Spotlighting The Radical, Revolutionary Women Who Shaped The New York Public Library

To mark Women’s History Month, the Library is sharing the stories of 20 remarkable librarians who fought relentlessly to build a beloved institution, and continue to shape the way we learn.

The Library is also releasing a book list in honor of Jennie Maas Flexner, the Library’s first readers advisory librarian and an early champion of people reading what they love.

They came. They saw. They changed everything.

To mark Women’s History Month, The New York Public Library is sharing the stories of 20 remarkable, revolutionary women who, in their various roles, shaped a beloved, vitally-important institution, and changed the way people across the city, country and world read, learn, and access information.

Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL, a virtual showcase at nypl.org/womenshistorymonth, will feature biographies of all of the librarians—some well-known, some whose credit is long overdue—as well as often heartfelt first-person narratives from current NYPL librarians about how these women continue to impact their work and lives every day. 

Each Monday in March, five of the librarians will be posted online, starting today with:

  • Jennie Maas Flexner: The founder of the Library’s Readers’ Advisory department (created in the late 1920s), the first-ever Readers’ Advisory chief, and an early advocate of people reading what they love, not what was assigned on a prescribed list. Her legacy, and the belief that if you connect anyone with the right book they’ll keep turning pages, continues to drive the many ways the Library makes reading recommendations, including through social media “office hours,” podcasts, and more
  • Augusta Braxton Baker: Hired in 1937 as a children’s librarian, Baker began and led the effort to collect children’s literature that positively portrayed people of color. Baker went beyond just collecting diverse books—she actively encouraged writers and publishers to create books depicting BIPOC in a favorable light, making her an early advocate in the “own voices” movement. In 1953, Baker was appointed Assistant Coordinator for Children’s Services, making her the first African American librarian in an administrative position at The New York Public Library (she was later promoted to Coordinator of Children’s Services)..
  • Pura Belpré: The first Puerto Rican librarian at NYPL, who became a passionate advocate for the Spanish-speaking community and shepherded in bilingual story hours, stockpiling Spanish-language books, and advancing programs based on traditional holidays such as Three Kings Day. The branches where she worked, including the 115th Street and Aguilar branches, became vital cultural centers for local Latino residents. 
  • Esther K. Johnston: After a nearly 30-year career as a librarian on the Lower East Side, working tirelessly to develop collections and programming to engage various immigrant groups, Johnston was named acting head of the Library’s branches in 1943 (when her predecessor was called to fight in WWII), and in 1947, was officially appointed chief, the first woman to ever hold that job. This was a major milestone for both NYPL and the profession; at the time she was appointed, Johnston was the highest-ranking female librarian in the country. While groundbreaking, it wasn’t always easy: Johnston was forced to use a service elevator at the men-only private club where the NYPL’s Committee on Circulation met so she could present her monthly report.
  • Genevieve “Gegi” Oswald: Oswald was the founding curator of the Library’s dance collection (now named the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the Library for the Performing Arts), and its leader for 43 years. Thanks to Oswald’s visionary leadership, and unapologetic insistence that dance was a legitimate field of academic study (even when her idea was originally dismissed and she was told “go off and have babies” instead of wasting her time), the Dance Division now houses the largest collection of dance materials anywhere in the world. A global figure and vibrant part of America’s dance scene, Oswald’s leadership extended beyond the Library’s walls, as she offered critical support to dancers and companies around the world. 

A full list of the librarians who will be honored can be found here. Among them are pioneers in teen librarianship (including the woman who coined the phrase “young adult”), the legendary librarian who fought to allow children in libraries, several librarians who helped diversify the Library’s staff, programs, and collections, and many more.

“As we look back at the Library’s 125 years, it is quite clear that these trailblazing librarians, who overcame tremendous challenges and fought relentless adversity, were all central in making us what we are today,” said New York Public Library President Anthony W. Marx. “We all owe them our deepest gratitude and appreciation, from the many librarians who broke barriers and fought for change in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, to those who built collections that will serve researchers for generations to come, to remarkable women who have contributed to our latest chapter. Librarians are tireless champions of the public and their communities, and these 20 women and their incomparable legacies are remarkable examples of that dedication.”

Retired NYPL Archivist Bob Sink, who has a blog and is writing a book about the institution’s branch librarians and supported the Women’s History Month project, added, “The women who worked for the New York Public Library were a remarkable group. They wanted to live independent lives in the nation’s cultural capital and to pursue a career that would improve people’s lives. Librarianship provided that satisfaction. Whether they grew up in New York City or moved here from across the country, they embraced the challenge of working in the City’s diverse neighborhoods, each requiring attention to the different ethnic and cultural needs of library users. Working in a male-led institution, the women librarians assembled book collections and hosted programs to meet the educational and recreational needs of the neighborhoods. They sponsored clubs for lovers of great books, history students, Yiddish mothers, theater fans, and many others. Their efforts fostered a stronger sense of community among the library users. The librarians’ promotion of reading and self-education made a lasting impact on the lives of many New Yorkers.”

In addition to celebrating these stories, the Library is posting a new reading recommendation list today at nypl.org/womenshistorymonth in honor of Jennie Maas Flexner and all of the librarians who believed that readers should have autonomy. The list, called Page Turners: Read What You Love, features 15 books that today’s librarians say sparked a true lifelong love of reading in them—exactly what Flexner and other librarians hoped and believed would happen. The list includes titles and memories like:

  • A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle: “My head exploded,” wrote Paloma Celis Carbajal, NYPL’s curator of Latin American, Iberian, and U.S. Latino Collections. “I wanted to know it all and understand the universe!”
  • Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish:“The Amelia Bedelia books were the first books I read when I got my first library card at the Grand Concourse Library and they welcomed me into America,” said Elisa Garcia, supervising librarian of the Teen Services Department at Bronx Library Center. “They made me a reader and fostered my love for reading. I look forward to sharing these books with my future children someday.”
  • The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales: “Many children and adults are not aware of the incredibly rich history of Black American folklore and folktales that exists,” said Rhonda Evans, the assistant chief librarian of the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “The stories . . . allowed me to understand that there was so much history that I did not know and that was not being taught to me, and in my desire to learn more I turned to books.”
  • Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston: “After reading [this book], I sent my sister a text: ‘This is the book I wish we had when we were little girls.’ . . . This book has everything I craved in stories as a kid: magic, action, plot twists, and memorable characters. And on the cover, a girl with dark skin and natural hair who looks just like me.”

All of the books on the list can be checked out from home using the Library’s e-reader app SimplyE, or reserved for pick-up at one of the Library’s grab-and-go locations (currently, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Library is offering limited grab-and-go service at 53 of its branch locations). 

“Whenever you find a book you just can’t put down, whenever a librarian offers recommendations based on your interests and your tastes, you have Jennie Maas Flexner to thank,” said Lynn Lobash, the Library’s current head of Reader Services. “She was an early champion of the once-revolutionary concept that reading should be fun. That people should read what they love, what keeps them turning pages. Not everyone knows her name, but her legacy impacts how we all read and interact with books, and I’m so glad we can honor her during Women’s History Month.” 

About The New York Public Library

For 125 years, The New York Public Library has been a free provider of education and information for the people of New York and beyond. With 92 locations—including research and branch libraries—throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Library offers free materials, computer access, classes, exhibitions, programming and more to everyone from toddlers to scholars, and has seen record numbers of attendance and circulation in recent years. The New York Public Library receives approximately 16 million visits through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at www.nypl.org. To offer this wide array of free programming, The New York Public Library relies on both public and private funding. Learn more about how to support the Library at nypl.org/support.