Library Week Feature: what can we learn from Nella Larsen’s application to library school?

We see you every day, handing you a lockers key as you walk in each morning, and receiving it back toward the end of the day.
Most often you’re hunkered down over a particular archive, getting to understand a portion of one of our archives better than anyone who works in the RBML. We await the longer scholarly projects that you’re developing from this research but in the nearer term we thought it would be interesting to give a preview of your work.
In this brief interview, Professor Emerita Barbara Hochman of Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics tells us about her research for her recently published article, “Filling in Blanks: Nella Larsen’s Application to Library School” (paywall). 


Working in an archive, one never knows which scrap of paper will be revealing.

What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library?

portrait of nella larsen
Wikipedia | 1928

I came to RBML to examine the library school application of Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. I had been intrigued for some time by both her fiction and her career trajectory. She had successfully transitioned from nursing, to librarianship, to authorship in less than a decade, but although her novel Passing won substantial acclaim when it appeared in 1929, her story “Sanctuary” drew plagiarism charges just one year later. Larsen subsequently cut off her ties with the literary world she knew, stopped writing, and returned to nursing; she died alone and forgotten, leaving no papers. While working on an essay about the way Larsen used her reading in her writing (“Love and Theft: Plagiarism, Blackface, and Nella Larsen’s ‘Sanctuary,’American Literature [September 2016]: 509-540) I learned from George Hutchinson’s biography that Larsen was the first African American to be accepted to [Columbia’s] library school in the United States, and that her application was housed at Columbia. I was curious to see the material artifact in its entirety.

How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)? What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?

I had previously consulted 19th and early 20th c. editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at RBML for my monograph, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851-1911. My work on Larsen, like my work on Stowe, is informed by my conviction that reading practices are always shaped by both personal history and cultural positioning.  When I first examined Larsen’s library school application my interest in reading as an intensely individual but also a social practice made me pause over her response to the following instructions on the form: “Name ten books you have read in the last two years.” I wondered how Larsen, a voracious reader, decided which books to include. How did specific titles serve her self-representation and her goal of acceptance to library school? What else might the books she named have meant to her? Would it be possible to understand the interplay of these titles as a story of sorts? Pondering these questions, I was impelled to examine the applications of additional candidates. Gradually these mundane documents began to look like rich texts that disclose the encounter of diverse men and women with the norms, values, and protocols of a significant American cultural institution.

…reading practices are always shaped by both personal history and cultural positioning…

What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?

Beginning with consideration of the applicants’ booklists, I found Larsen’s choices unusual in two ways: Although most applicants claimed to have read many works of fiction “in the last two years” – and although Larsen would soon be publishing fiction herself– she included only one novel among her titles: Growth of the Soil, a controversial naturalist text by the Norwegian Nobel Prize Lauriat, Knut Hamsun. In addition, Larsen was the only applicant to mention an African American work (W.E.B. DuBois’ angry attack on racism, Darkwater). It seemed to me that neither of these titles – the first and last on Larsen’s list – could be fully explained by the pragmatic goal of pleasing an entrance committee.  How then should they be understood?

nella larsen's handwritten library school application
Click to enlarge.

What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

Working in an archive, one never knows which scrap of paper will be revealing. I ordered scans, took photographs, made notes, and revisited the collection, trying to decipher handwriting and grappling with the implications of what I saw. I read Larsen’s application many times before realizing that the word “Negro” on the first page of the form was not written in Larsen’s hand, but was inserted by someone else beneath the biographical information she provided. Reading through files of routine correspondence to and from alumni, I came across a letter from a recent Southern graduate protesting Larsen’s acceptance. I knew that Larsen’s entry to library school was a highly charged event, but this neglected letter provided concrete confirmation of Larsen’s tenuous position. For me, such thought-provoking surprises are among the big rewards of working painstakingly over time on archival materials.

h/t to Tara Craig, head of our Public Services team, for bringing Prof. Hochman’s research to our attention. If you’re conducting research in our archives and have interesting finds and tips to share, please contact us!

This was a fitting profile to bring you as we mark Library Week, which highlights the valuable role libraries, librarians, and library workers play in transforming our communities.

library week logo with slogan libraries and strong communities