A Tale of Two Librarians in the Roaring Twenties

I always feel recharged when I am in the company of my fellow librarians. I am inspired, humbled, and enlightened by our collective endeavors to seek and share truth, cherish and foster reading, and empower our patrons on their own journeys of knowledge whether it be for an assignment, entertainment and escape, or for a breakthrough in self-development. In these times of multiple crises and layers of turmoil I turn to my instincts as a librarian for both comfort and understanding. I have noticed that many of us in the library and publishing industry have responded to the current events of the continued injustices visited upon the Black community by compiling resources and sharing book lists about antiracism, racism and social justice. I am heartened by the overwhelming response of the public and the social media realm to seek and share these resources as reigniting the conversation about justice, equal rights and human rights. In this profession we have consistently discussed, and disseminated the importance of multiculturalism, representation, and diversity. Librarians often are at the forefront and early adopters of ideas, programs, and language that continue to promote inclusion from all voices as witnessed by concepts like #ownvoice and the “windows” and “mirrors” as a reader perspective framing device. I have learned from many of you that have written posts, compiled book lists, and held workshops how you are reflecting on diversity and conducting diversity audits of your collections. 

And for this I am grateful and enriched by this tradition and like many of you, I am using this summertime to delve into self-education and research related to diversity in libraries.There are so many lists circulating currently by writers representing #ownvoice sharing about anti-racism and injustice; I am reading these to share with my patrons, but for this forum I want revisit the history of libraries and share figures that have inspired and informed me in the field of library studies. I want to highlight two librarians that have come to my attention in the last couple of years.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Portrait of Regina Andrews” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1940. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8785edb6-c289-51ec-e040-e00a18061a76

I have always had a fascination with the 1920s, and it is not only from this year 2020 as its centennial counterpart. Through my social media algorithms I stumbled on the following article, “The Librarian at the Nexus of the Harlem Renaissance.” My interest was immediately piqued. I had always wondered about the role individual librarians may have played in historical and cultural events. Regina Anderson Andrews was the librarian at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Her story struck a chord with me because of her avocation for the role of a librarian. She not only managed the daily duties as a 9-to-5 public librarian, she hosted a literary salon with the luminary artists and writers of the day. One of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston, was mentioned as one of the working artists crashing at her place.  She was also part of this creative class as she wrote and produced plays that captured and gave voice to African American stories. The book Regina Anderson Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian by Ethelene Whitmire further explains the career, hardships, and impact of Mrs. Andrew’s work. She also reached the stature as the first African American supervising librarian in the New York Public Library system. I admire her life’s focus on, “ the use of books as our strongest means of promoting intercultural understanding.” She was known for her library programming called “Family Night” in which she invited great thinkers and writers from differing backgrounds to share their perspectives and stories to serve her diverse and immigrant population. The book also does a thorough job of showing influential figures in the library world that I found illuminating as a springboard for further study. I consider her a model I try to emulate in my own life and work. (See more primary documents about her from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division-Digital Collections)

Clarence H. White, American, 1871–1925
Belle da Costa Greene, 1911
Platinum print
image: 23.8 x 17.1 cm (9 3/8 x 6 3/4 in.)
mat: 50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in.)
frame: 51.4 × 41.3 × 3.8 cm (20 1/4 × 16 1/4 × 1 1/2 in.)
Princeton University Art Museum. The Clarence H. White Collection, assembled and organized by Professor Clarence H. White Jr., and given in memory of Lewis F. White, Dr. Maynard P. White Sr., and Clarence H. White Jr., the sons of Clarence H. White Sr. and Jane Felix White

On one of my afternoon commutes from work I was listening to the Annotated podcast produced by Bookriot when the story, The World’s Most Glamorous Librarian mesmerized me. I was introduced to Belle da Costa Greene, “the most glamorous and influential librarian in early 20th Century America, who kept a life-long secret that could have ended her career.” She was the librarian for J. Pierpont Morgan, an American financier during the Gilded Age. She acquired and curated his renown collection of illuminated texts, historical documents as well as notable British and American writers’ first editions and journals for over 40 years. According to recent articles and research she had wit, allure and mystic surrounding her story because she was truly a self-made woman. She tweaked her name and evaded specific questions about her heritage. She eschewed her father’s prominence as the first African American man to graduate from Harvard in order to evade a race label. In the book An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege historian Heidi Ardizzone Ph.D. fashions a portrait of this enigmatic intellect and her impact on New York’s high society. She is quoted as saying,“Just because I am a librarian doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.” She also defied the societal expectations of women. Her self-contrived story gives us a snapshot of the construct and constraint of race at that time, and we are still grappling with it today.

More information about about Belle

Belle da Costa Greene, the Morgan’s First Librarian and Director

The Mysterious Woman Behind J.P. Morgan’s Library

Long Time Passing

They are more than flapper librarians, but unflappable women that defied the social constructions that surrounded them. I am honored to be in the same field as these two, and I will continue to read and research the many other influential librarians from diverse backgrounds to see the fuller picture of our history. 

The following resources have lists of other Black librarians throughout our history for further study.

13 PIONEERING BLACK AMERICAN LIBRARIANS YOU OUGHTA KNOW

Honoring African American Librarians

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Librarians in the Roaring Twenties

  1. What a great post!!! Perhaps you should write a children’s book about one of them? Thank you. I loved this post.

  2. Belatedly catching up on blog posts and very much enjoyed this, Courtney. Thank you – the lives of these librarians are fascinating and inspiring!

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