Saturday, March 19, 2011
ERNESTINE ROSE (1880-1961)
March 19th would be the 131st birthday of Ernestine Rose. Her professional accomplishments could be celebrated by highlighting her 27 years as head of three NYPL branches. Or her involvement with library education at the NYPL Library School, the Carnegie Library School in Pittsburgh, and Columbia’s School of Library Service. Or, her publications could be listed--especially The Public Library in American Life (1954) which was long regarded as an important text on librarianship.
Even more than those accomplishments, however, Rose should be hailed for her efforts to racially integrate the NYPL staff and to bring library services to the growing African-American community in Harlem.
The African-American population of New York City doubled between 1900 and 1920, and by the latter date many had moved to Harlem, particularly around 135th Street. The Library responded by placing Ernestine Rose (who was white) in charge of the 135th Street Branch with the mandate to serve the new community in the same way she had earlier worked with the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side as head of the Chatham Square and Seward Park branches. Rose began to hire African-American staff members and to make connections to the newly-formed black community.
Within five months of taking up the post in 1920, Rose had hired the Library’s first two Black assistants and thus began the process of integrating the Circulation Department staff. The only three African-American women who became Branch Librarians prior to 1950 (Regina Andrews, Dorothy Robinson Homer, and Jean Blackwell Hutson) worked for Rose at 135th Street, and she provided support as they sought to advance in the NYPL system. Rose was also responsible for integrating the NYPL Library School. She had hired Nella Imes Larsen (soon to become a noted novelist of the Harlem Renaissance) in 1921 and pushed for her admittance to the NYPL Library School, overcoming the reluctance of the administration and objections of some alumni. In 1922, Rose also hired Pure Belpré (the first Puerto Rican to work for NYPL), who became a noted children’s librarian and folklorist.
In addition, Ernestine Rose reached out to the Harlem community and connected the leaders of that community with NYPL and helped make the 135th Street Branch an important participant in the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1925 Rose created the Division of Negro History and Literature as a special collection at 135th Street, and this unit eventually grew into the world-renown Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture which collects and promotes the study of the history of people of African descent.
In one sense Rose’s work was not a new direction for NYPL--it continued the Library’s tradition of serving users in the City’s changing communities. In another sense, of course, Rose’s work was pioneering—she positioned the white-run Library as a central element for the growing African-American population of Harlem and beyond.