Touring the Toni Morrison Reading Room

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Show Notes

In honor of Toni Morrison Day on February 18, Page Count took a field trip to Lorain Public Library to tour the Toni Morrison Reading Room. Cheri Campbell, Local History and Archives Librarian, guides listeners through the room while providing history, lore, and anecdotes about Morrison’s life and storied literary career. From Morrison’s time growing up in Lorain (including how she got hired, fired, and hired once more at Lorain Public Library), to winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and beyond, this episode is a must for Morrison fans.

To see some of the images mentioned in this episode—including Toni Morrison’s high school yearbook photo, pictures from her appearance at the reading room dedication, and more—read our accompanying blog post, “Inside the Toni Morrison Reading Room.”

In this episode:

Excerpts

Transcript

Cheri Campbell (00:00):
It was an incredible occasion. I did not get to speak to her. She walked past me and looked at me; that's probably about as good as I could expect. I was too intimidated to even think of introducing myself, and that wasn't the occasion. She was walking out of the room and I was helping with, basically, crowd control.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:18):
Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:43):
I am on site today at Lorain Public Library, where I'm visiting the Toni Morrison Reading Room. Toni Morrison, for everyone listening who surely knows, is one of our great American authors. She was born in 1931. She died in 2019. Her birthday is February 18, but here in Ohio, February 18 is also known as the official Toni Morrison Day. So I'm here today with Cheri Campbell, Local History and Archives Librarian at Lorain Public Library, who's going to give all of us a private tour of this very special space. So Cheri, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Cheri Campbell (01:25):
I'm very pleased that we are doing this and that the Ohio Center for the Book chose us to be one of their first remote locations.

Laura Maylene Walter (01:32):
Yes. So Toni Morrison was born right here in Lorain, Ohio. And for listeners who have not been out to Lorain Public Library, the main branch, and have not been to the Toni Morrison Reading Room, can you describe for them what it's like when you walk in the doors and see the reading room? Just describe how the space is set up and what people will see.

Cheri Campbell (01:52):
The Toni Morrison Reading Room is located to your left as you walk in our main doors. It has glass walls. We have the banner display in front. We also do have some lengthy passages from her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech engraved on the doors. It's a lovely speech, by the way. It's been published separately, and of course you can find it online. It's a terrific, terrific, terrific speech. So we have that in front of the room. The banners were created with the help of Princeton University, where she taught for about 15...16 years as a full professor. This room is open almost all hours the library is open. We're open 9 to 8, Monday through Thursday, 10 through 6, Friday and Saturday. Sometimes we will have an event in here, but you can always see the room and we're happy to tour. If you would like a more formal tour of the room, just give the library a call and I'll probably be the one giving you the tour.

Laura Maylene Walter (02:48):
Now, Toni Morrison, when she was living in Lorain when she was young, she actually worked for Lorain Public Library. Is that right?

Cheri Campbell (02:55):
I don't know her precise age when she worked here. I believe she started here maybe when she was about 13 to 14. Her sister was already working for the Director's office. Toni was a shelver or student aid, or what some people might call a page. Doing what shelvers do...shelve books. Except unfortunately she wasn't. She came to work, she got her book cart and she goes to the shelves and she start reading. Whether she was reading what was on the cart or what was on the shelves, she was reading. And unfortunately it was too much for the librarians in charge of her work. So they said, we don't think you're, I don't know what they said precisely, but she was, as she put it, fired. But then she was rehired immediately to work in a Director's office with her sister processing books. When books come into the library, they have to be processed, tagged, and cataloged and put officially into the collection. And so that's what she did.

Laura Maylene Walter (03:43):
And read.

Cheri Campbell (03:44):
And read. She was probably reading, but I believe she had learned that lesson. And I believe she worked here through high school.

Laura Maylene Walter (03:49):
Well, any library pages out there listening to this right now, you're not hearing it from me officially, that maybe if you start reading on the job, you'll become the next Toni Morrison <laugh>.

Cheri Campbell (04:00):
Well, that's a, it's a great thing to aspire to. We fired her for cause, but we rehired her and we kept her. And she always said that the librarians encourage her very much in her reading. She would talk to them as librarians often do about, you know, books she was reading...They were doing their job. But I believe they saw something special in her. Her teachers did as well and encouraged her to go to college.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:25):
Her brilliance could not be contained.

Cheri Campbell (04:27):
No, no it could not.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:28):
Yes. And we are seeing now the legacy of that in this Reading Room. So let's begin our tour.

Cheri Campbell (04:35):
Okay. Well, I'm going to start you with what you would see on the left. As you walk in, there is a photo with her standing in front of the reading room at the dedication. She came in late January 1995 after the room was completed.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:51):
Let's talk about how this room actually came to be, because it was Toni Morrison herself who suggested a reading room. Is that right?

Cheri Campbell (04:57):
Yeah. And there's a great story. After Toni won, everyone was extremely excited. I mean, if you were to see the local papers of that day, it was just story after story of how excited everyone was. And there was a lot of talk about what we should do to honor Toni. The community as a whole, the county as a whole really wanted to honor her and people were proposing a lot of ideas. There's talk to rename Broadway to rename the library. There was talk to rename Lorain High School. At the time, Lorain High School was just down the street. That was her high school, which she graduated from in 1949. So that was another suggestion. While Toni got wind of all this, Toni stayed in touch continually with Lorain. I suspect she may have even had a subscription to the Lorain Journal. She was in touch with her sister every single day. She had friends here. She heard about all the talk. I believe she was the one herself who contacted the Lorain Journal newspaper and said, I don't want any of that. I want a reading room at the library, which is quiet. She said, libraries are very noisy these days. I want a place where people can sit and read, sit and think. And so we approached the Nord Foundation in Amherst to help fund a renovation. We were a public library with not a lot of extra funds at that time. And we renovated it.

Laura Maylene Walter (06:09):
And she specifically requested comfortable chairs. Is that right? I see some comfy chairs right there.

Cheri Campbell (06:15):
Right. And if you were to walk directly in, before you even look to your left, you will see comfortable chairs. There's two sets, three sets, actually comfortable chairs, some big ones, some small ones for people who are maybe not going to sprawl out quite so much. You'll see these right away. We have tables. There's several recent books by or about her.

Laura Maylene Walter (06:33):
This room was dedicated in 1995. Now you have worked with the library since 1990, is that right?

Cheri Campbell (06:40):
Yes.

Laura Maylene Walter (06:41):
And you were here on the day that it was dedicated and Toni Morrison herself was here. Would you tell us about that, please?

Cheri Campbell (06:47):
Yes. I'm apparently now one of the last remaining staff, probably the last remaining staff, who was actually here when she came to the dedication in 1995. Sonia Sanchez was asked by Toni to accompany her and to write a poem to honor the occasion, which Sonia did. After the poetry Toni did get up. Her intention was not to speak that day, but she was moved to do so just by the welcome that she got from the community and from Sonia's poem. Of course, if you're not familiar with Sonia Sanchez's work, she's, she's a wonderful, wonderful writer. She received the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award herself just a few years ago. So in 2019, actually the year Toni died. So it was an incredible occasion. I did not get to speak to her. I was a baby librarian. She walked past me and looked at me. That's probably about as good as I could expect.

Laura Maylene Walter (07:34):
I think we'd all take that.

Cheri Campbell (07:35):
I was too intimidated to even think of introducing myself. And that wasn't the occasion. She was walking out of the room and I was helping with, basically, crowd control. Because we had a lot of people trying to get into the room.

Laura Maylene Walter (07:45):
It must have been such a huge event.

Cheri Campbell (07:48):
Yes, it was wonderful. It was huge. We had several hundred people here. The mayor came on down. Senator...back then it was Congressman Sherrod Brown. He was the congressman for the city of Lorain. And he was there along with you know, the usual library officials and staff and just community members and her old friends. And it was just a wonderful occasion. So.

Laura Maylene Walter (08:06):
Where would you like to take us next for the tour?

Cheri Campbell (08:10):
Okay. We're going to walk past some of the books that are combination of children's and academic books about her. Some of these books do not leave just by choice. We do wanna have some copies of her books that she wrote and books about her to be in a room all the time.

Laura Maylene Walter (08:26):
Sure.

Cheri Campbell (08:26):
We do...and of course we do have other books that can leave the building. So we're going to walk past the case here. We have the cases. Here's where you find the proclamations from the Ohio State Senate when she died, the Senate, US Senate Resolution, sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown and then Senator Rob Portman. And it's also signed by both of them. We have another copy of the Congressional record as, as a resolution, locked in the congressional record. We have a proclamation from the Lorain County Commissioners. These are all from when she died in 2019.

Laura Maylene Walter (08:59):
Is this her high school yearbook?

Cheri Campbell (09:00):
Yes. And the, and we have small cases in the room here. We have her 1949 yearbook with her picture. She was a member of the class of 1949A. A meant you graduated early in the year. So they used to have A and B classes. These are copies presented to the library of THE BLUEST EYE and SULA. These are first editions. And we also have her funeral program. Her publisher, Knopf sent it to us when she died. There was no local service. There was a memorial service in New York City. It was not held till, I believe, November of 2019. So we have that.

Laura Maylene Walter (09:34):
This case has her beginnings in a way with the high school yearbook and her funeral program. Are SULA and THE BLUEST EYE, are they signed?

Cheri Campbell (09:41):
These are SULA and THE BLUEST EYE. They are signed.

Laura Maylene Walter (09:43):
They're signed.

Cheri Campbell (09:43):
These copies are signed to us as Chloe. She signed, she rarely signed books as Chloe. She always went by her pen name Toni Morrison. I don't honestly know why exactly, but I think she just has preferred to keep a little distance between her author self and her personal. But since their personal life had been here in Lorain and specifically to us, these were assigned to us by her. They are first editions.

Laura Maylene Walter (10:05):
I think THE BLUEST EYE might be one of my favorites of her novels. Do you have a favorite Toni Morrison novel?

Cheri Campbell (10:11):
It's kind of between BELOVED and SONG OF SOLOMON. I do love THE BLUEST EYE, but it's hard to pick.

Laura Maylene Walter (10:19):
It's, it's impossible to pick right, right.

Cheri Campbell (10:21):
It's impossible to pick.

Laura Maylene Walter (10:22):
Yeah.

Cheri Campbell (10:22):
I should also mention it in our cases, we do have the pens from the Governor's...Governor DeWine signed the Toni Morrison Day bill. I think it's Ohio House Bill 325. It was sponsored by our local representative, Joe Miller. And Stephanie Howse from Cleveland. Anastasia and I participated in a virtual signing of the bill. So we have the pens from that. So.

Laura Maylene Walter (10:43):
Oh, wonderful.

Cheri Campbell (10:43):
And you can see those in the case. Okay. So we have more books here. These are books that you can check out. These are about Toni Morrison. We're walking towards the back of the room now. We have books here that are on African American culture, art, history. I've also tried to include some books that she, Toni Morrison, we can't forget that she was also an editor. She was the first black editor at a major publishing house starting in the late sixties of Random House. And she brought a lot of authors to the forefront. Notably including Angela Davis.

Laura Maylene Walter (11:16):
Yes, Angela Davis.

Laura Maylene Walter (11:17):
Toni Cade Bambara. There are more. She even was the editor for Muhammad Ali. There are some wonderful stories about that. She apparently treated him, I think as like it's an aunt and a nephew relationship and...So he was suitably impressed by her, as he should have been. So I would love to get a first edition of that book, but that's haha that's a dream.

Laura Maylene Walter (11:34):
If anyone is listening and has a connection, to donate to Lorain Public Library...

Cheri Campbell (11:40):
Donate! So we walk through a little bit more. We're in the back wall. We have a lot of windows. Because this side faces Reed Avenue. The library is at the corner of 6th and Reed Avenue. I should mention that this is not the building that Toni worked in. The building that Toni worked in was on 10th Street, 200 block, or 300 block of West 10th Street that is now the home of the Lorain Historical Society. The Ohio Historical Society dedicated a marker to her and that is where...a historical marker for her, it was dedicated in 2021. Because that is the building that she actually did work in. It looks out on the outside pretty much as it did when she was there. It's a lovely building. And you're also welcome there to see...It doesn't look obviously precisely as it did when she was there, but most the architecture was preserved.

Cheri Campbell (12:25):
Okay, so the most notable item on the back wall, so I can show you is a letter to us from her office at Princeton University. I believe in the mid 2000s, she resigned from Random House and was hired as a professor at Princeton University. She had taught at other colleges before then. She worked generally two, three jobs in addition to being an author of some of the most wonderful books you could read. So she wrote this letter to us in middle of July, 1994, while we were renovating the room. This is a letter to our director, I should say, our then director Ken Cromer:

Cheri Campbell (12:59):
"I'm so delighted by the news and your July 15 letter. The kind of things described for the reading room seem exquisite to me and ought to produce a warm and welcoming atmosphere for people who would relish the comfort of such a place. Certainly some of my most memorable and happiest moments were spent in the Lorain Public Library. There was no YA section then...." And see, she knows what YA is. It's so, that's why she was always familiar with public libraries.

Cheri Campbell (13:25):
She said, "Just children's books and all the rest. So I read everything." The rest of the letter is basically thanking the foundation and saying that she was definitely going to be making plans to attend the dedication. So that's a very special letter. Of course, we framed it for the room on the back wall. A friend of the library donated the stamps that Sweden issued when Toni won the Nobel. Those were the only stamps issued commemorating Toni until this past year when our postal service finally got around honoring Toni finally.

Laura Maylene Walter (13:57):
And yes, I just bought a book of those stamps.

Cheri Campbell (14:00):
We're going to have those presented in a room too. We have some. So if we walk back here, we have a few articles framed. We're going to the back. We're going just down the wall past the windows on our left where we have largely portraits of Toni. The first portrait is what the artist John Sokol called word art. This is a word art illustration or a picture of Toni done with the first chapter of SONG OF SOLOMON. It starts right here and this is where the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. And then it just goes around. It's lovely. You can find this online. You could also search the artist John Sokol. He is still producing art. He lives in Akron. Chamber of Commerce commissioned this to present to Toni at a 1981 recognition dinner. This is 12 years before the Nobel Prize. But they felt it was time to honor Toni.

Laura Maylene Walter (14:51):
Yeah.

Cheri Campbell (14:51):
Which it was. And she did attend with her mother. We received a copy and Toni herself received a copy.

Laura Maylene Walter (14:56):
Just amazing. Imagine receiving a gift of your portrait made out of your words that you wrote. That is, it's really special.

Cheri Campbell (15:05):
Yeah. John Sokol did this for many authors, and I think it's almost criminal that he's not as recognized as he is. The next piece we come on is the movie poster for the biographical film made about Toni. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders was the director of the movie. He was a lifelong, almost a, I should say lifelong friend, but a good 40 years as a friend and collaborator with Toni. She worked with him on some documentaries about African American women. About 10 years ago, 10, 12 years ago, he decided it was time to do a film with Toni herself. He came to her, he said, I would like to do this. She's apparently sighed and said, Oh, I don't know. I'm so busy. What would I need to do? And he said that's when he knew he had her, that she would work with him.

Cheri Campbell (15:56):
And my understanding is, is they started working on this movie. Be now almost, well, probably 10 years ago. They interviewed her. They many, many interviews. They also interviewed friends and scholars that she selected herself. And Sonia Sanchez, who attended the dedication was one of them. Fran Lebowitz, you know, many other scholars. And then Oprah Winfrey. One of the producers, Johanna Giebelhaus, came to Lorain and did research here. She researched with us. She researched with the Historical Society. A number of photos from our Dwayne collection of historical photos were used for the film. This is originally going to be a PBS movie, PBS documentary series, American Masters, which many of you will be familiar with. This is originally intended only for PBS. While Timothy did have a history of taking some movies to Sundance, and this film was admitted in early 2019. The film did make a film festival circuit and it was shown here at the Cleveland Film Festival.

Cheri Campbell (16:50):
They couldn't pass up that opportunity. Of course not. And it did win the Local Heroes Award for best film by, for, about an Ohioan. It did make it theatrical film debut later that summer in 2019, about six, seven weeks before Toni died. I really hope that she knew that this film had been released theatrically. She was very excited about this the whole time. I understand that the producer scheduled a special screening for her. They would've released this anyway, but it was special to make sure that Toni knew and approved this movie and she gave her thumbs up. So it was always very exciting. So the next picture we have here is actually a quilted piece.

Laura Maylene Walter (17:30):
Oh, I love this.

Cheri Campbell (17:31):
And this, we do not know who did it. The last name is only known as Wood. This is presented to her at Princeton after, when she was still teaching at Princeton. But after the Nobel Prize, she got it and she felt it belonged here. So she sent it here. She's sitting here as a, you know, she's looking, she's writing, she's got a piece of paper in front of her. The beautiful jacket on her. She's looking her wonderful regal self. I think it's a themed illustration. We don't know where, what I'm, I'm pretty sure. And then on the right, there's a bookshelves here that say,

Laura Maylene Walter (18:04):
Oh yeah, JAZZ.

Cheri Campbell (18:04):
SULA...JAZZ...Cornell. It's basically her background. Cornell...

Laura Maylene Walter (18:08):
Howard University...

Cheri Campbell (18:08):
Cornell where she got her master's degree. Howard, where she went for her undergraduate degree. THE BLUEST EYE, BELOVED.

Laura Maylene Walter (18:17):
i can't make that one out.

Cheri Campbell (18:20):
I'm not sure.

Laura Maylene Walter (18:21):
SONG OF SOLMON...

Cheri Campbell (18:21):
I'm not sure.

Laura Maylene Walter (18:22):
BELOVED...

Cheri Campbell (18:23):
I mean, let me tilt here. There's a few others. You can't totally read everything.

Laura Maylene Walter (18:27):
TAR BABY...

Cheri Campbell (18:27):
We see TAR BABY.

Laura Maylene Walter (18:28):
PARADISE...

Cheri Campbell (18:29):
PARADISE. So yeah.

Laura Maylene Walter (18:30):
Yeah. I think that's the only one. I'm studying it. But.

Cheri Campbell (18:33):
I'm pretty sure this came from the early to mid 90s because I was here when this came. And I do remember it coming. I just can't remember the precise date ourselves. And Princeton has no information on this. The Princeton University archives are where her official archives are, and they have no information. And I think it's just been too long ago. Unfor..If this person ever wants to identify themselves, we'd love to know. But you know, for all we know, they're no longer with us either. This next painting this is a smaller painting. This was done by local artist David K Pavlak, P-A-V-L-A-K. He lives in Elyria. He's been an artist for many years. Is a beautiful painting. And we presented copies of that painting to her family members at the rededication of the room in 2020. We did the Rededication on February 18, 2020, which was her birthday. So, and her family was pleased, was presented to her nieces and nephews. Her sister is no longer alive, but they really, really liked the painting. So David did a good job.

Laura Maylene Walter (19:31):
Does she still have family in the area?

Cheri Campbell (19:33):
She does. Her sister is no longer with us. And her brothers have been gone for many years, but many of her nieces and nephews still live in the area. And they're always very supportive of the library and what we've, you know, done for her. They are pretty private people, but they're just very good people. And Toni always stayed very close to them. If you watch a film, you'll see that she brought her sons here almost every single year to visit, keep connected. And also probably to help, because she was a working single mom. She was editing, she was writing, she was also teaching. She was a very, very hard worker. She'd never slacked off. She always kept her connections to Lorain. We talked to them, but we just let them live their lives. She was always a very private person. So, and we respected that always.

Cheri Campbell (20:13):
Over here we have a few highlights in her career that were mostly locally connected. We have one set of photos from the 1981 Lorain Chamber of Commerce, recognition of Toni. We have our Newsweek article. She was the first African American woman to appear on the cover of Newsweek, early 1980s, I believe, before she won the Nobel Prize. And so that's the article there. The art work here...It's from our Winter 2020 Connections magazine. We wanted to commemorate the rededication of the reading room. Local artist and our own graphic artist, Rob Musser created three different illustrations for our connections. And you can just tell how beautiful and creative they are. There's just a lot of color in them. They're just wonderful. Some of them are photos of her as younger. I don't know the words. I don't know what kind of art we call this, but it's just, they're just...

Laura Maylene Walter (21:01):
It's like collage work.

Cheri Campbell (21:01):
They're collage work. He did a lot of collage work and he still does that sometimes on commission with us. So, over here on the wall, we have the New Yorker commission cover art. Carol Walker created this right after she died. A New Yorker contacted her and commissioned this, I believe she created this in just a few days. And then I told our director, Anastasia Diamond-Ortiz about this, she said, we have to get it. And so we did.

Laura Maylene Walter (21:24):
And for listeners, I will write a blog post on the Ohio Center for the Book website to accompany this episode. And I'll include as many images like that New Yorker cover as I'm able to include.

Cheri Campbell (21:35):
Well, I want to mention, if you don't mind...

Laura Maylene Walter (21:38):
Yes!

Cheri Campbell (21:38):
Outside the room, we have a series of banners that were created in cooperation with the Princeton University Rare Books and Special Collections. In late 2019 after she died these are part of the rededication. We have them on a permanent basis outside the room. They are a combination of visual pieces from their collection and photos from our own collection. Her high school yearbook photo, one of the few photos of Toni as a young child, standing outside. She's a little, can't tell where exactly it may have been out near the house on Elyria Avenue where she was born. She lived in a lot of locations in Lorain, by the way. She told a story of her family was late on the rent and how landlord burned the house down around their ears. Luckily, I don't think Toni was inside. And luckily everyone survived, but that was not the kindest thing. So there was hard times being poor and African American in Lorain. We weren't as segregated as other areas even in Ohio were. But definitely discrimination going on.

Laura Maylene Walter (22:38):
I love the quote on this panel. Anyone in Ohio probably knows this Toni Morrison quote. But: "In my work, no matter where it's set, the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie."

Cheri Campbell (22:51):
Yes. I believe she actually gave that, I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I'm fairly sure she gave this on a visit to Oberlin College. I'm pretty sure that's was said there. And there's a lovely story I have to tell. We had a photo of her from Princeton with Oprah at some event. Well, as good librarians we were trying to do the attribution and I could not find this photo anywhere. It wasn't from our archives. Princeton had no further information. I looked online and of course there was Toni and Oprah. There's a lot of photos, but nothing was matching this one. And I realized, and this is during the time that we've been working with the filmmakers, I thought, Hmm, I know some people who might be able to help. So I texted the producer. That producer promptly texted the director. The director texted another producer who had been the contact for Oprah. Within two and a half hours, and this is mid-December, probably about 8 days before Christmas mind you. Within two and a half hours we got the attribution and we got a second copy of the photo from Harpo Archives. Oh my gosh. This is, I thought it would be days before we got any information or if anything, if they were ever responding. Oprah's a busy person and we know she loved, loved Toni...

Laura Maylene Walter (24:00):
This is important. That photo's important.

Cheri Campbell (24:01):
And Harpo and Harpo and Oprah has archives. So Oprah, we know Oprah...

Laura Maylene Walter (24:05):
They have good archives.

Cheri Campbell (24:06):
They have good archives like within two and a half hours. And it was an evening, mind you, it was like, I was just amazed.

Laura Maylene Walter (24:12):
That's a librarian's dream of a story.

Cheri Campbell (24:14):
But anyway, so we just have our proclamation from the American Academy of Arts and Scientists. As you know, Toni won all the awards.

Laura Maylene Walter (24:21):
Yes. All the awards there were.

Cheri Campbell (24:21):
You know all the awards. Some of the photos from Princeton are of her in Sweden. She flew over many of her friends and her family, you know, to join her. And so there's a picture of them at the dinner. And there's another picture we have, and this is one that's probably a little more iconic of her celebrating in the Nobel Prize in 1994 at, I believe it may have been Maya Angelou, with Maya Angelou, and pretty much any of the big names in that time of, in African American literature, it was all women authors. So they were all just...and Oprah again, I believe. And yes, Oprah was there, that's, that's great. Oprah did speak at Toni's memorial service. Her memorial service was held in New York City in November.

Laura Maylene Walter (25:01):
I also see on the wall some children's art, which I love. And you have contests. Can you tell us about that?

Cheri Campbell (25:07):
We have a contest. There is an essay contest sponsored by the Community Foundation of Lorain County. And they're in their either fifth or sixth annual contest. A few years ago, Anastasia Diamond-Ortiz, our director, had been approached as I had been approached by people who wanted their, you know, students to participate, but who weren't writers. Not everyone's writers, not everyone's creative gift is writing. So we came up with a Toni Morrison poster contest. The winners of each category and this is meant from elementary through college. They are framed and hung in the Morrison Room for the calendar year until the next contest. But we did just declare the winners of the next contest and we will be recognizing them here on Saturday, February 17th. We won't be open on the 18th because we are closed on Sundays. But her birthday and official Toni Morrison Day falls on the Sunday this year. But we are doing other things to celebrate Toni, of course. So we have the artwork here and we'll have more artwork hanging in a few weeks. So that's the way we honor the students.

Laura Maylene Walter (26:08):
Can you talk a bit about what you think it means to Lorain, the city or the library system as well, to have Toni Morrison be from here and such an important part of this area's literary history, really.

Cheri Campbell (26:23):
I think it means a lot of things. I think it's just the fact that we have a Nobel Prize winner from Lorain. She grew up here. She didn't grow up rich, she didn't grow up with all the advantages. She grew up with parents who loved and supported her. And she worked hard to get where she was. And she kept working hard even after she got there. She never really stopped. Lorain is a very much a working class community. We've had a lot of trouble here with the economy in the last, unfortunately four or five decades. It's just been very rough. So to see somebody achieve and she was always Lorain proud, she came back, she was always here, she always paid attention, but she had the private life and she kept a private, but she was always, always proud of being from Lorain. There's a picture of her on one of the banners that I didn't mention.

Cheri Campbell (27:08):
She had initially discouraged a school being named after her, but she eventually did relent. And when Lorain rebuilt their public schools...There's a school on the west side of Lorain named Toni Morrison, an elementary school. We have a photo of her from about 15, 16 years ago, standing in front of, you know, and looking very, very proud. I've been inside the school. I've given some awards to some of their students for the poster contest. And they have a lovely display of Toni, like a little, I shouldn't say almost an altar of her. And they talk to the students about her and our schools do talk to the students about her.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:40):
Absolutely. And her support through suggesting this kind of reading room and wanting this space for people, for the citizens of Lorain and for library users, to be able to come here and enjoy this space is, it's just perfect.

Cheri Campbell (27:53):
I believe she would be proud of our renovation as well. I think she would've probably said herself. It was like a little tired. Maybe you need to jazz it. Haha. "Jazz" it up.

Laura Maylene Walter (28:00):
I know the banners were part of the renovation. What else was changed as part of the renovation?

Cheri Campbell (28:04):
We repainted and this lovely, I guess a green blue kind of color. Predominantly green, I guess you would call it aqua, unique shade of aqua. We renovated the woodwork in here. The woodwork cases were original, but we refurbish them. We hope to add a little bit more. But the room probably is basically the way it's going to be for the foreseeable future. I can't imagine us ever even, you can't get rid of the Toni Morrison Reading Room.

Laura Maylene Walter (28:26):
No, never!

Cheri Campbell (28:27):
You never think about...how could you, you could not ever do that. It's hers, she asked for it. And you know, if you believe in afterlife, she's paying attention to things. She always did. She paid attention to things and she always maintained a lifelong connection. And it wasn't just our library. She was a life trustee at the New York Public Library, and she actively campaigned for them during their ballot issues. So she wasn't just in her little ivory tower at Princeton or wherever, or you know, in her lovely home in upstate New York. She paid attention. According to the fiction she wrote. She wrote a lot of nonfiction. Ii was very lot of social commentary. Her books have been censored forever and they're continuing to be censored and even possibly more so. And there is a book that she actually edited on censorship that's still available. She said her books were not intended for grade school children, for younger children.

Cheri Campbell (29:13):
She wouldn't let her own children read them. But you don't get to censor what my children read. You don't get to censor what others read. That was her basic philosophy, although she put it more elegantly in a more academic terms. That was her basic philosophy. So much of your nonfiction writing on censorship and a whole lot of other topics, if you read those books too. It's very current. She was just a brilliant, she was just a brilliant person. After she died, I think I was just amazed at, and I shouldn't, shouldn't have been amazed, but the recognition has been going on. It's after...there's so many authors who die and there's some recognition for a while, and they're talked about for a while in the press and the media and then this play. She's never stopped. She's still a part of the current discussion.

Laura Maylene Walter (29:54):
As we think about Toni Morrison's legacy as her birthday approaches and Toni Morrison Day approaches, I thought maybe I could end with one of her famous quotes. She said this during her Nobel acceptance:

Laura Maylene Walter (30:08):
"We die. That may be the meaning of life, but we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."

Laura Maylene Walter (30:15):
Cheri, thank you so much for giving me this private tour. What a delight. And for introducing our listeners who have not yet been here to the Toni Morrison Reading Room.

Laura Maylene Walter (30:24):
Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcast. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Instagram @ohiocenterforthebook, on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email ohiocenterforthebook@cpl.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Instagram and Twitter @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
				

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