Wednesday, April 23, 2014

SOUTHERN LIBRARIANS AT NYPL

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.

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