UK database traces key Ky. African-Americans

While recovering from an illness several years ago, Reinette F. Jones found pieces of scrap paper in her garage containing names of historic African-Americans in Kentucky. She had been keeping them in hopes someone would start a database.

No one did.

So, armed with those pieces of paper, Jones and fellow librarian Robert A. Aken II decided to launch the site themselves, thus creating the University of Kentucky Library's Notable Kentucky African Americans Database in 2003.

It was an immediate hit, so to speak.

"It just grew," Jones said. "People were contacting us not just from Kentucky, which we expected, but also from outside of Kentucky. People who had once lived in Kentucky, they sent names and information.

"I must admit it made me cry," she said. "It is much bigger than anything we ever thought of."

The site has also grown from 200 entries on a Web page to a searchable database with 2,000 main entries and a list of about 1,800 sources. There were some days this past February when the site garnered 1,000 hits a day. There have been 82,000 hits since October when they finally started keeping track. And it has brought national recognition to Jones and Aken.

Aken, UK's Web administration librarian, and Jones, diversity and multicultural activities librarian, have won the 2009 Gale Cengage Learning Award for Excellence in Reference and Adult Library Services.

Jones said a fellow librarian, Laura Hall, prodded her to submit an entry for the contest. "Then she kept coming back to make sure we had submitted the information," she said. "She said, 'So many people are using this database, you deserve the award'."

Evidently the judges agreed. The award is given to a library or library system for developing an imaginative and unique resource to meet reference needs of its public.

Much of the information at the site has been generated by that public. School children, grandparents, teachers and historians from throughout the country have added listings. As interest and listings grew, Jones said she and Aken made changes to make it more usable.

In March 2007, they made the site searchable with terms users understood. Information can be found by date, keyword, region or occupation.

"Most of the people using the database weren't librarians," Jones said, "so we used their terms."

Jones said the site is updated almost daily just so they won't get behind.

"Rob is the computer expert," said Jones, who double checks the accuracy of listings from the public as much as possible. "I know how to do what I do. After that, I'm dangerous."

Jones believes the UK site,is the first of its kind in the country. "I know there is not another one for African-Americans in a particular state," she said.

The site has piqued the interest of other universities and communities. A librarian from Southern University traveled to Lexington to see UK's setup in hopes of starting a database in Baton Rouge. And another librarian from Texas wants to start one there.

What they will need most, Jones said she told them, is financial and technological support. The UK library as provided both.

Aken and Jones will travel to Chicago in July to receive the citation and $3,000 at the annual convention of the Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association.

Jones said the money will go to the library. There will have to be discussions on how best to spend it. She would like to buy some copies of self-published books that contain valuable history so they could be available to the public.

The award is simply the cherry on top. The real joy comes from the unknown history she has learned and is passing on to others.

"It is a passion of mine," Jones said. "I shouldn't have waited for somebody else to do it."