Saturday, February 25, 2006

"The Place to Go" Anderson Reading

In this article, Anderson explores the role that the 135th St. Branch of the New York Public Library (located in Harlem) played in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance represented a period of prolific literary and artistic output by African-Americans. Anderson points out that “many…memoirs and histories of this period hint at the significant role that the library played in the Harlem community, but the mention is often little more than a sentence” (p. 384). In her article, Anderson attempts to examine more fully the relationship between the library and the community around it, as well as looking at the influence of Ernestine Rose, the white head librarian during this time period. Anderson highlights Rose’s progressive views on library management and mission and how this led to the success of the library in the community and the strength of its legacy. The centerpiece of Rose’s leadership style was connecting with the community; she “…understood ‘how vitally important it is that [a librarian] should study people and their interests’ and that by connecting with those interests he or she can make the library ‘ a living, vital force, to touch these interests at as many points as possible, through his book collection, through the personnel of his staff, through his method of approach, his publicity and his activities of all kinds” (p. 387). Throughout the article we see how Rose did all of these things at the 135th St. Branch. In this way, Harlem’s library became an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance. A place where writers, artists and actors could both cultivate their talents and have an audience with whom to share them. It provided a space for voices that had previously been silenced by society to be heard. Finally, Anderson looks at what she feels is the most important legacy of the 135th St. Branch, the history and development of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which today is one of the preeminent collections of information on black history and culture.

A few questions that came out of the reading for me:

How much of the success or the influence of the 135th St. Branch can be attributed to Rose and how much can be attributed to the community’s own initiatives? Was it the library influencing the community or the community influencing the library?

In the article, Anderson talks about the library becoming a “black public sphere” –a place for members of the community to come together and discuss/debate issues that are important to them (p. 409-410). She lists several different places that can fall into the “black public sphere”, but she says that at this time, “…it was the library that proved capable of encompassing the greatest range of voices” (p. 410). Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?

In terms of its service to the community around it, do you think the 135th St. Branch was unique in comparison to other libraries in predominantly black neighborhoods around the U.S. at this time or was it representative of such libraries? How representative is it of libraries today in neighborhoods with large minority populations?

6 comments:

Brendan said...

How much of the success or the influence of the 135th St. Branch can be attributed to Rose and how much can be attributed to the community’s own initiatives? Was it the library influencing the community or the community influencing the library?

The easiest answer is both. Without Rose's compassion and drive to succeed, perhaps the young writers and artists would have found a different place to congregate. To what extent did she actually draw them in? And were any of them already using the 135th street branch when Rose took over? On the other hand, the reason the branch is famous today is because so many young black artists and writers came out of that neighborhood, and that exposure was directly linked to the library itself, as both a research area and a performance space. Their paintings, sculptures, poems, etc., might have found an audience without Rose giving them a place. A different librarian might not have opened up the library in such a manner.

Jeremy4031 said...

I think it was interesting that the Schomburg Collection itself was the initial creation of an unlikely auto-didact. Schomburg, a Puerto-Rican-born man of limited means, heard from a teacher in his childhood that Africans "had no history" to speak of. Taking that as a challenge, he slowly assembled an enormous collection of books, periodicals, and ephemera himself.

I think it serves as sort of an important addendum to questions about the value of professional development. Our operating assumption is that a library will choose a person without a professional degree only out of a desire to save funds (which is probably true a goodly percentage of the time). But there are a handful of people in any field who are true auto-didacts: Who have the knowledge because they themselves were interested enough to learn, though they still might lack the credential.

Deborah said...

“…it was the library that proved capable of encompassing the greatest range of voices” (p. 410). Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?

I agree that, in Harlem at this particular time, the library was probably the best forum for a range of perspectives and voices. Anderson lists other likely public spheres such as churches, street corners, NAACP publications, etc., but it sounds like the 135th St library had the potential for showcasing and encouraging the largest and most diverse set of ideas and narratives (in art, music, books, lectures).

As to your third question, my guess is that the 135th St library was unique in 1920s America, just based on the names of the involved parties--Langston Hughes, WEB Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston.

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

All I can say is that I want to go back in time to visit this library and watch all the incredible stuff going on! (now back to the heady and terrific comments from Brendan, Jeremy and Deborah!)

Molly said...

I'm also responding to: How much of the success or the influence of the 135th St. Branch can be attributed to Rose and how much can be attributed to the community’s own initiatives? Was it the library influencing the community or the community influencing the library?

I agree with Brendan that it was definately both...which is exactly what Sanford Berman was stressing the article that follows this one in the reader. This connection between the two articeles really struck me because in this branch there was the librarian reaching out to the community (I was espially impressed by her neighborhood walks) and the community reaching back to make their needs known. This library was extremely successful because of this. Obviously Berman had a point when he said that there must be both sides for the library to work - he could have used this as an example.

Hannah Gray said...

While I really enjoyed this article, I felt that there were issues that Sarah Anderson simply skimmed over. The fact that Dr. DuBois charged Rose with racial discrimination is simply passed over. Were her hiring policies ever racially discriminating or did she DuBois simply not get along? I also noticed that some librarians resented being assigned to the Harlem branch simply because of their race. Of course the library was "The Place To Go", but was library work really integrated if African-Americans were assigned to only certain libraries? Again though, Anderson skips over the librarian's "surprise and disappointment when the authorities assigned her to the Harlem Branch because of her color" and claims that the librarian "soon came to apreciate her new surroundings..." (Anderson, 395).