Women’s History Month- Catherine Allen Latimer, First African-American librarian at the New York Public Library

Catherine Allen Latimer sitting in front of file cabinets at the New York Public Library

Catherine Allen Latimer sitting in front of file cabinets at the New York Public Library

Celebrating Catherine Allen Latimer, NYPL’s first African-American Librarian.

Catherine Allen Latimer was New York Public Library’s first African American librarian. She was hired as a substitute in 1920 after being an assistant at Tuskegee Institute’s library for a year from 1919-1920.[1] She stayed for her entire career until she retired in 1946. She founded the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints at the 135th Street Branch of NYPL in 1925. This was a precursor to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Later, she was promoted to a curator of the same by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.

Catherine was born in Nashville, TN in 1896. Her family eventually moved to NYC. She was educated during her early life in Germany and France. She spoke French fluently and read German. For high school, she attended public schools in Brooklyn, NY. Her undergraduate work and library training took place at Howard University and she completed some graduate work at Columbia University.[2]

Over her career, she lectured to students of Wellesley College, Columbia University, Vassar College, Smith College, Hunter College and Pratt Institute.

Latimer kept a file of clippings from Black current events and history that was updated “…until 1985 and since then has been marketed under the title of the Ernest D. Kaiser Index to Black Resources. Kaiser was Latimer’s protégé.”[3] “As described in a review of The Kaiser Index to Black Resources 1948-1986, ‘reference material on black people was so thin that the resourceful librarians at the Schomburg Library were forced, out of sheer necessity, to create a file of clippings from newspapers and magazines to answer reference questions.’ This began as a simple card file but grew to hundreds of thousands of items.”[4]

Mrs. Latimer died in 1948 at age 52.

The following information is taken from the NYPL’s Blog (author, Rhonda Evans):

Catherine Allen Latimer’s Legacy: Reflection by Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian, Schomburg Research & Reference Division

While Latimer is known as the first Black librarian at The New York Public Library, her contributions to the institution run so much deeper. Beyond her work cultivating collections, Latimer showed that a librarian’s work could be far-reaching and not defined by one role. Latimer accomplished an awe-inspiring amount during her tenure with NYPL—not least, being the steward of the collection that would evolve to become the Schomburg Center—leaving behind an indelible legacy:

  • She started clipping files on dozens of topics covering the Black experience and later turned those files into scrapbooks. Librarians at the Schomburg Center carried on this tradition far past the time of Latimer, and these scrapbooks are heavily used by researchers today.
  • Latimer worked with numerous researchers, and was especially helpful to researchers who were uncovering lesser-known historical moments from Black history, for example Pearly Graham, who was the first to uncover the relationship between Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson.
  • As described by scholar, Dr. Laura Helton, Latimer, “built on a tradition of counter-cataloging at Black institutions,” by re-cataloging items about the African diaspora in a way that was actually accessible to researchers. For example, she “removed books on Africa from the class for travel…and moved them to ethnology or history.”
  • More recently discovered (and currently being researched by Dr. Laura Helton), Latimer created a Black poetry index with her fellow librarian, Dorothy Porter from Howard University.
  • She collected the works of great writers of the Harlem Renaissance that she knew personally, such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.
  • Latimer oversaw The Division of Negro Literature and History, which included the Schomburg Collection, and promoted its special materials to researchers, including a 1934 article published in The Crisis called, “Where Can I Get Material on the Negro.”[5]

[1] “Catherine Allen Latimer.” Wikipedia.org. Last update Feb. 20, 2022. Accessed March 23, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_Allen_Latimer

[2] “Catherine A. Latimer.” Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992. Gale In Context: Biography, link.gale.com/apps/doc/K1623000256/BIC?u=ucinc_main&sid=bookmark-BIC&xid=cf187776. Accessed 23 Mar. 2022.

[3] “Catherine A. Latimer.” Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992. Gale In Context: Biography, link.gale.com/apps/doc/K1623000256/BIC?u=ucinc_main&sid=bookmark-BIC&xid=cf187776. Accessed 23 Mar. 2022.

[4] Evans, Rhonda. “The Schomburg Center Clipping Files.” Africa and the African Diaspora; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL. Sept. 16, 2021. Accessed March, 23, 2022. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2021/09/16/schomburg-center-clipping-files

[5] Evans, Rhonda. “NYPL’s Catherine Allen Latimer: The First Black Librarian at NYPL, Helped Create the Schomburg Center.” Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL, series. March 15, 2021. Accessed March 23, 2022. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2021/03/15/nypls-catherine-allen-latimer-the-first-black-librarian-at-nypl-helped-create-the-schomburg-center

 

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