Houseful Of Black History | Vivian Harsh – Librarian

I won’t even go into how much I love our public library system. I’m sure you love yours just as much. It’s the building that transports and provides so much in the form of non-literary inspiration, that having them in each neighborhood is something I couldn’t imagine. So, I’m going to transport you back in time a bit, to the hiring of the first female black librarian to grace our cities public library system, Vivian G. Harsh.

Miss Vivian Gordon Harsh

Miss Harsh was appointed as the city’s first black librarian in the Chicago Public Library system on February 26, 1924, and the head librarian at the George Cleveland Hall Branch, which was the first library built for the black community.

Harsh first began working for the Chicago Public Library as a junior clerk in 1909 after graduating high school. She later went on to graduate from Simmons College Library School in Boston. She was named director of the new George Cleveland Hall branch in 1932. Harsh’s goal for Hall Library when she became director was to have it serve as a community gathering space and to provide educational outreach opportunities. As a librarian, she was passionate about collecting works about African Americans and she traveled extensively throughout the South finding books to add to her collection. She assembled the “Special Negro Collection” at the library, which drew a large number of diverse readers and researchers to the library.

Additionally, in her role as the director of Hall Library, Harsh organized community programs such as black history clubs, literary study clubs, a literature forum, art exhibits, storytelling sessions, drama clubs, a senior citizen’s group, and debates, all with the assistance of black children’s librarian Charlemae Hill Rollins. The literature forum Harsh created met twice a month and provided community members a place to come and listen to book reviews or lectures given by fellow community members. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, Horace Clayton, and Margaret Walker were among the people who participated in these forums.[ The Hall Library’s role as a meeting place for African-American thinkers and activists had a profound impact on the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s.

Harsh retired as director of Hall Library in 1958 and died on August 17, 1960.

She created a valuable resource of African-American literature and history that can now be found at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library on the south side of Chicago, not too far from my house today.

It is because of people like her, that I continue my fight for the library. Something that was taken as seriously as a black librarian has grown into this black mom fighting for libraries to stay open in the neighborhoods that need them the most. She fought to create a collection so that our memory would last through the years. Because of her stance in the public library system, I can now FREELY go in and borrow whatever I would like to.

Thank you, Ms. Harsh, for setting such a great example for a love of reading, literacy, and knowing our heritage.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Regina
    February 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    I am a HUGE scholar of Vivian’s. Thanks for honoring my profession.

  • Leave a Reply to Regina Cancel reply

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