I’ve been talking a lot about my dissertation lately (surprise), and wanted to go ahead and stick a quick run down of what I’m doing here too. I’m very excited about the work I’m doing, and I would love to hear your feedback! I’m also happy to share my documentation and talk more about my process with anyone who is interested.
What is this project about?
I started thinking about this topic after being encouraged to look at Ernestine Rose by one of my mentors. The project has evolved over time, and while her career is still the jumping off point, I’m now focusing on her work at the Harlem Public Library in particular. She was at this library from 1920-1942. There are a handful of articles in our field that argue that Rose helped make the library into an innovative community space and an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance (e.g. Anderson, 2003; Jenkins, 1990). While she initially worked to integrate the library by hiring people of color, there are some indications that she dampened her support for the advancement and inclusion of these same folks later on in their careers (Whitmire 2007, 2014).
I’m using the documents held in several New York City repositories (New York Public Library’s 42nd Street Branch and Schomburg Center, Columbia University archives, and New York Municipal Archives) that relate to the library to describe the library, and also to test two theories (more on why that matters later). There are a couple challenges/considerations that I want to mention right off the bat. My research is very context-heavy, so it’s vital for me to describe that context and how the library fits within it, rather than describing the library as though it exists in a vacuum. Equally as important is discussing the role of other people besides Rose within the library. While my focus is on her career, I don’t want to risk overshadowing the contributions of others by only talking about her.
Why does it matter?
There are several big reasons (in my opinion) why this project is important. First of all, most of what’s out there focuses on the library’s role in the Harlem Renaissance, where became a well-known center for events and a place where authors often went to write (Anderson, 2003; Jenkins, 1990). There is not a lot of information currently about the library during the Great Depression and the beginning years of World Way II, both of which would have presumably had a big impact on the library. In addition, no one has thoroughly discussed her work and the library within the broader context of New York City, the New York Public Library system, or society as a whole throughout this 22 year period.
Additionally, no one has applied the two theoretical frameworks I’m using to historical research. The first of these is a framework I’m developing to analyze change (called, appropriately, Change in Historic Institutions). I’ve made a model of this, and plan to share the model in a more detailed post later on, but for now I’ll just focus on the broad concepts. This model focuses on identifying change, discussing whether that change is innovative or adaptive, and its impact and perceptions. Second, I’m looking at Information Worlds, which envisions actors within the variety of contexts they navigate, and uses five concepts (Information value, information behavior, social norms, social types, and boundaries) to describe those worlds and the interaction between them. Both theories are very broad and adaptable, and very context-focused, making them appropriate for this study. These are drastically oversimplified discussions of both theories, so if you have questions, I’m happy to go into further detail!
Finally, I think this work has the potential to be used by professionals in public library settings. When she was working in Harlem, Ernestine Rose had already had some experience in her career (she was about 40 when she took the job), and would have needed to draw on this experience while remaining adaptable and flexible to meet the needs of a quickly changing neighborhood. Her employees also faced discrimination from the library system, and used their own experiences to make the library a dynamic and community-oriented place. The story of Rose and the library as a whole might offer some useful ideas for modern librarians on what to do (and perhaps what not to do) in their own institutions.
References for your reading pleasure:
Anderson, S. A. (2003). “The Place to Go”: The 135th Street Branch Library and the Harlem Renaissance. Library Quarterly, 73(4): 383–421.
Jenkins, B. L. (1990). A White Librarian in Black Harlem: Study to Chronicle and Assess Ernestine Rose’s Work during the Renaissance in Harlem. Library Quarterly 60, 216–231.
Whitmire, E. (2007). Breaking the Color Barrier: Regina Andrews and the New York Public Library. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(4), 409–421.
Whitmire, E. (2014). Regina Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.