Augusta Baker

Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland; she would move to Columbia at the end of her career.

Education: Education degree and degree in library science from New York State College.

First she would light a candle, and then she would tell a story. During her lifetime that’s how the late Augusta Baker introduced children to literature, through dramatic storytelling that would direct those she entertained to the world of books. Baker, named No. 6 on the list of the 100 most important library figures in the our nation’s history, is best known for her work in the New York City Public Library System. She began work there in 1937, at a time when there was little children’s literature that depicted African Americans. Baker began creating reading lists of books that projected positive, realistic images of African Americans. That inspired authors and artists to create original works of children’s fiction out of the black experience.

An unconventional woman, Baker was in love with the arts and traveled the world to inhale its diversity and wonder. She was Storyteller-in-Residence at the University of South Carolina before her death, where her dedication to literacy lives on in a professorship named in her honor.

Baker was born in 1911 to parents who were both educators. Her love of books began with her parents and her grandmother, who introduced her to the world of books at an early age. A motivated student, Baker had college ambitions. It took Eleanor Roosevelt, then the first lady of New York, to intervene and open the door for black students to attend New York State College, from where Baker would graduate. At 26, Baker took her first library job at New York Public Library’s 135th Street Branch in Harlem. It was supposed to be temporary job. It lasted 17 years. It was there that Baker founded the James Weldon John Memorial Collection of children’s books, which was her contribution to establishing a collection of books accurately portraying black children and black life. It established her as an authority on children’s literature. And Baker would benefit from a series of promotions that led her to become one of the top administrators in the largest library system in the country. She was in charge of children’s services. That position expanded Baker’s sphere of influence. At one point, Baker was a consultant to the “Sesame Street” television show.

She ended her career in South Carolina. In 1980, she became Storyteller-in-Residence at the University of South Carolina, the first such position at any university. The College of Library and Information Science, in conjunction with the Richland County Public Library, established the annual Augusta Baker’s Dozen Storytelling Festival in her honor.

At heart, Baker was a storyteller. She traveled the world, received the highest honors given to those in her profession and left and indelible stamp on how libraries nationwide serve children. But those closest to her say she derived the most joy from lighting a candle, telling a story and opening a mind.