NYPL’s Pura Belpré: The Library's First Puerto Rican Librarian and Passionate Advocate

By Paloma Celis Carbajal, Curator, Latin American, Iberian and Latino Studies
March 1, 2021

(En Español

In honor of Women's History Month, the Library is taking a look back at some of the remarkable women who changed The New York Public Library—and the field of librarianship—forever with our new series, Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL. Each week this March, we will be sharing reflections from our current staff on how the impact of these trailblazing figures from the Library's 125-year history are still felt today. 

Librarian Pura Belpre leads a storytime with a group of young children.

New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library.

About Pura Belpré

Pura Belpré was the first Puerto Rican librarian at NYPL. Starting her career at the 135th Street branch, she became an enthusiastic 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 and especially the 115th Street and Aguilar branches, became vital cultural centers for local Latino residents.

Pura Belpré’s Legacy 

Reflections from Paloma Celis Carbajal, Curator for Latin American, Iberian, and U.S. Latino Collections

There is nothing that gives anyone more comfort than a sense of belonging, feeling accepted and valued for who we are. Librarians strive to provide that comfort, and some have done that in exceptional ways. My role model, my true north for which I strive, is Pura Belpré. She laid the foundation, which so many of us have built upon, for bridges that connect public libraries and their resources with our communities, especially with those that feel they don’t have a place here. 

As the first Latina librarian at NYPL, she was committed to making sure her users saw themselves represented in the Library’s collections and to feeling they belonged to the greater community of New York City—while also feeling proud of their Puerto Rican heritage. In the same sense, I strive to bring the Latin American and Iberian research collections closer to the diverse communities in New York, be it a young reader learning about her ancestors, a student looking for literature written by people that look or speak like them, or a professor hunting down the first book printed in this continent for her research. Belpré created puppets and illustrated children’s books that spoke of Puerto Rican heritage, offered services and books in either English or Spanish to ease language barriers, and with her life’s work left us a blueprint for building community and belonging through storytelling and collective memory. She has certainly left, for those of us that have followed, some very big shoes to fill! 

This is part of the Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL series.  Find out  how the Library is celebrating Women's History Month with recommended reading, events and programs, and more.