Sunday, March 6, 2011


I headed the NYPL Archives from its creation in 1986 until 2001.  Then as today, most of the historical work on the Library had focused on its founding or the justly famous Research Libraries.  There was not a lot history written about the Circulation Department (now called the Branch Libraries).  The work and lives of the NYPL branch librarians, who worked in the nation’s foremost city, had not been explored in depth.

Over time, I began to research one particular aspect of library history--the librarians who headed a neighborhood branch in the first 50 years of the Circulation Department, 1901-1950.  I began to collect information on their work histories, educational backgrounds, and the basic demographic characteristics of their lives.  In doing this, I became interested in several related topics as well. 

I am now working on five articles focused on the NYPL branches during this period.  The topics are:

Collective biography.  I have found about 80% of the basic demographic (gender, marital status, ethnicity, religion, parents’ occupations, etc.) and professional information on these librarians and am beginning to analyze the data.

Autonomy.  The Branch Librarians (about 95% women) carved out a fair amount of autonomy within a male-run institution.  I am looking at how they achieved that autonomy and how they began to lose it in the 1930s.

Racial Integration.  Although there are only three African-American women in the cohort I am studying, I had accumulated a lot of detail on the process of integrating the branch staff.  I am looking at the impulses that led the Library to begin integrating its branch staff in 1920 and the up and down progress of the effort over the following 25 years. 

Publications.  There are not a lot of studies on publication patterns by public librarians in the first half of the twentieth century, but it appears that the Branch Librarians were unusually prolific authors.  So far, I have identified 240 journal articles, 16 book chapters, and 71 books or pamphlets written by the Branch Librarians.

Male Librarians.  Only seven men had became Branch Librarians by 1950, and they are found in three distinct time periods (1904-1905, 1913-1917, and 1948+), and there were no male librarians (except for the Chief of the Department) in the system, from the end of World War I until the late 1930s.  I am researching the reasons for this gender stratification.

In later posts, I will report on my research findings and interpretations of NYPL history, write about individual librarians, and present vignettes on library history that I have uncovered during my research.

1 comment:

  1. I'm eager to see your articles as well as get caught up on your posts. A few years ago, I took a deep dive in the NYPL Archives as I was doing research for a journal article on how the Research Division responded to the pressures of anticommunism. That article is due to be published this September in Library and Information History. In my research, I ran across all sorts of fascinating leads about how my topic played out in the branch libraries; to keep my research project on track, I didn't have time to look into those interesting stories but am now thinking I might for a new article.