This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
There are few things more misleading than the stereotype of the meek, reclusive librarian who hides from the world among the stacks. I’ve met a lot of librarians over the years, both on and offline, and as a group, they’re among the most well-informed, civic-minded, often radical individuals I’ve ever met. They may love to curl up with a novel, but you’re just as likely to find them reading the news, volunteering, helping combat misinformation in their communities, and attending rallies.
A lot of very influential people are or were librarians at one point. If you look at any classic literature section, you’ll find the names of folks who worked at libraries for at least a few years: think Jorge Luis Borges, Jacob Grimm (yes, of Brothers Grimm fame), Lewis Carroll, and Madeleine L’Engle, among others. But a librarian doesn’t have to write a celebrated book to help change the world: advocacy and activism in their own domain (i.e., the library) have paid off tremendous dividends for their communities, their countries, and sometimes the world. In truth, writing a list of the most radical librarians in history feels a bit like cheating: a lot of radical librarians’ names have been lost despite their enormous achievements. But the six names I include here are a sample of the incredible work librarians can do.
Barbara Gittings (1932-2007)
It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Gittings’ work in the advancement of LGBTQ rights. Born in Vienna, Austria, to American parents, she moved to the United States soon after the beginning of World War II. As a young adult attempting to understand her sexual orientation, Gittings looked for books about the topic and was dismayed to find that what little there was of it painted homosexuality as abnormal and deviant.
Besides starting a chapter of Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in New York City, editing The Ladder (the organization’s magazine) for three years, and marching in several of the early gay picket lines, she became the coordinator of the gay caucus in the American Library Association in 1971. She was also instrumental in the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to drop homosexuality as a mental illness the following year.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Confession time: this is the only name in this list that I knew before researching this article and the only one whose work I had already read. Audre Lorde continues to be a household name over thirty years after her death: although she’s known primarily for her poetry, she had a master’s in library science and worked as a librarian until the late ’60s. Adrienne Rich said that Lorde wrote “as a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, a visionary.”
She advocated for women of color and the LGBTQ community outside of her writing as well. In 1979, she was a speaker at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Two years later, in 1981, she co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press with Barbara Smith and other writers. She was also a founding member of Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa.
Maude Malone (1873-1951)
Malone was exposed to activism from a young age: her father and her uncle were two of the founders of the New York Anti-Poverty Society. She was a suffragist and, as an employee of the New York Public City Library, a founding member of the Library Employees’ Union.
She was part of several women’s clubs, including the Harlem Equal Rights League. She convinced other members to hold open-air meetings about suffrage, where they gathered signatures in order to call on New York state legislators to give women suffrage rights. She used a lot of these same tactics to advance workers’ rights and working conditions under her role in the Library Employees’ Union.
Regina M. Anderson (1901-1993)
A librarian and a playwright, Anderson was the first Black woman to become a supervising librarian at the New York Public Library in 1938, fifteen years after joining the 135th Street branch. But her overall career as a librarian began earlier: while attending the HBC Wilberforce University, she worked in its Carnegie Library, and after graduation, she worked as a junior library assistant at the Chicago Public Library.
She was a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, bringing in prominent speakers to the 135th Street branch and opening her own apartment (along with her roommates Ethel Ray and Louella Tucker) to host salons and events for artists. The apartment was given, among others, the name of the Harlem West Side Literary Salon. She also co-founded the Krigwa Players, a Black theater company, with W.E.B. Du Bois. Years later, she served as the Vice President of the National Council of Women of the United States and represented the National Urban League as a member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.
Pura Belpré (circa 1899-1982)
The first Puerto Rican librarian at the New York Public Library (sense a pattern yet?), Belpré’s work for the Spanish-speaking community was invaluable: she grew the Spanish-language collection, introduced bilingual story hours, and launched programs based on traditional holidays. She found a love for children’s literature working in the children’s division, as well as for storytelling in general. She attended meetings of the Porto Rican Brotherhood of America and La Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana, further cementing the 115th Street branch (where most of her career took place) as a key cultural space for Latinx New Yorkers.
Ernestine Rose (1880-1961)
You know what a lot of the librarians mentioned above had in common, besides working at New York Public Library branches? They were recruited by Ernestine Rose, a librarian who advocated for programs to help immigrants adjust to their new country instead of promoting assimilation, who integrated the library staff at the 135th Street branch, and who wanted library staff to always be well-versed in the culture and issues of the communities that their branch served.
There are far more radical and world-changing librarians in history than can be contained in just one post! If you want to learn more about the history of libraries and activism, check out 13 Pioneering Black American Librarians You Oughta Know and Women’s Work, Women’s Words: Feminist Library History.
Libraries are facing unprecedented challenges, bigotry, and violence right now. If you want to join the fight for the freedom to read, sign up for the Literary Activism newsletter to stay informed.