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Meet the badass librarians of the NYPL

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We already knew librarians were movers and shakers — but this March, in honor of Women’s History Month, the New York Public Library will pay tribute to some of the most notable women who helped shape the institution into what it is today. It’s all part of a monthlong virtual showcase called Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL. Each Monday, the library Web site will post bios of five female librarians who made things happen. Here are several librarians who weren’t content with the status quo. 

Jennie Maas Flexner
Courtesy of NYPL

Jennie Maas Flexner: Flexner was the founder of the Library’s Readers’ Advisory department (created in 1924) and a big early advocate of people reading what they loved, rather than making their way down a dry list of official classics. Her belief — that if you play matchmaker, connecting a person with the right book, you’ll have a lifelong reader — continues to shape NYPL programming and recommendation lists. 

Augusta Braxton Baker
Meet the badass librarians of the NYPL 1

Augusta Braxton Baker: Baker saw the need for diverse books and “own voices” in children’s literature before it was a hashtag. Hired in 1937 as a children’s librarian, she was promoted to coordinator of children’s services in 1961, becoming the first black librarian in an administrative position at the NYPL. 

Pura Belpré
Courtesy of NYPL

Pura Belpré: The first Puerto Rican librarian at NYPL and a passionate advocate for the Spanish-speaking community, she started bilingual story hours, stocked up on Spanish-language books and pushed programming based on traditional holidays. The branches at 115th Street and Aguilar where she worked became vibrant community outposts for local Latino residents. 

Esther K. Johnston
Courtesy of NYPL

Esther K. Johnston: Johnston worked nearly three decades as a librarian on the Lower East Side, engaging various immigrant groups through programming and book collections. She was named acting head of the Library’s branches in 1943, with her predecessor called away to fight in World War II. In 1947, she received the official promotion, becoming the first woman to ever hold the job. This was a big deal: While most librarians were women, they had been kept out of management positions. When she presented her monthly report to the NYPL’s Committee on Circulation, she was forced to use the service elevator at the men-only private club where they met. 

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