"With a Salute to All Children's Librarians": Amplifying the Work of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color

Left to right: Dr. Henrietta M. Smith,
Effie Lee Morris,
and Dr. Claudette S. McLinn.
Photo courtesy of
Claudette S. McLinn.

Throughout its hundred years, the Horn Book has reviewed the works of prominent BIPOC children’s librarians; their names have been mentioned within interviews, articles, book award recaps; and, like Augusta Braxton Baker (“The Changing Image of the Black in Children’s Literature,” February 1975), some have written articles about children’s literature. However, during important milestones, their names have been absent.

In 1949, when the Horn Book was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, editor Bertha Mahony Miller stated the importance of highlighting the “rich contribution children’s libraries are making to the lives of children today.” In 1961, a special issue was dedicated to Alice M. Jordan, the (white) Boston Public librarian and supervisor of children’s services with a long Horn Book history who had recently passed away. The issue was “a salute to all children’s librarians,” including features by and about important figures in children’s librarianship. What these issues have in common is the absence of BIPOC librarians whose lives and work impacted children’s rooms across the United States.

Whether or not we all know about them, hereunder I wanted to amplify five children’s librarians and their rightful place in the history of U.S. children’s librarianship. These are but a few of the important figures in our field, but their critical work undeniably helped pave the way for others.

Charlemae Hill Rollins

For three decades, African American children’s librarian Charlemae Hill Rollins (1897–1979) held the position of head of the children’s room at the Chicago Public Library, George Cleveland Hall Branch. She was a strong advocate for respectful depictions of African Americans in children’s books and for library services in Black communities. Rollins understood the role children’s books and their presence in library collections had in shaping young people’s reading habits and their worldviews. She frequently voiced complaints about the selections included on her own library system’s buying lists that portrayed stereotypical and damaging representations of African Americans, and also contacted publishers about the lack of appropriate books for Black children. In 1941, as a resource for librarians and educators, she published her seminal work, the pamphlet We Build Together: A Reader’s Guide to Negro Life and Literature for Elementary and High School.

Rollins was also active outside her library and traveled around the United States giving workshops and lectures at conferences and universities. In 1946, she began a children’s literature course at Roosevelt University in Chicago and served on the advisory committee of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. She also helped form the Council on Interracial Books for Children and their publications.

In 1957 she became the first African American librarian to serve as president of the American Library Association’s Children’s Services Division, now known as the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), and she chaired the Newbery-Caldecott Book Award Committee in 1956–1957 (when the committees were combined). Her leadership skills were not only present in her community, library system, and professional organizations, but also within a network of children’s librarians, where she served as a mentor and supporter.

Pura T. Belpré Nogueras

Pura T. Belpré Nogueras (1899–1982) was a Black Puerto Rican children’s librarian, storyteller, folklorist, and puppeteer. She began her career with the New York Public Library in 1921 — the first Puerto Rican children’s librarian in the system — and focused her work on challenging inequities and barriers in library services to children, mainly to Puerto Ricans arriving in New York City in the first decades of the twentieth century. Believing that books and reading strengthened children’s understanding of themselves and the world, she went on to write Puerto Rican stories that had been missing from the library shelves such as Pérez and Martina: A Portorican Folk Tale (1932) and The Tiger and the Rabbit and Other Tales (1965), both positively reviewed by the Horn Book when they were published.

She also worked to provide children’s library services in her community’s language and centering their needs; and as the Spanish children’s specialist of the New York Public Library, she went around the library system evaluating Spanish-language children’s collections and creating Spanish-language children’s booklists with annotations in English and Spanish to be distributed among libraries and community centers. She was critical of lists and books that “demean African American children” and wrote about racism in children’s books while creating her own inclusive lists.

In 1940 she was invited to speak at the American Library Association conference about the importance of library work, children’s services, and programming with the Spanish-speaking­ community. At this conference, she connected with other Spanish-speaking librarians from outside the United States, and they shared thoughts and strategies to serve their communities.

She was immortalized when the Pura Belpré Book Award was ­created in 1996. The award is given to “a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” As part of the award’s twenty-fifth anniversary, the Horn Book dedicated its May/June 2021 special issue to the award, to Belpré, and to her legacy. [Ed. note: Lugo was the consulting editor and ­originator of that issue.]

Augusta Braxton Baker

Augusta Braxton Baker (1911–1998) was an African American children’s librarian and storyteller who set out to create and increase the presence of books about the Black experience in children’s collections at the New York Public Library where she began her career in 1937 at the 135th Street Branch in Harlem. Baker was concerned about books with racist, stereotypical, and harmful texts and images of African Americans that were included on booklists and given to children. She created a set of criteria to evaluate language, theme, and illustrations in children’s books and their representations of Black characters, criteria also mentioned in her Horn Book article.

In 1938, Baker published the first installment of her bibliographies of recommended titles, and revised editions were subsequently published through the years as The Black Experience in Children’s Books. Baker’s lists not only assisted children in locating books in the library, but they also were distributed to, sold to, and consulted by children’s librarians, children’s literature editors and authors, and caregivers.

Baker not only challenged and critiqued representation in children’s books; she also confronted other children’s librarians. In 1955, she wrote an article in Top of the News, where she addressed directly white children’s librarians, stating:

Your attitude towards minority groups has an important bearing on the attitudes of your children. Therefore, it is your primary duty to improve your own human relations…think about your room. Are there books on the shelves which will hurt and alienate your newcomers while at the same time they perpetuate stereotyped ideas in the minds of your regular library users?

She understood the power of children’s librarians and the impact of their existence and views on children’s library experiences.

In 1958 Baker joined ALSC’s Board of Directors and then became the president of the association in 1967, being the second African American to hold that position. She also served as the 1966 Newbery-Caldecott Book Award Committee chair and as an ALA/Children’s Book Council Joint Committee member.

Baker was a mentor, educator, and lecturer at several library schools, such as Columbia University, Syracuse University, and the University of South Carolina, where she was appointed storyteller-in-residence; and in 1987, the Augusta Baker’s Dozen Storytelling Festival was established as an annual event. This year a picture-book biography, whose art adorns our cover, was published, bringing her life and work to a new generation of children. [See also: Five questions for Breanna J. McDaniel and April Harrison.]

Effie Lee Morris

African American children’s librarian Effie Lee Morris (1921–2009) was another leader in the development of inclusive library services and collections for children. Morris started her career in 1946 at the Cleveland Public Library, focusing her work on library services to Black children and consequently establishing the first Negro History Week celebration for children at her library. Nine years later, she moved to the New York Public Library (NYPL), where she served as the children’s specialist at the NYPL’s Library for the Blind from 1958–1963. In 1963, she moved to California and became the first coordinator of children’s services at the San Francisco Public Library, where she remained until 1978. After working briefly as a children’s book editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, she retired in 1979.

As an advocate in children’s librarianship of accurate representation of people with racially and ethnically marginalized identities, Morris recognized the importance of documenting their historical portrayals in children’s books and the use of these materials for research and teaching. At the San Francisco Public Library, she established the Children’s Historical and Research Collection — since renamed the Effie Lee Morris Historical and Research Collection — which focused on out-of-print children’s books that “depict the changing portrayal of ethnic and culturally diverse groups over time.” She was also vocal about the harmful and stereotypical representations of African Americans and the lack of high-quality titles in children’s library collections. In a 1983 interview for American Libraries, Morris stated her concerns:

Meanwhile many books that have presented the truths of black heritage and black culture are no longer in print. Did not the Civil Rights Movement offer any lasting insights in the Black quest for humanity and dignity? Have we rolled back so far from the knowledge gained in the 60’s?

Morris was an active member of ALA, ALSC, the Public Library Association, and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. She served as chair of the Newbery and Caldecott Book Award committees and as chair of the Social Responsibilities Round Table’s Coretta Scott King Book Award Task Force, which recognized “outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.” The May/June 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine was dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of this outstanding award [see also page 80 of this issue].

Lotsee Patterson

Comanche librarian and educator Dr. Lotsee Patterson (b. 1931) took a leading role in the development of tribal librarianship and library services to Native children prior to her retirement. In 1959, she started her career as a public school teacher in Oklahoma, where her students were Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa. Given that many students didn’t have books at home or a school library, she reached out to school administration to recruit American Indian educators and train them with library skills to manage and develop school library collections. Later on, this initiative evolved into grant-supported projects for training in library collection development and services to Native children and communities.

Patterson dedicated her research and scholarship to write about the lack of American Indian librarians, collection development for Native materials, and how current collection development practices and tools such as book reviewing journals “lack expertise or extensive knowledge of the topic of American Indians.” She created several bibliographies and collection development tools, such as A Core Collection for an Indian Community Library.

She was active in professional library organizations, and at the 1972 American Library Association Conference, she expressed her frustration about the lack of support for tribal libraries and library services to Native Americans. Along with several colleagues, she eventually helped establish the ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services’ Subcommittee on the American Indian, which later became the American Indian Library Association (AILA), Patterson being one of its co-founders. In 2006, the first American Indian Youth Literature Awards were presented by AILA, to identify and honor “the very best writing and illustrations by Native Americans and Indigenous peoples of North America.”

* * *

This overview only provides a glimpse into the lives and work of exemplary children’s librarians who challenged and changed the U.S. children’s librarianship landscape. Their legacy has directly and indirectly affected the ongoing critical work and views toward respectful and humanizing representation in children’s literature; the presence of and mentorship among Black and Indigenous children’s librarians in public libraries; the ­importance of and advocacy for inclusive children’s library programs and services; and the respect for the lives, existences, and resistances of our children.

From the May/June 2024 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Our Centennial. This article was adapted from a chapter of the author's dissertation, "Identities and Ideologies in Collection Development Practices Within U.S. Children's Librarianship."

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Sujei Lugo

Sujei Lugo is a former elementary school librarian at the University of Puerto Rico Elementary School and currently works as a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library, Connolly Branch. She holds a PhD in library and information science from Simmons University, focusing her research on anti-racist children’s librarianship.

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