Thursday, October 8, 2015


Fannie Tarkington was one of the four African-American women who were given trials at the 135th Street Branch in 1920.

I have found only sketchy information about her life.

She was born in Virginia and graduated from the North Carolina State Colored Normal School (now Elizabeth City State University) in 1908.  The commencement program gives her name as Fannie Clarine Janieth Targinton (sic).  She apparently attended Howard University in the 1910s and perhaps worked in Washington D.C. as a social worker.  She moved to New York City in the later 1910s.

The 1940 US Census (the only one in which I found her listed) had her living in Harlem as a lodger and working as an “independent dressmaker”  Three articles in the New York Age from the 1940s mention her participation in activities of the Howard University Club of NY.

As far as I can determine she ever worked as a librarian.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


The early twentieth century saw the start of the Great Migration in which thousands of African-Americans left the violence and discrimination of the South for a better life in the North and West.  New York City was one of the primary destinations for this dramatic population shift.  The City’s black population more than doubled between 1900-1920.  Much of this population settled in Harlem which would come to be regarded as the Capitol of Negro America.  Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2011) is an excellent history of the Great Migration.

Much of the population change in Harlem centered on the neighborhood around the 135th Street Branch and for the next three decades that branch became the focus of the Library’s efforts to serve NYC’s black population.

The Library’s response to this ethnic shift was similar to its earlier response to the influx of Jewish immigrants to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  The service ethic of librarianship prompted the Library to devise library services to meet the needs of the new ethnic group.  Part of this approach meant the hiring of group members to help their community adjust to their new urban situation, and the black leadership in Harlem constantly pushed NYPL to hire more black librarians.

NYPL started the integration process by installing Ernestine Rose (a white librarian) as head of 135th Street in June 1920 with a mandate from the library to serve the new community and to hire black librarians.  She was expected to meet the community needs in Harlem just as she had with the Jewish community around the Seward Park Branch on the Lower East Side where she had served as Branch Librarian, 1915-1917.

The few previous studies of African-Americans at NYPL note that integration began in 1920 when Rose selected Catherine Bosley Allen (later Latimer) to be the first black librarian appointed to a regular position at NYPL.  Like other new hires, Allen had started as a substitute and was promoted to Grade 1 only after she passed the entry level exam and her work was judged to be satisfactory.

My research has uncovered the fact that in the summer of 1920 Rose actually offered four black women the opportunity to begin as a substitute at the Branch. Aside from Allen, the other three were Ruth A. Moseley, Cora Muldrow (later Easterling), and Fannie Tarkington.  It should be noted that these four had better educational credentials than most of their white counterparts.  All four had at least some college while only one-third of the 57 white women hired in 1920 had any college.  Catherine Allen was the only one of the four to receive a regular appointment. 

Allen’s hiring was a milestone in breaking the color line at NYPL.  Among the later milestones were the hiring of Augusta Baker as the first black woman to receive a permanent position as a children’s librarian in 1937.  Regina Anderson Andrews became the first African-American to head a neighborhood branch when she was appointed Branch Librarian at the 115th Street Branch in 1938.  And, four years later, after Rose retired, Dorothy Robinson Homer became the first African-American to head the 135th Street Branch.  Jean Blackwell (later Hutson) became the head of the Schomburg Collection in 1948 and built it into one of the world’s greatest collections documenting the African diaspora. 

As important as these milestones were, they obscure the struggles that the African-American women experienced as they sought to be hired and promoted in the Library’s Circulation Department.  Both Baker and Blackwell were initially rebuffed when they applied for jobs at NYPL—both were told that the Library had no available Negro openings.  W.E.B. Du Bois intervened to demand that NYPL promote Andrews to Branch Librarian, and he repeatedly protested the Library’s treatment of Catherine Allen Latimer.  Finally, it was demands from the Harlem community that caused the Library to promote Dorothy Homer as Rose’s replacement at 135th Street, a promotion the Library had resisted.  Despite the prejudice and obstacles, these pioneers succeeded in the NYPL system and shifted the color line for the many African-Americans who would follow them.    

In future posts, I will focus on what is known about the early African-American librarians and their struggles for equality within NYPL. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

REGINA ANDREWS (and a note about

I just read Ethelene Whitmere’s new biography of Regina Andrews.  She did a good job finding what few personal papers exist (the bulk consist of 22 linear feet at NYPL’s Schomburg Center) and tracking down relatives with memories of Andrews.  The book highlights Andrews’ influence on the Harlem Renaissance.

Note: I have been following’s dispute with Hachette and the protests by authors on behalf of the publisher.  Hachette is a serious publisher, and Amazon seems determined to reduce books to the lowest common denominator.  Although I routinely order books from Amazon, this time I ordered the biography directly from the publisher.  The price was only $2.75 more and it took only 3 days longer for delivery.

For those who support the authors and want to order the book, I recommend doing so directly from the University of Illinois Press.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


The Carnegie Library of Atlanta (CLA) opened a library school in 1905 to train librarians to work in the South.  Over the next two decades, the school sent a number of graduates to NYPL to gain experience.  Although a few stayed, most returned South after a year or two. 

The arrangement was beneficial to both CLA and NYPL.  The Library hired Anne Carroll Moore in 1906 to develop its children’s services and needed a cadre of trained librarians to staff the growing number of children’s rooms in its newly-opened Carnegie buildings.  The CLA graduates (most wanted to be children’s librarians) were able to gain experience in a large, well-run system before returning south to work in that region’s growing number of libraries.

The CLA Library School wanted to make certain its graduates were well-prepared and also wanted to position the school as the place to contact when towns sought to organize or expand a library.  Thus, the school wanted to know how its graduates were progressing and urged the graduates to write letters describing their expectations and experiences.

Fortunately, much of that correspondence survives in the alumni files of the CLA Library School which are housed in the Manuscripts, Archives & Rare Book Library at Emory University.  I recently spent a day reading through those files.

The graduates’ correspondence reported on both the attractive and unattractive aspects of working and living in New York City.

They found NYPL’s six-day work week to be strenuous.   But, while the hustle and bustle of New York City was also difficult, they enjoyed the opportunity to live independently and to experience the City.  May Smith reported in 1914 that “New York is wonderful and Katharine and I have our ‘day away’ together, and we have had some most enjoyable jaunts.”  Other letters indicates that the ability to attend the theater seemed a particular attraction to the Southerners.  Another wrote “I feel that the past five months … has been as broadening as a trip to Europe.”

The City and the Library also presented situations at odds with the graduates southern backgrounds.  In 1913 Elwyn de Graffenried reported with apparent surprise on her first day working in the Central Children’s Room: “yesterday I found myself answering the questions of a ‘black’ lady with the same desire to please as though she had been white.”

The mutually valuable connections between NYPL and the CLA have not drawn much historical attention but deserve to be explored further.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


NYPL’s branch librarians loved books and looked suspiciously on new media that might reduce reading by children and adults.  They initially viwed both moving pictures and television as potential threats.  In each case, the librarians’ reactions to the new medium started with suspicion and ended with accommodation.  Here is a previous post about the initial reaction to television in a Bronx neighborhood.

The history of the Ottendorfer Branch illustrates this point in terms of motion pictures.  Ottendorfer, the second branch of the New York Free Circulating Library, opened in 1884 to serve a largely German population in what is now known as the East Village in Manhattan.

In December 1912, John Shaw Billings (NYPL’s Director) wrote the NYC Commissioner of Licenses to protest the opening of a movie theater next to the Ottendorfer Branch.  He argued that “it is not desirable on general principle to have movie picture establishments close to schools, public libraries and other places to which women and children are accustomed to go in large numbers. … around the entrances to such theatres there are usually displayed highly colored pictures, flaring electric lights, etc., which have a tendency to attract idlers.”  Despite Billings protest, the Commissioner granted the license.

In her annual report, Lucie Bohmert, the Branch Librarian, blamed Ottendorfer's decreased circulation in 1925 in part to “a successful moving picture house adjoining the Library.”

Just four years later, however, Bohmert’s annual report noted that the movie house was showing foreign films and boasted that the theater’s owner had agreed  to promote Ottendorfer’s foreign book collection in its program.

Over the course of 17 years, the Library had gone from protest to incorporating moving pictures into its community outreach activities.  

When I moved across the street from the Ottendorfer Branch in the early 1970s, both the library and the movie theater were thriving, and the theater was still featuring foreign films.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


I have presented papers at the Conference on New York State History the past two summers.  It is a stimulating gathering of academic and independent scholars, archivists and curators, and town and county historians.

My 2012 paper explored the experience of African-American librarians at the 135th Street Branch, which was the focus of efforts to integrate the staff, 1920-1940s.

In 2013, I spoke about how the Branch Librarians (mostly single women) achieved a lot of workplace autonomy (in a male-run institution) and then lost some of it due to the economic pressures of the Great Depression.  But, in the 1920s-1930s NYPLs librarians also supported the certification of public librarians in New York State and the educational reforms recommended by the Williamson Report.  They chose to support these initiatives which undercut their autonomy at work because they held out the promise of greater status as professionals. 

A truncated version of the latter paper has now been published: “Single and Independent” New York Archives 13 (Winter 2014) 15-19.  The magazine is still paper-based although one article is posted online.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Margaret Monroe worked at NYPL for 13 years but headed an NYPL branch for only two of those years.  She credited her NYPL experience for changing her focus in librarianship and setting her on the course that made her so influential as a leader in adult services and as a library educator.  She was also, without doubt, the most prolific author among those who had headed an NYPL branch.

Monroe received both a BA and a BLS from the New York State Teachers College.  She also earned an MA from Teachers College in 1939. 

Monroe served as Branch Librarian at the St. George Branch, 1946-1948, a period when NYPL was initiating its Great Books discussion groups.  Although she had originally specialized in young people’s work, Monroe volunteered for the new project and later wrote, “When book discussions became a service option, I knew I had found my m├ętier.”   In her memoir, (Margaret Monroe: Memoirs of a Public Librarian, 2006) she wrote that it was the “mixed cultural backgrounds, ages, vocations and educational experiences, and the cross-cultural learning” that attracted her to NYPL’s book discussion groups.

Following the success of the Great Books program, NYPL developed the American Heritage discussion groups.  This effort was taken over by ALA, and Monroe took a leave of absence in 1952-1954 to work on the ALA project.  She never returned to NYPL.  Instead she joined the faculty of the Rutgers University library school and earned her doctorate from Columbia University in 1962.  She then joined the University of Wisconsin library school, where she served as Director, 1963-1970. 

One measure of Monroe’s influence on the library profession is that the bibliography in her memoir lists 115 publications, including her book Library Adult Education: The Biography of An Idea (Scarecrow, 1963) which reviewed and defended the development of adult education approaches in American librarianship.

In 1985, the Reference and User Services Association of ALA established the Margaret E. Monroe Library Adult Services Award to honor those who made significant contributions to library adult services.