Harsh, Vivian Gordon 1890–1960
Vivian Gordon Harsh 1890–1960
Vivian Harsh was the first black professional librarian in the Chicago Public Library system. A woman with 10 years of experience in all aspects of library management by the time she earned her first degree in 1921, she headed the George Cleveland Hall Branch when it opened on the Chicago’s South Side in January 1932.
Harsh set her longterm goals according to three geographical levels. Her local view saw the library as the intellectual center of the neighborhood, where visitors of all ages could learn about the topics they enjoyed most. A slightly wider outlook, focusing on Chicago and its surroundings, found her determined to boost her patrons’ chances in the job-market by providing them with the most up-to-date information available. Harsh’s broadest view embraced black Americans nationwide.
In an attempt to instill pride and kindle enthusiasm for researching and preserving black history, she overcame the hurdle of a frugal Depression-era budget to create the Special Negro Collection, a carefully-chosen series of rare books, maps and other items. However, despite the wealth of material it contained, Harsh chose not to actively promote the Special Negro Collection. As a result, many people were unaware that this valuable repository of information existed.
Vivian Harsh’s parents came of age in the Reconstructionist era. Unlike many black Americans who were struggling to overcome the effects of illiteracy resulting from slavery, both of Harsh’s parents were graduates of Tennessee-based Fisk University, her mother being one of the first female graduates of the institution’s Normal School. Along with many other African American couples looking for greater opportunity, the Harsh family migrated from the South to Chicago, where Vivian was born in May, 1890. Few details about her youth are known, other than the fact that she had one brother and graduated in 1908 from Wendell Phillips High School.
In 1909, Harsh joined the Chicago Public Library as a junior assistant. Although this was an entry-level position, it did not necessarily spell boredom or lack of variety. Among libraries of its day, the Chicago Public Library was quite advanced. It had been in operation for many years, and offered its patrons a wealth of services. By 1900, a full nine years before Harsh arrived, library statistics recorded more than 1.7 million items borrowed, and such sophisticated community outreach programs as tours for schoolchildren, braille materials for the blind, and borrowing privileges for major companies such as International Harvester and Sears Roebuck. It was within this fruitful environment that Harsh began her library career. Within a few years, she gained valuable experience working in both adult and children’s services. In 1921, she earned her
At a Glance …
Born on May 27, 1890, Chicago; died August 17, 1960; daughter of Fenton W. Harsh and Maria L. (Drake), one brother. Education : Wendell Phillips High School, graduated 1908; Simmons College Library School, 1921; Graduate School of Library Science, University of Chicago, 1929-1931.
Career : Junior clerk, December 1909-April 1910; junior library assistant, April 1910-1911; library assistant 1911; children’s librarian 1913; Branch librarian, 1924, heading, (in succession) Hardin Square, Mark Heights, Lincoln Center, Ogden Park branches of Chicago Public Library; head of George Cleveland Hall branch, 1932-58; retired Nov. 10, 1958.
library degree from Simmonds College in Boston. As a result, Harsh became Chicago’s first black professional librarian and positioned herself to take advantage of new opportunities.
By 1924, Harsh had been employed by the Chicago Public Library for 14 years. Efficient, experienced in most aspects of library administration, and capable of supervising a staff, she was placed in charge of a branch library for the first time. For the next few years she continued to gain supervisory experience, moving from branch to branch as the need arose. Then, in the late 1920s, a fortuitous event would change her life forever.
On Chicago’s South Side, a new apartment house for black middle-class families was erected by millionaire philanthropist and Sears Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald. The construction of the building captured the attention of Dr. George Cleveland Hall, a physician at nearby Provident Hospital and a member of the Chicago Public Library Board. Hall suggested to the Board that the expanding neighborhood needed a library and persuaded Julius Rosenwald to donate a piece of land suitable for a building. Although Hall died in 1930, two years before construction was completed, the new branch was named in his honor.
On January 18, 1932, the new George Cleveland Hall branch of the Chicago Public Library officially opened its doors to the public. Although the newspapers gave scant coverage to the event, several wellwishers sent telegrams and flowers, and statistics show that 11,086 Chicagoans came to enjoy their first glimpse of the Hall Branch’s Italian Renaissance architecture, its pristine cream walls, and its English oak seating. They also had an opportunity to meet the head librarian, Vivian Harsh. As a librarian with 22 years of experience, Harsh clearly articulated the mission of the Hall Branch: “Hall Branch Library serves as an intelligence center in the community, cooperating closely with all educational, social, commercial and religious institutions therein.” She was true to her word. As the Library Bulletin of October, 1933 indicates, the Hall Branch was often adorned with posters and calendars reminding patrons of secular and religious holidays, such as Canadian Thanksgiving and the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. In addition, children were given their own literary clubs and activities, conducted under the supervision of Charlamae Rollins, who became Harsh’s lifelong friend. Adult patrons looking to expand their literary horizons were invited to attend the library’s book review meetings and lecture forums, at which black authors like Margaret Walker and Zora Neale Hurston were often invited to speak.
All of these innovations, along with an ample selection of valuable books, maps and other items on African American themes, made the Hall Branch the intellectual center of Chicago’s South Side. Also, as the Great Depression deepened, the library offered an oasis from the poverty and other stark realities of daily life.
The Golden Age of Hall Branch
In the early 1930s, the federal Works Progress Administration provided the Hall Branch with funding for a WPA study called The Negro in Illinois. The WPA chose the Hall Branch because of its Special Negro Collection and the fact that it was a gathering place for young black writers and intellectuals. Several promising young writers were chosen for the study, among them Richard Wright, novelist Margaret Walker, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Each participant contributed typewritten manuscripts for the study, manuscripts which would later become valuable additions to the Special Negro Collection.
Although the Depression sharply curtailed the amount of funding Harsh could devote to the Special Negro Collection, it continued to grow. From 1932 to 1936, acquisitions for the Special Negro Collection grew from 300 to 800 items. By 1945, 2,000 items were contained in the collection. Because the Special Negro Collection was so valuable, it was housed in Harsh’s office and she carefully screened all those who asked to use it. One lucky teenager who was granted permission was Margaret Burroughs, who would later become an internationally recognized artist. “Miss Harsh was always very neatly dressed and very aloof,” Burroughs recalled, “so when she let you sit there and read, you felt really wonderful!”
During World War II, the Hall Branch focused its efforts on assisting the war effort. In her 1942 Annual Report, Harsh noted that “Classes in First Aid were … very popular while scheduled at the library. 1641 persons came to the branch for 49 classes held here.” She also wrote that, “Books from the Special Collection have been supplied readers at Camp Robert Smalls, Great Lakes, Illinois.” Staff members at the Hall Branch also did their part. Harsh reported that, “bonds have been subscribed by all the staff,” and that “one person not now on the staff served 2 days as registrar for sugar rationing.
When World War II ended in 1945, the interests of library patrons changed. In her 1945 Annual Report, Harsh wrote that “With the close of the war, there appeared to be a general lack of interest by readers in books by and about the war.” Instead, materials relating to postwar employment were highly popular. “More adults, including veterans and those formerly employed in the defense industries, are requesting books on state and government civil service positions and examinations, books on self-education … refresher books in preparation for college entrance exams.”
With the advent of the 1950s, Chicago’s South Side was faced with a shortage of new residential housing coupled with a rapidly expanding growth in population. To help meet both the social and informational needs of its expanding patron base, the Hall Branch implemented several new programs. One program that Harsh introduced was called Fun at Maturity. This program was designed to offer senior citizens an opportunity to make new friends and reduce their isolation from the community. The title “Fun at Maturity” reflected Harsh’s personal philosophy. In a 1943 article in the Crusader, Harsh remarked that “Fun is an attitude rather than an activity, an inner spirit pronouncing life good.”
By 1957, Vivian Harsh had been a Chicago Public Library employee for 48 years, 26 as head of the Hall Branch. Approaching 70 years of age, Harsh discovered that she no longer had the energy for the challenges of her job. “I do not have any new suggestions for new and better library services in 1958,” she wrote wearily, in her 1957 Annual Report. “After 26 years and, having attempted during that period to “sell” our library services to the community, new projects, ideas and programs for improvement of our services in 1958 are not forthcoming.” After suffering a severe illness, Harsh retired in 1958. Separated from her beloved Hall Branch, she was unable to maintain “the inner spirit designating life as good” which she had tried to instill in so many of Chicago’s South Side senior citizens. On August 17, 1960, she died alone and depressed at Provident Hospital.
Following Harsh’s retirement, the Special Negro Collection that had been her pride and joy was moved to the Hall Branch’s basement and neglected for ten years. In 1970, as the result of an $89,000 federal grant, the Chicago Public Library revived the Special Negro Collection and appointed a full-time curator. The collection was renamed the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. In 1975, it was housed in a library named for one of her scholarly heroes, Carter G. Woodson.
Harsh, Vivian G, Untitled Column, Crusader, May 28, 1943
Harsh, Vivian Gordon, Annual Reports: George Cleveland Hall Branch, 1932-1957.
Flug, Michael, Harsh, Vivian Gordon (1890-1960) in : Hine, Darlene Clark, ed: Black Women in America, an Historical Encyclopedia, Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Joyce, Donald F. “Vivian Harsh (1890-1960) Librarian,” in : Smith, Jessie Carney, ed: Notable Black American Women, Gale Research Inc. 1992.
Chicago Public Library, “Staff News,” September 16, 1931; Hall Branch Library Bulletin, October, 1933.
The Treasures of All Knowledge: Celebrating a Century of Commitment, Chicago Public Library, 1972.
Chicago Daily Defender, July 24, 1943; August 29, 1960.
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