Investing in Literature: Ernestine Rose and the Harlem Branch Public Library of the 1920s

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In 1920, Ernestine Rose, a young white reformer, became head librarian at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library (see fig. 1). Rose aimed to make the library an “integral part of negro life,” convinced that access to books would lead to professional, intellectual, and artistic achievements by African Americans (“Serving” 111). Rose was committed to the idea of books and reading as a gateway to success, but she was well aware that despite the impressive advances of African Americans since the end of Reconstruction, segregation remained the norm in the US public library system. She believed that the separation of “all colored people from all whites” was the biggest obstacle to her goals for the library (109). By the time she published “Serving New York’s Black City” in the Library Journal in March 1921, she had hired three “colored” library assistants. In January 1922 she hired a fourth, Nella Larsen Imes, soon to become one of the most promising novelists of the Harlem Renaissance. With Rose’s help and encouragement, Larsen was the first African American applicant accepted to the library school of the New York Public Library and the first black librarian employed by the City of New York. In 1923, after Larsen began her studies, Rose addressed the American Library Association (ala ) at their conference in Hot Springs, Arkansas, stressing the significant fact that the New York library school had accepted an African American applicant. For Rose, Larsen’s achievements as a student and a librarian were milestones of social justice. For Larsen—as for Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset, Countee Cullen, and others—the Harlem branch library of the 1920s opened doors onto a vibrant interracial world of lectures, discussions, art exhibits, and books. Rose helped inspire Larsen to stake herself on the transformative power of books, embracing literature as not only a source of personal, social, and aesthetic value but also as a democratizing force, a bridge across difference.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93-106
Number of pages14
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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