February 17, 2018

On the Picket Line with Miriam

By John N. Berry III, Editor-in-Chief

We’ll keep a place for her there…she can’t be replaced

on this editorial

Miriam Braverman (1920 – 2002) won’t be there on the picket line with us anymore. Her death silences one of the clearest and strongest of a dwindling number of articulate professional voices willing to question the neutrality of librarians (not libraries) when they deal with the issues facing our society, our nation, our world, and our profession. In active solidarity with us in all our battles until the very end, she went to the streets with us long after she retired from her crucial working roles in library service and library education.

I first met Miriam years ago on a picket line at St. John’s University in New York. Librarians were going to cross that parade of embattled professors on strike against low salaries and for academic freedom. We’ll have to keep a place for Miriam there on our picket lines. We all know she cannot be replaced.

Miriam was brought up “desperately poor” as her son Tom puts it. She was proud that she was able to graduate from the prestigious New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass College at Rutgers) because she earned a full scholarship there.

Always a librarian, researcher, and teacher, she bonded with Frances Henne, the legendary professor at the Columbia School of Library Service. Miriam earned her Ph.D. at Columbia. Other notable Braverman allies of that time were Gerry Clark, who ran the library programs for the New York City schools, and Anne Littlejohn at the Brooklyn Public Library, who worked with young African American women to raise their aspirations and opportunities.

Miriam worked very closely with Rep. Major Owens, beginning back in the days when both were at the Brooklyn Public Library. She and Owens created and taught in the Community Media Librarian Program at Columbia. Way ahead of its time, the program recruited inner-city library workers and minority students to the libraries of the great urban centers. The members of the first graduating class were featured in the April 1, 1974 issue of LJ.
The program was a model for the recruitment and retention of a more diverse cohort of library professionals but died along with its federal funding.

Miriam’s bibliography is substantial and noted in the usual sources. Some of it reflects her incredible activism and her loyalty to library service. For example, “Building Grass Roots Support for Public Libraries,” which she wrote for the September 15, 1979 issue of LJ, tells all about her struggle to organize a campaign of sit-ins in branches of the New York Public Library (NYPL) that were slated to be shut down because of budget cuts. I’ll never forget the time we spent together, sitting-in at NYPL’s Columbia Branch, housed in one of the university buildings. We were given one of Miriam’s teach-ins, an important tutorial on community organizing and library support.

Miriam’s famous “Mississippi Summer” in the November 1965 School Library Journal
(p. 31 – 33)
chronicles her visit to the Freedom Libraries set up in Mississippi to help inform the Civil Rights Movement. Miriam was one of the organizers of the Friends of the Freedom Libraries, and she went to Mississippi to connect with the libraries and the movement and report back to supporters in the North.

Even in retirement, Miriam worked for a couple of years as a librarian at the inner-city Borough of Manhattan Community College Library, and she continued to be active in local and national activist groups like the Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG). My last special time with her was at a PLG meeting on the Upper West Side of Manhattan a few months ago. Once again I watched as she warmly mentored younger activists, tutored me in a few more affectionate but earnest lessons on how to promote our shared causes, and gave me new hope, once again.

It will be more difficult to work in a library world without Miriam Braverman. It was from her that so many of us received rejuvenating optimism and found the proof in her example that by taking action a person, a librarian, can change the world for the better.