Augusta Baker was an exceptional librarian who made many contributions to the improvement of children's services during a stellar career that spanned five decades. She began working in 1937 as assistant children's librarian at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem. She worked there for 16 years before being promoted to Storytelling Specialist and Assistant Coordinator of Children's Services, becoming the first black administrator at the New York Public. In 1961 she was again promoted, this time to Coordinator of Children's Services, which put her in charge of children's policies and programs in all 82 branches of the Library. She was a master storyteller, a consultant to publishers and television producers, a university lecturer, and an author, but it is another of her important contributions that I want to speak of today.
In 1937 when Baker started work as a young librarian in New York, she was glad to see that the children's library had a sizable collection of books on black history and culture, but she was appalled at the representations of blacks in the picture and story books which presented them, she said later, "as shiftless, happy, grinning, dialect-speaking menials."1
To remedy this situation, she contacted publishers, editors, authors, and illustrators and talked with them about the need for better books about the black experience. "I tried to get libraries to buy accurate books about blacks," she later wrote. "[I] pestered black writers to write for children and looked for illustrators who would draw true representations of blacks."2
She began to actively collect juvenile fiction books which offered an unbiased, accurate, well-rounded picture of African American life. This collection greatly benefited the patrons of her library, and the publication in 1946 of a bibliography based on the collection, entitled Books about Negro Life for Children,* spread her message far beyond the walls of the 135th Street Library to libraries, communities and schools throughout the nation. It was a landmark publication. In a revised 1963 edition of the bibliography, she writes that books can "perform a unique function in the plan for intercultural education....[They] cannot" she admits, "take the place of first hand contacts with other people, [but] they can prepare children to meet people, to discount unimportant differences and to appreciate cultural traditions and values unlike their own. They can...give children a pride in their own racial heritage and a knowledge of themselves."3
Baker encouraged the publication of books for and about African American children long before the term multicultural was popularized. Bringing books that portrayed black people in an honest, realistic manner to all American children is one of this extraordinary librarian's most important and enduring legacies.* In later editions, the title was changed to The Black Experience in Children's Books.
Copyright 2004 © Rita Smith
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