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How Black librarians helped create generations of Black literature

In 1925, the New York Public Library system established the first public collection dedicated to Black materials at its 135th Street branch in Harlem, now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  (New York Public Library)
By Jennifer Schuessler New York Times

NEW YORK – It was a banner day in the history of American libraries – and in Black history. On May 25, 1926, the New York Public Library announced that it had acquired celebrated Afro-Latino bibliophile Arturo Schomburg’s collection of more than 4,000 books, manuscripts and other artifacts.

A year earlier, the library had established the first public collection dedicated to Black materials, at its 135th Street Branch in Harlem. Now the branch would be home to a trove of rare items, from some of the earliest books by and about Black people to then-new works of the brewing Harlem Renaissance.

Schomburg was the most famous of the Black bibliophiles who, starting in the late 19th century, had amassed impressive “parlor libraries” in their homes. Such libraries became important gathering places for Black writers and thinkers at a time when newly created public libraries – which exploded in number in the decades after 1870 – were uninterested in Black materials, and often unwelcoming to Black patrons.

Schomburg summed up his credo in a famous 1925 essay, writing, “The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future.” In a 1913 letter, he had put it less decorously: The items in his library were “powder with which to fight our enemies.”

But powder needs someone to load it. That is, books need librarians.

Today, figures like Schomburg and historian and activist W.E.B. Du Bois (another collector and compiler of Black books) are hailed as the founders of the 20th-century Black intellectual tradition. But increasingly, scholars are also uncovering the important role of the women who often ran the libraries, where they built collections and – just as important – communities of readers.

“Mr. Schomburg’s collection is really the seed,” said Joy Bivins, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, as the 135th Street library, currently home to more than 11 million items, is now known. “But in many ways, it is these women who were the institution builders.”

Many were among the first Black women to attend library school, where they learned the tools and systems of the rapidly professionalizing field. On the job, they learned that these tools weren’t always suited to Black books and ideas, so they invented their own.

At times, they battled overt and covert censorship that would be familiar in today’s climate of rising book bans and restrictions on teaching so-called divisive concepts. But whether they worked in world-famous research collections or modest public branch libraries, these pioneers saw their role as not just about tending old books but also about making room for new people and new ideas.

“These librarians were very tuned in and understood that a cultural movement also needs a space,” said Laura E. Helton, a historian at the University of Delaware and author of the recent book “Scattered and Fugitive Things: How Black Collectors Created Archives and Remade History.” “And libraries served that function in every town and city where they were set up.”

A ‘dream haven’ in Harlem

Initially, those librarians were stepping into what might have seemed like a void. In the 1920 census, only 69 of the 15,297 Americans who listed their profession as librarian were Black. Many cities in the segregated South had no library services at all for Black residents. And even in the North, branches that did serve them often had few books geared to their interests, and sometimes no card catalogs or reference collections.

That started to change, if slowly. In 1924 in Chicago, Vivian Harsh became the first Black librarian to lead a public library branch there. Later, as head of the city’s first branch in a Black neighborhood, which opened in Bronzeville in 1932, she welcomed Black history study groups and established the nation’s second public library collection dedicated to Black life and literature.

No place captures the transformations of the era more than Harlem, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood where, starting in 1920, a white librarian named Ernestine Rose hired four young Black librarians at the 135th Street library, which had recently become the city’s unofficial “colored branch.”

Poet Arna Bontemps (who himself later became a librarian) recalled visiting the 135th Street library after his arrival in Harlem in 1924. “There were a couple of very nice-looking girls sitting at the desk, colored girls,” he said. “I had never seen that before.”

Nella Larsen, author of the 1929 novel “Passing” (and the first Black graduate of the New York Public Library’s library school), worked there for a time. And other “girls” at the branch fostered the neighborhood’s artistic ferment in different ways.

Among them was Regina Andrews, a young librarian from Chicago (where she was mentored by Harsh) who came to New York City on vacation in 1922 and decided to stay. She started at 135th Street in 1923 and soon settled into an apartment at 580 St. Nicholas Ave. with two friends who worked at Opportunity, a new magazine that aimed to capture the creative ferment bubbling up in Harlem. Nicknamed Dream Haven, the apartment quickly became a salon and crash pad for some of the most celebrated figures of the period.

It was there that Alain Locke held some planning meetings for the special issue of the Survey Graphic magazine that later grew into his landmark 1925 anthology “The New Negro.” And it was there that many Black artists and writers who attended the 1924 Civic Club dinner now recognized as an opening bell of the Harlem Renaissance gathered for an after-party capped off with bacon and eggs.

That spirit of sociability extended to Andrews’ life at the library, where she helped set up space for writers like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and others to work, and also joined a theatrical troupe that Du Bois had founded in the basement.

”She was a connector,” said Ethelene Whitmire, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a 2014 biography of Andrews, who retired from the library system in 1966. “She wasn’t there to take credit but to work behind the scenes.”

A Black ‘information explosion’

For Black librarians of the period, librarianship wasn’t just about hosting writers or connecting books with patrons. It was also about creating an intellectual infrastructure that made Black materials visible – and findable – in the first place.

At 135th Street, one of Andrews’ colleagues was Catherine Latimer, who in 1925 became the first curator of the newly established Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, which welcomed Schomburg’s collection the following year.

If Schomburg’s books were “powder,” the librarians’ tools were more banal items like scissors, notecards and filing cabinets.

In a 1934 article in the Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, called “Where Can I Get Material About the Negro,” Latimer described the riches of the collection at 135th Street. But she was also thinking about how to find things once you were there.

Working in parallel with Dorothy Porter, a librarian at Howard University, Latimer created an index of Black poetry and song, with each entry listed by name and first line. (Porter’s version was lost, but Helton located Latimer’s several years ago in storerooms of the Schomburg.)

Like many librarians, Latimer also maintained a newspaper clipping file where she preserved and organized the voluminous record of social and cultural life found in the vibrant Black press.

Making indexes, creating catalogs and compiling scrapbooks may be less glamorous than holding salons and throwing literary parties. But it was equally crucial, Helton argues, to the period’s Black “information explosion,” as Porter once called it.

“Librarianship was connected with forms of domestic work, with keeping things organized and tidy,” Helton said. “But that masks the incredible intellectual labor at the heart of librarianship.”

For Black librarians, Helton notes, the work of cataloging often meant “countercataloging.” As Black collections moved from private homes to institutions, quirky personal systems (Schomburg had shelved his own books by color and spine height) no longer sufficed. But neither, some librarians found, did the purportedly “scientific” information systems used in most libraries, which allowed limited space for non-European subjects.

Today, Porter, who became the chief librarian of Howard in 1930, is remembered as the pioneering architect of one of the world’s premier Africana research centers, who hunted down forgotten manuscripts and built connections between the African American experience and global Black networks. But building Howard’s collection – and making it useful to users – also meant doing battle with inadequate classification systems.

Working with Latimer and others, she tweaked the Library of Congress’ standard subject headings, adding ones for subjects like passing, Pan-Africanism and the blues. She also took on the racism baked into the Dewey decimal classification system.

That system, first devised in the 1870s, divided the world – and all knowledge of it – into categories of race, culture and religion. In practice, it wedged all of Black experience into a tiny numerical slice of the universe.

In most libraries, Helton notes, librarians tended to shelve everything Black, whether works of poetry or sociological texts, into two locations: 326, for “slavery,” and 325.26, a subclassification of “colonization and migration” dedicated to “the Negro question.”

Porter started tweaking the system in ways that also powerfully reconceptualized the world. For example, under the Dewey system, American history was organized largely around wars and presidencies. But Porter rethought that approach, replacing Andrew Johnson’s presidency into “emancipation,” Rutherford B. Hayes as “Ku Klux Klan” and so on.

In Porter’s library, Helton writes in her book, the struggle for Black freedom “was the engine of historical change.”

When Porter tried to share her tweaked Dewey system with other Black collections, she was warned she might be charged with copyright infringement of the Dewey system. Still, an unauthorized version was adopted at the Schomburg and elsewhere.

“Those early librarians were really instrumental in correcting the record so people could actually find what they were looking for,” Bivins said. “It’s really hard to find a book about Africa when it’s buried in ‘travel,’ even though it’s actually a history book or an ethnographic study.”

In many places across the country, particularly in the segregated South, Black librarians – and Black readers – found themselves stymied by far blunter forces than the faulty Dewey decimal categories. Often, the white central librarians who controlled Black branches forbade overly “radical” texts, or too many Black books in one place, period.

In Roanoke, Virginia, which in 1921 had opened one of the first branch libraries for Black readers in the South, a young librarian named Virginia Lee established a Jessie Fauset reading club (one of the many Black literary groups that sprung up across the country that decade named for a Harlem Renaissance figure) and quietly started assembling a collection of several hundred books “by and about the Negro.”

The books weren’t given any fanfare as a special collection. Still, at some point in the 1940s, Lee was told to remove them or lose her job.

Instead, she took them to the basement, where she would fetch them quietly on request. “To save the collection,” Helton writes in her book, “Lee took it underground.”

Today, a complicated landscape

Today, the outlook is very different. Black librarians occupy some of the top jobs in the profession, starting with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. Black material is highly sought-after by deep-pocketed white-led institutions that, when Schomburg started his book hunting, largely ignored it.

But even the collections formed by Schomburg and other pioneers still hold many unknown and unnoticed things.

”There’s still stuff left to discover,” said Kevin Young, a former special collections curator at Emory University and director of the Schomburg, who now leads the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. “Librarians do that, in big and small ways, every day.”

Still, Black librarians face challenges, starting with their underrepresentation in the field, where they make up only about 7%. They are also often at the forefront of fighting efforts to ban books about race that are viewed as controversial, or even just novels by authors like Toni Morrison.

Tracie D. Hall, who from 2020 to 2023 served as the first Black executive director of the American Library Association, started her career in the 1990s at the Seattle Public Library, where she created its first reading guide for contemporary African American literature.

At the library association, she found herself leading the charge against surging book bans and cuts to library funding, which hit low-income communities and patrons of color particularly hard.

Librarians, she believes, need to be “warriors.” Black librarians, especially.

“Because there are so few of us, our work has to be of consequence,” she said. For those entering the field, “even if you are not propelled by an activist streak, you will become an activist.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.