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Baker, Augusta Braxton (1911-1998)

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Augusta Braxton Baker, an African-American librarian, storyteller, and activist, was born on April 1, 1911, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her school-teacher parents put strong emphasis on the importance of education and the joys of reading, and after high school graduation, Baker began attending the University of Pittsburgh in 1927. At the end of her sophomore year, she married fellow student James Baker, and together they moved to Albany, New York. She attended New York State Teacher’s College, from which she earned a B.A. in education (1933) and a B.S. in library science (1934). Soon afterwards, the couple moved to New York City, where Baker worked briefly as a teacher, and her son, James Henry Baker III, was born.

In 1937, Baker was hired by Anne Carroll Moore, formidable supervisor of youth services for the New York Public Library, to be a children’s librarian at what was then the 135th Street Harlem Branch (now the Countee Cullen Regional Branch). The library had a sizable collection of books on African-American history and culture; unfortunately, Baker found the fiction not only inadequate but insulting, and her career as a velvet-gloved revolutionary began. In 1939, an inspired if exasperated Baker began assembling a special collection of titles that would fairly represent African-American culture and give children of all races a realistic picture of African-American life. To draw attention to the need for accurate portrayals of African Americans in literature for young people, and to promote the visibility of the slowly burgeoning collection, Baker wrote letters and gave speeches to publishers and editors at professional meetings. Her influence motivated several leading publishers to identify authors and illustrators who could produce stories with positive images of African Americans. Baker inspired a number of distinguished authors and illustrators, including Julius Lester, Ezra Jack Keats, Maurice Sendak, John Steptoe, and Madeleine L’Engle. Baker’s recognition of a deficit in juvenile library collections and her professional and personal responsibility to fill that gap resulted in what was ultimately christened The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. Baker published the first edition of her groundbreaking bibliography, Books about Negro Life for Children , in 1946, and a number of revised editions followed. In 1971, the bibliography was updated, and the title was changed to The Black Experience in Children’s Books.

It was during the 1940s that the dynamic Baker began to gain a reputation as a spellbinding storyteller. A traditional mainstay of programming for young people at the New York Public Library, storytelling became for Baker a lifelong journey. In 1953, she was appointed storytelling specialist and assistant coordinator of children’s services. She was the first African-American librarian to have an administrative position in the New York Public Library. Her love of traditional folktales and her desire to promote them among both children and other storytellers spurred Baker to compile four collections of stories: The Talking Tree (1955), The Golden Lynx (1960), Young Years: Best Loved Stories and Poems for Little Children (1960), and Once Upon a Time (1964). Two of these titles, The Talking Tree and The Golden Lynx , are recognized by library professionals as classic world folktale collections.

In 1961, Baker became the first African-American coordinator of children’s services for the New York Public Library, a position that put this gifted librarian in charge of both programming for young people and policies governing that programming in all eighty-two branches of the library. Baker seized the opportunity to improve the quality of the youth collections in the library, emphasizing culturally inclusive books and audiovisual materials. Her growing influence did not stop at the library walls, but spread to schools, community groups, and professional organizations. She taught courses, gave workshops, spoke at conferences, and lectured on storytelling and children’s literature. She was a consultant for the television program Sesame Street; an advisor to Weston Woods Media Company; and a moderator of the weekly radio program The World of Children’s Literature. Baker participated in high-profile professional activities, serving the Children’s Services Division of the American Library Association in various capacities, including president of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and chair of what was then the combined Newbery/Caldecott Awards Committee. Throughout a productive and respected career, the indefatigable Baker told stories, influenced public library policy, and altered the course of American publishing for children.

In 1974, after thirty-seven years with the New York Public Library, Baker retired as children’s coordinator, but she did not retire from storytelling, libraries, or professional life. She was a sought-after speaker, and continued to lecture at universities, conduct workshops, and tell stories. In 1977, with coauthor Ellin Greene, Baker published Storytelling: Art and Technique , an authoritative handbook on storytelling in libraries.

In 1980, Baker was offered a position as storyteller-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, the first such position at any university. In 1986, the University of South Carolina College of Library and Information Science and the Richland County Public Library established the annual “A(ugusta) Baker’s Dozen: A Celebration of Stories” in her honor. Among Baker’s many additional awards are two honorary doctorates, the Grolier Foundation Award, the Regina Medal from the Catholic Library Association, the Constance Lindsay Skinner Award from the Women’s National Book Association, and the Circle of Excellence Award from the National Storytelling Network.

Baker retired from her University of South Carolina position in 1994 and died on February 23, 1998. Her son donated her papers to the University of South Carolina. The Augusta Baker Collection of African-American Children’s Literature and Folklore is located at the Thomas Cooper Library of the University of South Carolina. The Baker Collection contains more than 1,600 children’s books (many inscribed), together with papers and illustrative material that provide an in-depth, microcosmic look at the history of children’s literature and librarianship in the United States.

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