Celebrating Black History Month in Libraries and Government Information

by Priscilla Hunt

The Government Information unit at FSU libraries provides free public access to government information and publications for the State of Florida; United Nations; and the United States federal government publications. This includes highlighting important news and events that influence public policy at these three governmental bodies. February is nationally recognized as Black History Month.

Black History Month recognizes African Americans for their achievements and contributions to society. As FSU Libraries celebrate these individuals, the Government Information unit will like to highlight how African Americans have enhanced libraries and government entities.

FIRST BLACK LIBRARIAN

In the not so distant past, libraries within the United States were often prohibited to African Americans. Nevertheless, in 1898 the wheels of change had begun to turn for an Ohio native by the name of Edward Christopher Williams at Western Reserve University, who became the first known Black man in the U.S. with the title of Librarian. After his extensive development of the university library, Williams decided to join the American Library Association and again broke barriers in 1890 by being one of the first black men to join at the time. Williams continued his education by obtaining a Master’s degree in library science from New York State Library School in 1899. He later moved to Washington D.C. where he taught German and trained future librarians as the Librarian of Howard University. Before William’s death in 1929, he wrote a novel that was later republished as “When Washington Was in Vogue” that landed him a spot in the canon of Harlem Renaissance authors.

FIRST BLACK PUBLIC LIBRARIAN

Next, we turn our attention to Catherine Latimer. In 1920, she became the first Black public librarian. After many years, Latimer became the head of the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints. It was in this position that Latimer began to conquer many obstacles that limited the accessibility of items pertaining to the African diaspora, and started developing collections on Black History. Throughout Catherine Latimer’s lifetime, she continued to speak for systemic equality in libraries. Her work set the foundation for future research in this area, and the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints continued on to become the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

FIRST BLACK GRADUATE OF COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

In 1932, Dorothy Porter Wesley became the first Black graduate of Columbia University’s Library School. She later became a librarian at Howard University. Until this point in time, the Dewey Decimal System (used widely across libraries for classifying materials), inhibited works created by Black authors. Wesley identified the bias in this system and set to establish a fairer practice that classified titles across all subjects instead of just racially biased ones.

FIRST BLACK LIBRARIAN OF CONGRESS

Dr. Carla Hayden was born in Florida State University’s hometown of Tallahassee, FL. Dr. Hayden attended the University of Chicago where she obtained a doctorate in Library Science, a tool she has used to work in the library field for over forty years. She continued to break glass ceilings by being the first African American to receive the Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year Award (1995). She is the first woman, and the first African American to become the Librarian of Congress.

CREATOR OF THE FIRST SEARCH ENGINE

Alan Emtage is a computer scientist born on the islands of Barbados. While a student in Canada, Emtage created what we now refer to as “Archie,” the world’s first internet search engine. His creation paved the way for larger search engines like Google and thus, enhanced research and created a gateway to a vast array of knowledge.

NSA HIGH SPEED COMPUTER SYSTEMS DEVELOPER

Frank Greene was a member of the United States Air Force, where he assisted in the creation of high-performing computer systems that were used for the National Security Agency (NSA). Green later would receive a patent for creating the fastest memory chip of 1965. Greene taught many courses at Stanford University, Howard University, and Washington University. He was also the recipient of Purdue University Outstanding Electrical Engineer Award and landed a seat in the Silicon Valley Hall of Fame.

NASA’s HUMAN COMPUTER

Katherine Johnson worked for National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) during a time when there was a difference shown between race and gender in the workforce. Johnson was excellent with numbers and worked her way into calculating the path for the Freedom 7 flight when no one else could. Additionally, she was the driving force in calculating the first successful moon landing.

It is evident that these individuals had significant impact in libraries, research, and sources of government information, most of which I can safely say have influenced not just the content, but the services we provide. FSU Libraries recognize the contributions of these individuals to our field. As a federally mandated depository library, FSU commits to supporting the public’s right to know about the workings and activities of the government by providing free public access to both tangible and online publications distributed by the Government Publishing Office. Our collections support excellence in research and instruction across all disciplines at FSU.  This has made FSU Libraries the hub for government information research in the Florida Panhandle.

Sources: 

  1. “Black Leaders in Library History”, Fordham University, https://librarynews.blog.fordham.edu/2021/02/22/leaders-in-library-history/
  1. “10 Black Innovators Who Have Made an Impact in Stem”, Engineering for Kids, https://www.engineeringforkids.com/about/news/2021/february/10-black-innovators-who-have-made-an-impact-in-s/
  1. “Proclamation on National Black History Month, 2021”, The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/02/03/proclamation-on-national-black-history-month-2021/
  1. “Black History Month”, History, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month#:~:text=Also%20known%20as%20African%20American,February%20as%20Black%20History%20Month.
  1. “Black History Month”, Black History Month.govhttps://www.blackhistorymonth.gov/
  1. “African American History”, Archives.gov, https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans
  1. “Library Ethnicity”, American Library Associationhttps://www.ala.org/tools/librarian-ethnicity
  1. “Black Caucus American Library Association”, BCALA,  https://www.bcala.org/
  1. “African American Registry”, The African American Registry, https://aaregistry.org/
  1. “About the Librarian”, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/about/about-the-librarian/
  1. “Meet the Man Who Invented the Search Engine- But Didn’t Patent It”, Business Insiderhttps://www.businessinsider.com/the-man-who-invented-search-2013-4
  1. “Dr. Frank S. Greene”, Purdue,  Jr.https://engineering.purdue.edu/ECE/Alums/OECE/1999/greene.html

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