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Whitehead receives medal from library association

Hillel Italie
Associated Press

New York — Colson Whitehead’s latest honor is a thank-you from the country’s libraries.

Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” has won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, a $5,000 prize presented by the American Library Association. His novel about a runaway slave and the very real railroad used as a path to freedom has already won the National Book Award and is a finalist for the $75,000 the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. On Sunday, the library association also told The Associated Press that the nonfiction medal was given to Matthew Desmond for “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

Runners-up, each of whom receive $1,000, included Michael Chabon for “Moonglow” and Zadie Smith for “Swing Time” in fiction, and Patricia Bell-Scott for “The Firebrand and the First Lady” and Patrick Phillips for “Blood at the Root” in nonfiction.

The medals were established in 2012 and are sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, along with the library association’s Booklist publication and the Reference and User Services Association. Previous winners include Doris Kearns Goodwin, Donna Tartt and Anthony Doerr.

Both Whitehead and Desmond have long and ongoing affection for libraries. In a statement emailed through his publisher, Doubleday, the 47-year-old Whitehead recalled being in seventh grade when he visited the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library to work on his first-ever term paper, on John Steinbeck. “Libraries have propped me up ever since,” he added, “whether it’s going to the Schomburg uptown (in Harlem), or hitting up some far-off digital archive.”

Desmond remembered visiting his local library in Winslow, Arizona, as a child and deepening his ties to libraries while a student at Arizona State University. During a recent telephone interview with the AP, Desmond said he had been startled to hear hard truths in the classrooms about economic mobility and racism and sought out the campus library to learn more.

“I was trying to figure out what my country was like,” said Desmond, who turns 37 next month and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I had come to college believing in a story that if you worked hard the American dream was reachable. And I was confronted with different kinds of stories.”

Desmond noted that libraries played an important role not just in researching “Evicted” but for some of the people in the book. He spoke of a Milwaukee family in a poor community that found refuge in a “clean and bright” public library.

“Libraries are not just places where people go read a book, but places where an immigrant goes to take English lessons and where folks out of a job search for community,” he said. “Libraries are on the front lines.”