Remembering Catherine Latimer: The First Black Librarian of NYPL

Authored by Hunter Albini

View of researchers using the Schomburg Collection, when it was the 135th Street Branch Library Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, as it looked in 1938, with Catherine A. Latimer, reference librarian of the collection, in left background.

In the heart of Harlem, on Malcolm X Boulevard between 135th and 136th Street, stands the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. As one of the research branches within the New York Public Library system, it is “one of the world’s leading cultural institutions devoted to the research, preservation, and exhibition of materials focused on African American, African Diaspora, and African experiences” (NYPL 2021, para. 1). New York Public Library purchased the materials from the personal collection of self-described “bibliophile” Arturo Alfonso Schomburg in 1926, who was later appointed curator of the collection (NYPL 2021). One of the lesser-known people involved in the birth of the Schomburg Collection was Catherine Latimer, the reference librarian for the collection and NYPL’s very first Black librarian.  

Catherine Allen Latimer (1896 – 1948) spent most of her life living in Brooklyn, NY and attended Howard University to study librarianship (Sink 2015). She worked as the assistant librarian to Ernestine Rose at the 135th Street Library. In 1920, Latimer began pulling together clipping files on black history and created a separate collection of books on African American life. Eventually, she and Rose were able to expand the collection to the third floor of the library, creating the Division of Negro History. In 1926, with the purchase and integration of Schomburg’s collection, the division became “one of the most significant collections of [black historical documents] in the United States” (Wintz and Finkelman 2004, 274-275).  

Although she isn’t exactly a household name, Latimer’s title of librarian was incredibly significant for both librarianship and Black American history. Despite the idea that libraries are meant to serve any and all who seek knowledge, segregation within libraries was still a painful reality for most of America at the time of her appointment. Though Black New Yorkers may have not been explicitly barred from entering libraries, it’s likely that they weren’t exactly considered “welcome” in libraries outside of their home neighborhoods (Knott 2015). It was vital that in these community-centered spaces, the people building the collections and helping patrons were people who shared the experiences of their patrons. This was part of the reason that Ernestine Rose pushed to have Catherine Latimer appointed to librarian; the patrons needed to see themselves reflected in those serving the community (Anderson 2003, 389-393).  

This is something that is still being sought after in libraries today. Librarianship is still an overwhelmingly white profession. According to a 2017 survey by ALA, only 4.4% of librarians are Black or African American (Rosa and Henke 2017, 2), despite comprising about 13.4% of the U.S. population (United States Census Bureau 2019). There is still a huge amount of work to do in terms of creating a library environment that best reflects the needs of the local community, and that work may never truly be done. Thanks to the work of Catherine Latimer, though, we were able to take the first step towards a more inclusive future for libraries everywhere.

References

Anderson, Sarah A. 2003. “‘The Place to Go’: The 135th Street Branch Library and the Harlem Renaissance.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 73 (4): 383–421. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4309684.

Knott, Cheryl. 2015. Not Free, Not For All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=1425197.

NYPL. 2021. “About the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.” The New York Public Library. 2021. https://www.nypl.org/about/locations/schomburg.

Rosa, Kathy, and Kelsey Henke. 2017. “2017 ALA Demographic Study.” Demographic Study. Chicago: ALA Office of Research & Statistics.

Sink, Bob. 2015. “Catherine Bosley Allen Latimer (1896-1948).” NYPL Librarians (blog). October 27, 2015. https://nypl-librarians.blogspot.com/2015/10/catherine-bosley-allen-latimer-1896-1948.html.

United States Census Bureau. 2019. “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: United States.” United States Census Bureau. July 1, 2019. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219.

Wintz, Cary D., and Paul Finkelman, eds. 2004. “Cultural Organizations.” In Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, 1:274–75. New York.

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