A major exhibition of materials from the Banks Collection and accompanying symposium, in the Spring semester of 2020, is entitled "Writing Across Genres."

A video interview with Joanna Banks, conducted by Penn Professor of Africana Studies Barbara Savage, is available for viewing.

Collection Description and Information for Researchers

Joanna Banks in her library, 2018
Joanna Banks in her library, 2018 (photograph by John Pollack)

The Joanna Banks Collection may be understood as a collection of collections. In its totality, it represents a broad selection of African American book production, covering many subjects, published primarily from the mid-1960s  to the present day. A small group of archival materials, including scrapbooks and photograph albums Banks assembled to document the many literature readings she attended, are also part of the collection.

Particular strengths in the Banks Collection include these genres:

  • Works by and about Black women (over 3,000 volumes), including fiction, poetry, biographies and autobiographies in genres from history to social science to art.
  • Children’s literature (approximately 1,000 volumes), especially picture books highlighting Black children.
  • African-American cookbooks (over 400 volumes).
  • African American periodicals.

Cataloging of the Banks Collection is ongoing, and records for books are added to the online catalog regularly.

Banks seated in front of her collection, ca. 1990s.
Banks seated in front of her collection, ca. 1990s (photograph by Harold Darwin, Anacostia Community Museum)

About the collector

Banks began her collection in 1965 with the Book-of-the Month Club book The Langston Hughes Reader. Reading Hughes built a desire in Banks to find the work of Black writers, and it was the thrill of making new discoveries in used and new bookstores that fueled her decades-long collecting journey.

In the 1980s, Banks also began documenting African-American literary culture in Washington, D.C., filling albums with her photographs of authors like Alice Walker and James Baldwin at readings, book signings, and conferences.

Holding Location


Collection Groups

Portrait of Theodore Dreiser, 1900.

American Studies, History, and Literature: Modern Period

Beginning in 1945 with the acquisition of the Theodore Dreiser Papers, the Penn Libraries has maintained collecting strengths in modern American manuscripts. Recent acquisitions including the Gotham Book Mart Collection, have added depth and breadth. This page provides an overview of major collections of interest to students and scholars in American studies.

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