the award recognized by the American Library Association (ALA) in 1982. She continues to serve in various capacities on the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee. Smith also literally wrote the book on the awards, editing a history, The Coretta Scott King Awards: From Vision to Reality (ALA, 1994), now in its fourth edition under the title The Coretta Scott King Awards, 1970-2009 (ALA, 2009).

One of the authors most frequently honored by the King awards was Walter Dean Myers, who passed away earlier this year. Myers was a close friend of Smith, who tells SLJ that she was most impressed by “what he said to young people, especially young boys in trouble…and watch them together.” She adds, “I miss him.”

An early proponent of noisy libraries

Smith began her library career in her hometown of New York City, as a protégé of Augusta Baker, the first Black administrator at the New York Public Library. Later she worked as a school media specialist in the Broward County school system in Florida, where she quickly gained a reputation as a first-rate children’s librarian and storyteller. As a children’s librarian, she was a model of customer service. Speaking about the all-too-common habit of reference librarians sitting back at their desks, Smith says she would “never point to where something is.” Instead, she would always take the time to walk her patron, young or old, to the book he or she was looking for.

Contrary to stereotypes about shushing librarians (she says she has always been told that she “doesn’t look like a librarian,” though that may be due to different stereotypes), Smith says that she “didn’t expect children to be quiet.” In fact, she finds libraries these days much too quiet. “I walked into a library [recently] and it was so quiet—lots of people but they were all at computers.” She admits that she doesn’t know much about computers and believes that technology is helping a lot of people, though she adds, “I like to see interaction between people and books—and that may be gone.”

That interaction between people and books is precisely what led her to librarianship. Smith had wanted to be a teacher, but after some long-forgotten, poor interaction with one, she decided, “I don’t want to be that.” Speaking with her local librarian, she realized that she wished to be around books and people. “I love people. I’m a people person,” she says.

A captivating storyteller

Her love of people also informs her dynamic storytelling abilities. At 92, she is a captivating raconteur, whether she is telling stories of meeting children’s authors or performing a book for an audience of kids. Once, while telling a story about a cat from memory, without the book’s illustrations at hand, she so transfixed her young audience with her descriptions that a little girl cried out, “That cat looks like my cat!” Smith continues to preach the importance of reading aloud to children, arguing, “If we don’t read to children, what’s going to tell them it’s a wonderful thing to do?”

Through the ironies of life, Dr. Smith ended up as a teacher after all, albeit a teacher of library science. After getting her doctorate, she taught for many years at Florida Atlantic University. Since retiring in 1993, she continues to educate aspiring librarians as a professor emerita at University of South Florida, where she teaches Children’s Services, and as recently as a few years ago Storytelling until—much to her chagrin—the school put their storytelling course online.

Among the many previous honors and awards Smith has received are the 2008 Association for Library Service to Children’s Distinguished Service Award, and the Coretta Scott King Awards Committee’s 2011 Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Receiving the Carle Honor

According to children’s literature historian Leonard Marcus, chair of the Carle Honor committee, the museum instituted the Honors, now in their ninth year, because members wanted to recognize not only the talents of authors and illustrators, but the entire context of everything that goes into getting a book into the hands of readers. Smith is being honored with a Mentor award for “editors, designers, and educators who champion the art form,” and is the first librarian to receive this recognition from the museum. In the past, the Mentor award has gone to publishers and editors. Marcus says, “it took too long to get around to honoring librarians.”

“Dr. Henrietta Mays Smith is widely recognized for her contributions as an influential children’s librarian, scholar, and author, and as a strong advocate for quality and diversity in children’s literature,” the citation from the Carle Honors material reads. “She has served as chair of the Coretta Scott King Task Force and on the book selection committees for numerous awards.”

Citing the traditional role of libraries as the major market for children’s books, Marcus says, “The case had to be made [by someone] to make books for African Americans, and Henrietta helped make that case.”

Smith hadn’t heard of the Carle Honors previously, saying, “This is a total surprise—it came out of nowhere.” But being honored alongside Jerry Pinkney is a particular honor for Smith, who served on the Caldecott Committee that selected Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse (Little, Brown, 2009) for the award in 2010. Pinkney “is one of my favorite people,” she says. “To be on that committee was really special.”

After such a long career and so many great honors, what’s left for her to accomplish? Plenty, she says. “I’ve got so many things left to do, I will never die.”

Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

Diversity and Cultural Competency Training: Collections & RA

Do you want to ensure that your library’s collections are diverse, equitable, inclusive, and well-read?

Do you want to become a more culturally literate librarian and a more effective advocate for your community?

We've developed a foundational online course—with live sessions on February 28 & March 14—that will explore key concepts essential to cultivating and promoting inclusive and equitable collections.


  1. I hope to follow in your footsteps and I thank you for being awesome!!!

  2. Henrietta Smith is amazing! She deserves this wonderful award!

  3. I love Dr. H. Smith very much. She was an inspiration to me and one of my favorite lecturers at the University of South Florida. She is indeed well deserving of this honour. Be blessed, Dr. Smith!!!

  4. Louise Costello says:

    I am one of so many school library media specialists ((now retired) from Florida who think of Henrietta as their “Media Mother.” She has never stopped inspiring and challenging me. I am happy to share her story with anyone who does not know her ( um..is there anyone in our profession who doesn’t know about Henrietta? If there is , hopefully they know her now!)

  5. Alfrae Johnson-Ragins says:

    Dr. Mom –

    You are an inspiration to so many! Thank you for your integrity, your ideals and for the footprints you’ve left in the fields of library science and education. I am honored to call you


  6. Robin Smith says:

    To the lady who has accomplished so much during her career. Congratulations and keep up the awesome work. Your loving son. (Robin)

  7. Catherine Brennan says:

    I am so delighted and encouraged to learn about Dr. Smith. She has championed the things that have interested me professionally. Thank you for your work Dr. Smith!

  8. Vaunda Nelson says:

    “Class” — that’s the word for you, Henrietta. Congratulations on this well-deserved honor. You have been an inspiring mentor and kind friend. With love and gratitude.

  9. I remember when she came to Farmington with Eileen Caroll when she was part of Storytellers of New Mexico (one of the founders) and was hoping to get a balloon ride in New Mexico! I just adore this wonderful woman! Congratulations!

  10. Martha Smith says:

    I don’t believe I ever met Henrietta Smith, but my mother (another Dr. Smith who was on the Library Science faculty at the University of South Florida) often talked about her. They often shared accommodations at ALA meetings, and seemed to have lots of fun together. Congratulations, Henrietta Smith — I am sure my mother Alice would be delighted to hear of your award if she were still alive.