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Best & Brightest: From Farm Girl to Rarity in the Library

Shaneka Morris always knew she would be the first in her family to attend college. Now she has her bachelor’s degree and is half-way finished completing her master’s in library science at the University of North Texas’ College of Information, Library Science and Technologies.

Morris has also just been named a 2008-10 Association of Research Libraries Diversity Scholar, part of an initiative to encourage more minorities to enter the research library field. When Morris graduates she will be part of only 5 percent of academic librarians who are Black, according to statistics from the American Library Association.

Yet Morris says she is not intimidated by such a daunting statistic. She says that her life experiences have prepared her for any challenges she may face.

Morris grew up on a farm in a small northeastern city in Texas. Her father was functionally illiterate, raised beef cattle and is now a mechanic; her mother worked as a secretary and is now a bank teller. Both, however, emphasized the importance of education. “From the time I was little my mom read to me, taught me the alphabet and how to count. I was speaking by the time I was six months old and reading by the time I was three or four,” says Morris.

Morris read the encyclopedia and dictionary for fun. “The stereotypical nerd — that was me.”

In elementary school Morris says she was the only Black student in her gifted and talented classes. Again in high school she says she was among a small handful of Blacks in her Advanced Placement courses and then the only Black graduating in the top ten students of her class of 350. Some in the community didn’t like that, once her mother even overheard a woman say the only reason Shaneka graduated in the top ten of her class was because of affirmative action, not because she excelled in school, the UNT student recalls.

Yet Morris always believed in herself, she says. She credits her self-confidence to her parents. “I am gifted but giftedness wouldn’t have gone anywhere without my parents’ support and without them realizing and nurturing my intellect.” She says her parents raised her “with the whole ‘yes we can’ attitude President-elect Barack Obama has made so popular.”

Along with her confidence in her abilities, Morris has always been a meticulous planner. But the choice to go to grad school was a little different. “If you don’t know me, then you wouldn’t think my decision to ask for advice and changing directions was a big deal. The truth is, I plan out everything to the nth degree,” she says. “I like schedules, I like routines. So to decide to pursue a degree in a field that I didn’t know much about was a very big deal for me.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s in 2001 from the same university where she is now pursuing her master’s, Morris says she spent several years trying to figure out what she really wanted to do for her long-term career. During that time she worked for a variety of nonprofit organizations.

Then something perked her interest after a life-long friend, and mentor Dr. Evelyn Curry suggested Morris look into becoming a librarian.

Morris explains why she took Curry’s advice to heart: “It was her experience and success in the field, and the quality of graduate and doctoral students who graduated as a result of her mentorship, I just trust her.”

Curry says Morris has the right set of skills to be a librarian. “She likes people, likes research, she’s very analytical in her approach,” adds Curry, an assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas.

“She has a degree in psychology so that’s good because she’ll be working with people so she needs to know how people think,” Curry says. “Just looking at all those skills I thought library science would be a very good fit for her.”

As an Association of Research Libraries Diversity Scholar, Morris says she is excited about the opportunities that lay ahead. Though it awards her $10,000 in scholarship money, she says it’s the networking opportunities it provides that are the most important to her. “I saw this opportunity as an avenue to become connected to and engaged with a community of diverse individuals that would become that social support system for me throughout my career.”

Email the editor: [email protected]

Clarification appended: This story has been altered to reflect clarifications about Shaneka Morris’ parents professions as well as a conversation overheard by her mother regarding Morris’ high school academic performance.

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