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September 1, 2014

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Librarian’s collection highlights people, events ‘history has left out’

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Sam Morris

Barbara Coleman has worked for 10 years to put together an African-American special collection in Las Vegas.

West Las Vegas Library

Beyond the Sun

When Barbara Coleman started the African-American special collection at the West Las Vegas Library in 1999, she wanted to hold on to local history.

Ten years later that collection — a largely unknown resource in the valley — is getting national attention. The medley of books, photos, clippings and other archival material was one of 20 public library collections on black history and related subjects studied by the special collections coordinator for the Public Library System in the nation’s capital.

George-McKinley Martin included the valley’s collection in his eight months of research because he “wanted to get a real picture of the scope” of such projects throughout the nation. He said West Las Vegas’ is newer than most and more local in its focus than many.

Coleman, the 57-year-old assistant branch manager at the West Las Vegas Library, grew up “right down the street” from the library, and her childhood memories include seeing stars such as Sammy Davis Jr. walking down nearby Jackson Street and Eartha Kitt eating at a neighborhood restaurant.

But she discovered that there was no place to find information about that era, and not just the famous black entertainers who were part of life in the area known as West Las Vegas, but also the lesser known “firsts”: first black school principal, first black lawyer, and so on.

“A lot of people don’t know what African-Americans did, not only in this community but in the whole city ... because history has left out people and events,” she says. “We’re trying to put them back in.”

During a recent visit, Leo Segura, the library’s branch manager, and Coleman mused aloud about a moment in local history about which they haven’t been able to gather any photos or other records: the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1964 speech at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

“He came to support the cause for equal rights locally ... But for the life of me I can’t find a photo of it,” Segura said.

Like baseball card collectors, the two are kept going by the search for such treasures. Also, they hope to be rounding a corner soon into a new era for the collection. Until now, nothing from the windowless room has left its four walls for the public to see or hear. But after recently finishing interviews with 20 figures in local black history, they hope to have a 90-minute, edited film from that oral history project ready to show the public in the coming months.

“We would like to be able to share what we have more,” Coleman said.

Martin said he hopes his survey will have residual benefits, including stimulating more communication among special collection managers across the nation, which could lead to sharing more information on funding and other support for such efforts.

The time is right for them, he said, referring to Obama’s presidency. “It’s an opportunity to bring recognition to special collections that are already established,” he said. “With this president, there should be more interest in African-American history.”

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