Black Leaders in Library History
During Black History Month, we celebrate the trailblazers and pioneers from the Black community who shaped the past, present, and are still shaping the future. But this celebration shouldn’t be limited to a single month. The voices that are overlooked, or silenced, should be sought out and amplified all year round.
This post is dedicated to those who broke ground in libraries, helping others learn and spreading knowledge to the masses. It highlights four African American library leaders who have made significant contributions to the profession, changing it radically and for the better.
A Brief History of Librarianship
Librarianship became a formal profession during the late 1800s. The American Library Association (ALA) was subsequently formed in 1876, the same year in which Melvil Dewey published the Dewey Decimal system which we still use today. He would go on to found the first library school in 1884.*
The library profession was propelled forward by Andrew Carnegie, who funded thousands of libraries across the country between 1886 and 1919. These libraries were vast and varied, including some at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. One of these HBCU’s, Howard University, was home to three of the librarians we profile in this article.
Like many institutions of this period, libraries were largely segregated, meaning African Americans were restricted in being both employees and patrons of libraries. Today, only 5.3% of librarians identify as Black or African American. Organizations such as the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the New York Black Librarians’ Caucus are advocates for diversity in the library profession, a cause that all of us who work in libraries must support.
*It would be remiss not to mention that today, Dewey is increasingly recognized as being guilty of sexual harassment, racism, and anti-Semitism throughout his life. His name was recently removed from a top ALA award, when it was decided that his actions and beliefs do not align with the values of librarianship as a profession. So while the widely used classification still bears his name, Dewey is rightfully being abandoned as the face of librarianship.
1. Edward Christopher Williams (1871–1929)
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1871, Edward Christopher Williams was the first professionally trained Black librarian in the U.S. and an expert in bibliography. He attended Western Reserve University (WRU) in Cleveland where he became an assistant librarian, eventually working up to become the university librarian in 1898. While employed there, he developed the library’s collection, doubling its size, and helped form its library school.
The next year, he joined the American Library Association, one of the first Black men to do so. With heralded determination, Williams earned his master’s degree in library science from the New York State Library School in Albany, NY in 1899. After years of dedication and hard work at WRU, in 1916 Williams became a university librarian at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he also taught German and led a library training class.
Williams passed away in 1929 while working toward a Ph.D. at Columbia University, but anonymously wrote a novel just before his death, which was serialized in The Messenger between 1925-1926 under the title “The Letters of Davy Carr.” It was republished in 2003 as When Washington Was in Vogue (available at the library). This places Williams in the canon of Harlem Renaissance authors.
2. Catherine Latimer (1896–1948)
Catherine Latimer was born in Nashville, TN in 1896, but her family soon moved to Brooklyn. She would eventually attend Howard University. It was at Howard where she first started studying library science. Latimer became the first Black person to be hired as a branch librarian at the New York Public Library in 1920, at a time when the percentage of Black library patrons was quickly exceeding that of white library patrons.
She was later the first head of the NYPL’s Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, where she re-cataloged library materials about the African diaspora to make them more accessible and started to compile clippings into scrapbooks that have preserved parts of Black history that may have otherwise been lost.
The Division of Negro Literature would grow to become the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Today, it remains a world-renowned research library. Read an article about the collection written by Catherine Latimer, published in The Crisis magazine in June 1934.
One of Latimer’s most cherished friendships was with W.E.B. Du Bois. The two frequently exchanged letters that reveal the systemic racism Latimer and her Black colleagues faced on a daily basis. She was an open advocate for equality within the library system.
3. Dorothy Porter Wesley (1905–1995)
Dorothy Porter Wesley (aka Dorothy Burnett Porter) was born in Warrenton, VA in 1905. She was the first Black graduate from Columbia University’s library school in 1932 and became a librarian at Howard University.
She was dedicated to shedding light on the accomplishments of Black individuals around the world. Throughout her career, Porter compiled many bibliographies of Black literature which would open the door for future scholars of Black studies. A list of her bibliography titles is available from the Digital Howard repository, and three of them are available in print at the Fordham Libraries.
While at Howard University, she transformed the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center into a leading repository for African American history. This collection included a manuscript from the 1850s titled The Bondwoman’s Narrative. This turned out to be written by Hannah Bond (her pen name was Hannah Crafts), an escaped slave. It is the first known novel written by an African American woman.
“The only rewarding thing for me is to bring to light information that no one knows. What’s the point of rehashing the same old thing?”-Dorothy Porter Wesley
She challenged the racial biases within the Dewey Decimal classification system to change how works by Black writers are cataloged. Due to her efforts, these works appear across all subject areas instead of being marginalized to Dewey’s narrow, inherently racist classifications.
4. Dr. Carla Hayden (1952-)
“People of my race were once punished and worse for learning to read, and as a descendent of people who were denied the right to read, and now have the opportunity to serve the institution that is now the symbol of knowledge is a historic moment.”– Dr. Carla Hayden, during her swearing-in ceremony
Dr. Carla Hayden was born in Tallahassee, FL in 1952. She earned her doctorate degree in Library Science from the University of Chicago. Dr. Hayden worked as a librarian around the country for over forty years, including as the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, MD. While there, Dr. Hayden implemented new programs and made impact enough to be the first African American to receive the Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year Award in 1995.
Appointed in 2016, she is the first woman and first African American to become a Librarian of Congress. This means she’s the head of the largest library in the world and the main research arm of the U.S. Congress, in addition to the U.S. Copyright Office.
One initiative started since she assumed office is the Library of Congress Crime Classics Series, which began republishing hard to find and out-of-print books in 2020. That Affair Next Door, an 1897 murder mystery by Anna Katharine Green, was one of the first titles released and can be checked out from the library.
During Black History Month, it’s important to remember not just those who were at the front and center of national media attention, but all the men and women of the African American community who helped pave the way toward a brighter future. These four inspiring individuals may not be household names, but their stories remind us to continue striving to be better – this month, and thereafter.
“About the Librarian.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/about/about-the-librarian
“Carnegie Libraries: The Future Made Bright (Teaching with Historic Places).” National Park Service, National Park Service, www.nps.gov/articles/carnegie-libraries-the-future-made-bright-teaching-with-historic-places.htm
Evans, Rhonda. “Catherine Latimer: The New York Public Library’s First Black Librarian.” New York Public Library, 20 Mar. 2020, www.nypl.org/blog/2020/03/19/new-york-public-library-first-black-librarian-catherine-latimer
“Library Professionals: Facts, Figures, and Union Membership.” Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, Department for Professional Employees, www.dpeaflcio.org/factsheets/library-professionals-facts-and-figures
Hunt, Rebecca D. “African American Leaders In The Library Profession: Little Known History.” Black History Bulletin, vol. 76, no. 1, 2013, pp. 14–19. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24759707.
Joiner, Lottie L. “The Accidental Librarian: Carla Hayden Is the First Woman and First African American to Head the Library of Congress.” Crisis, vol. 123, no. 4, Fall 2016, pp. 22–25. https://login.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rgm&AN=126854115&site=eds-live
Josey, E. J. “Edward Christopher Williams: A Librarian’s Librarian.” The Journal of Library History (1966-1972), vol. 4, no. 2, 1969, pp. 106–122. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25540156
Madison, Avril Johnson, and Dorothy Porter Wesley. “Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley: Enterprising Steward of Black Culture.” The Public Historian, vol. 17, no. 1, 1995, pp. 15–40. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3378349
Nunes, Zita Cristina. “Remembering the Howard University Librarian Who Decolonized the Way Books Were Catalogued.” Smithsonian Magazine, 26 Nov. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-howard-university-librarian-who-decolonized-way-books-were-catalogued-180970890
Quintero, Maria. “Carla Diane Hayden (1952- ).” Black Past, 7 Jan. 2021, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/hayden-dr-carla-diane-1952
Schonfeld, Zach. “The Mystery of a 150-Year-Old Slave Novel, Solved.” The Atlantic, 29 Oct. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2013/09/mystery-150-year-old-slave-novel-solved/310832
Smith, Katisha. “13 Pioneering Black American Librarians You Oughta Know.” Book Riot, 8 May 2020, www.bookriot.com/pioneering-black-american-librarians
“The Schomburg Center Opens.” African American Registry, www.web.archive.org/web/20160301123229/http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/schomburg-center-opens
Weber, Greta. “Carla Hayden.” Washingtonian Magazine, vol. 52, no. 3, Dec. 2016, pp. 39–43. https://login.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rgm&AN=119608698&site=eds-live“Williams, Edward Christopher.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Case Western Reserve University, Case Western Reserve University, www.case.edu/ech/articles/w/williams-edward-christopher