Librarian Em Claire Knowles was born on June 6, 1952 in Sacramento, California to Sidney Stanley Knowles and Almeana Early Knowles. Knowles received her B.A. degree in international relations in 1973 from the University of California, Davis and her M.L.S. degree in 1975 from University of California, Berkeley. She later obtained her M.P.A. degree in public administration in 1986 from California State University, Sacramento, and her D.A. degree in library and information science in 1988 from Simmons College.
In 1975, Knowles worked as coordinator of bibliographic instruction, social sciences and humanities at the University of California, Davis and as a faculty member, she also taught courses in library science there until 1988.
In 1988, Knowles became the first African American to serve as the assistant dean at the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences in Boston where over the years she was responsible for overseeing student and alumni affairs. In 2001, Knowles was appointed to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, being only the second African American to be appointed to the board, and in 2006, Knowles became the first African American to serve as the chair. In 2018, when Simmons College became a university, Knowles was appointed to a position responsible for all of student and alumni engagement for the Simmons University's College of Organizational, Computational and Information Sciences.
During her career, she has served on numerous boards, including the boards of the Massachusetts Library Association, the New England Library Association, the Design Team of the National Association of Black MBA Association (1995-2006). She has also been active in the American Library Association as well as the Black Caucus of the A.L.A., where she served as executive board member and secretary. Knowles was elected to the board of directors of Beta Phi Mu in 2016. She also served as board liaison to the Simmons Library and Information Science Alumni Association Board for over twenty years. She served as chair of the Awards and Scholarships committee and member of the Steering Committee of the 2018 Joint Conference of Librarians of Color. As a lifetime member of the American Library Association, Knowles became the first legacy member designating a financial gift to the ALA Spectrum Scholarship Initiative.
A trustee of the Massachusetts State Library Association, Knowles was elected trustee of the Freedom to Read Foundation, and served as an active member the Massachusetts Black Librarians Network, Inc. She was honored with the 2011 BCALA Distinguished Service Award, the 2013 BCALA Professional Development Award, the Sojourner Truth Award by the Boston & Vicinity Club, an affiliate of the National Association of the Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Inc in 2015, the A.L.A. Spectrum Scholarship Program, the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color, and the Beta Phi Mu Award in 2017.
Knowles was profiled in the book African-American Firsts in Science and Technology, authored by Raymond B. Webster, Gale Group, (University of Michigan, 1999).
Em Claire Knowles was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on November 16 and 24, 2018.