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.

1 comment:

  1. I read the article "Single and Independent" in New York Archives and sent a comment on it (and on another article) to the editor of that publication. My comment was based on research I did in the W.E.B. Du Bois' Papers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for a possible article (never published) regarding Du Bois' interest in library services for the Afro-American community in NYC and elsewhere.

    New York Archives did not publish my comment on "Single and Independent," but it may be of interest to readers of this blog. That comment is reproduced below, extracted from my full comment on two articles in the Winter 2014 issue.

    Bob McDonnell
    former staff, NY State Archives
    former staff, Du Bois Papers, Univ. of Massachusetts-Amherst

    ..... I also greatly enjoyed Robert Sink's article on the New York Public Library and the autonomy of the women branch librarians during the early decades of the 20th century. Although that autonomy had its positive aspects as noted in the article, including freedom and independence in operating library programs, there is another side to it as indicated by the author's statement that the branch librarians "for the most part ... hired and promoted ... single, white, Protestant women," and that it was in 1938 that a black librarian first headed a neighborhood branch library.

    This points to the negative side of the hiring authority and decisions of the branch librarians. In hiring staff who were like themselves ("single, white, Protestant women"), those who were different could find themselves excluded.

    During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the great scholar and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois engaged in controversy with officials of the NYPL over this very issue. In 1930, Du Bois protested the failure of the NYPL to hire and promote black librarians, noting that the NYPL had only 7 black staff compared to the 36 black staff employed by the Chicago Public Library in a city with a smaller black population. Du Bois' concerns are summarized in a letter he wrote in 1930 to Franklin Hopper, then Chief of Circulation (head of the branch library system). In Du Bois' words, "no one who has taken notice of the New York Public Library can long doubt but that its appointments tend to be confined to only a select part of the population and that Negroes, Jews and many other elements have a difficult road to recognition; that the system of promotions and appointments is made to depend to an extraordinary degree upon the whim and prejudices of Branch Librarians and of higher officials and that what is needed is a broad system of Civil Service tests which will give a more democratic flavor to a great city institution.”

    In late 1931, when the NYPL's black staff had declined to only 4, Du Bois formed an Ad Hoc Committee (Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Jr. were among the members) which met with Library officials. Du Bois' and the Committee's concerns went beyond employment practices to include what they saw as a failure on the part of the NYPL to meet the needs of New York's black population. A Committee memo, sent to Library officials, noted their “increasing alarm during the last few years at the relationship of the New York Public Library to the colored population of New York City. For years the Library ignored the Negroes, even in the districts where they predominated. They were not made welcome and no literature was arranged to meet their wants or needs.”

    In short, the diverse population of New York City did not benefit from the lack of diversity within the Library branch system.