NYPL’s Catherine Allen Latimer: The First Black Librarian at NYPL, Helped Create the Schomburg Center

By Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian
March 15, 2021
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

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. 

View of Black researchers using reference collections. Catherine Latimer is at a desk to the left of researchers, looking over work.

Catherine Latimer at the 135th Street Branch with researchers. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 5186396

About Catherine Allen Latimer

Catherine Latimer was the first African American librarian hired by NYPL. Beginning her career with the Library in 1920, Latimer spent her entire tenure at the 135th Street branch. In 1924, Latimer and her coworker Ernestine Rose launched a campaign—supported by community leaders, including Arturo Alfonso Schomburg—to collect items that document the Black experience. This collection would become the Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints, which Latimer headed and was the precursor to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She also later acted as assistant to Schomburg when he was hired as curator and his collection added to NYPL. 

Catherine Allen Latimer’s Legacy

Reflection by Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian, Schomburg Research & Reference Division

While Latimer is known as the first Black librarian at The New York Public Library, her contributions to the institution run so much deeper. Beyond her work cultivating collections, Latimer showed that a librarian’s work could be far-reaching and not defined by one role. Latimer accomplished an awe-inspiring amount during her tenure with NYPL—not least, being the steward of the collection that would evolve to become the Schomburg Center—leaving behind an indelible legacy: 

  • She started clipping files on dozens of topics covering the Black experience and later turned those files into scrapbooks. Librarians at the Schomburg Center carried on this tradition far past the time of Latimer, and these scrapbooks are heavily used by researchers today.
  • Latimer worked with numerous researchers, and was especially helpful to researchers who were uncovering lesser-known historical moments from Black history, for example Pearly Graham, who was the first to uncover the relationship between Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson.
  • As described by scholar, Dr. Laura Helton, Latimer, “built on a tradition of countercataloging at Black institutions,” by re-cataloging items about the African diaspora in a way that was actually accessible to researchers. For example, she “removed books on Africa from the class for travel...and moved them to ethnology or history.”
  • More recently discovered (and currently being researched by Dr. Laura Helton), Latimer created a Black poetry index with her fellow librarian, Dorothy Porter from Howard University.
  • She collected the works of great writers of the Harlem Renaissance that she knew personally, such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.
  • Latimer oversaw The Division of Negro Literature and History, which included the Schomburg Collection, and promoted its special materials to reseachers, including a 1934 article published in The Crisis called, “Where Can I Get Material on the Negro.”

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.