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Civil Rights Activist, Trailblazing Librarian

The Story Behind Pauline Robinson

 

By Sierra Fleenor, Executive Director, GPHC

Pauline Robinson, Denver Public Library’s first African American librarian, was inducted into the Colorado Black Hall of Fame in 1973. Born in 1915, Robinson was an N.A.A.C.P. freedom activist in her college years, and was responsible for the integration of Lakeside Amusement Park. She was the coordinator of Children’s Services for DPL. She died in 1997, the year after the Pauline Robinson library branch opened in Holly Square. Photo credit: Denver Public Library/Western History and Genealogy Department

At the corner of 33rd Avenue and Holly Street, a one-story, red brick building stands. Looking in from the outside, this unimposing library contains many more books and activities than one might assume. Mary Poppins-esque in its ability to stretch so few resources so far, this small library is a hub of activity in Northeast Park Hill.

As detailed in Denver historian Phil Goldstein’s book Park Hill Promise, beginning in the 1950s, Northeast Park Hill had long desired library services in the community, but was met with resistance. City Councilman Kenneth MacIntosh, who served from 1959 to 1980 and represented the neighborhood, even went so far as to claim that those living in the north of his district did not read.

The African American community responded by fighting fervently for library access in Northeast Park Hill. That resulted in the Dahlia branch, which opened in 1968. In the early 1990s, while the Park Hill branch on Montview Boulevard was temporarily closed, usage of the Dahlia Branch surged. The new influx of customers who were then utilizing this branch agreed with other customers who had been concerned that it was a “tiny, inadequate facility.”

Eventually this frustration led to a push to build a new library branch for the northern part of Park Hill.

Recommending books, of course

Built in 1995-1996 to meet these public demands, Pauline Robinson Library bears the name and the pioneering legacy of Denver Public Library’s first African American librarian. When Pauline Robinson became its first African American librarian in 1943, she not only broke the color barrier, but did so despite being repeatedly told she could not. When Robinson was deciding to go to the University of Denver’s School of Librarianship, a librarian discouraged her from doing so because there would never be a professional black librarian working for DPL.

Robinson’s autobiographical writing can be viewed at her namesake library: “This was too much,” she noted. “Twice in one day I had been told that no Negroes would be hired by two major institutions. I told her that you have made my mind up. I am going to library school.”

Throughout her 36-year career, Robinson spearheaded reading programs for children, setting a national precedent, and developed programs for black customers. Beginning in 1947, Robinson fought not only to create the first Black History Week, but also to obtain books on African American history and culture, reportedly using not only her own funds, but also selling 150 home-baked pies to raise $40 to purchase the collection.

Robinson retired in 1979, having received numerous awards and recognitions for her remarkable achievements.

When the new library in Holly Square was being built, DPL reached out to customers to gauge interest in a name. Robinson’s name was mentioned throughout the process and the library system took this as an opportunity to honor one of their own. Robinson was able to attend the opening of her namesake library and, ever a librarian, took time from her speech to recommend several books to the audience gathered. Since its opening in 1996, Pauline Robinson Library has become a mainstay in Holly Square and Northeast Park Hill.

‘It was just us and Hiawatha’

Leslie Williams became head librarian at the library she describes as “a vibrant space” in September, 2013. While Pauline Robinson doesn’t often get credited with it, Williams says, the library was at the forefront of the revitalization of Holly Square.

“It was just us and Hiawatha [Davis Jr. Recreation Center] for a long time,” she says. Even then, the library offered exceptional programming, including two programs that continue to thrive today: After School is Cool and the Pauline Robinson Book Club. After School is Cool is a program for 8 to 12 year-olds that has been in existence for more than 10 years. It runs in the afternoons, from 4:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m., giving youth access to arts and crafts. The Pauline Robinson Book Club has existed for over 15 years and meets the fourth Saturday of each month from noon to 1 p.m. Participants read a book selected by the group and engage in lively conversation. All are welcome to join.

Upon her arrival, Williams quickly identified what she could and would bring to the library that wasn’t there before: increased adult programming. Among other activities such as a gardening for pollinators workshop and get-to-know your neighbors events, Williams brought a focus on technological assistance and education. In lieu of classes on these topics, she decided to provide one-on-one appointments, which have been greatly utilized by community members.

“We do a lot with a little,” says Williams, whose small team of eight provides more than 100 youth programs, 25 adult programs, and over 25 one-on-one technological appointments for customers each year.

Walking tour planned for Sept. 9

If you’ve never been to Pauline Robinson Branch Library, you can join them for one of their upcoming events. On Aug. 4 from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. they are hosting a Denver Days Launch Party with live music, activities for kids and adults, food, and prizes. This is a great opportunity to have some fun while getting to know a resource in your neighborhood. “We want the whole neighborhood to join us,” Williams says.

And, on Sept. 9 beginning at 11 a.m., Pauline Robinson Branch and Park Hill Branch library staff are teaming up for a walking tour of Park Hill. Together with participants, they will be walking from Pauline Robinson to Park Hill and back (a 3.42 mile loop), discussing the history of the neighborhood, viewing Little Free Libraries, and exploring other resources. The hope is that neighbors will realize “how close the two libraries are and how we provide balance in the neighborhood,” says Williams. (You can sign up by calling either branch, at 720-865-0250 or 720-865-0290).

To those of you still hesitant to engage with the library, Williams invites you to stop by and check it out. “You’d be surprised by what you can find in here.”


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