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

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.1

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 [End Page 93] 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. Leaving her library job after only a few years, Larsen devoted herself to writing; with the publication of the novels Quicksand and Passing she became a rising star. But Larsen’s short story “Sanctuary,” published in the Forum in January 1930, elicited charges of plagiarism, and her career slowly ground to a halt. Larsen’s defeat stemmed in part from the stubborn persistence of popular assumptions about the derivativeness of African American achievement.2

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Fig 1.

Ernestine Rose (left foreground) at her desk in the adult reference area of the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library.

Photograph © The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Rose anticipated such attitudes in her address to the ala, which was subsequently published in Opportunity. Although she was exhilarated by Larsen’s acceptance to library school, Rose cautioned that a “single failure will clinch in many unthinking minds the old argument, that Negroes lack capacity to develop beyond a certain point” (“Librarian in Harlem” 207).3 Well into the twentieth century, the charge of black imitativeness fueled objections to black higher education. “The Negro is a facile, even eager, imitator; but there he [End Page 94] stops,” Lothrop Stoddard commented in his popular book of 1920, The Rising Tide of Color. “He adopts; but he does not adapt, assimilate, and give forth creatively again” (100–101). As Zora Neale Hurston put it in 1934, “It has been said so often that the Negro is lacking in originality that it has almost become a gospel” (837). In “Serving New York’s Black City,” Rose challenges the idea of black imitativeness as a racially inherent trait by emphasizing the agency implied by black reading practices.

Rose’s essay reflects the “faith in reading” that galvanized many people in the late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century United States, especially members of politically marginalized groups such as women, immigrants, and African Americans.4 Simon Gikandi has recently coined the phrase “fantasy of the library” to describe the experience of aspiring writers who, enamored of literature, develop an inordinate reverence for...