Library Leaders: Pura Belpré

In library school, you learn about many important leaders, trailblazers, researchers, and more who have shaped the field of librarianship.  Your area of specialization can often determine who you learn about and it’s important as a library school student to be aware of leaders in both your preferred area and in ones that aren’t as familiar. As someone focused on children’s services in public librarianship, I enjoy learning about the history of children’s librarianship and librarians who made new paths for communities who had not previously been well served. A new picture book highlights one such leader, Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. You may have heard her name recently if you followed the 2019 Youth Media Awards, as an award in her name is given each year to “a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

Planting Stories

Cover of Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré 

This picture book biography, Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré, is a beautifully told and illustrated review of Belpré’s life and service to children through stories, Spanish, and puppets. Written by Anika Aldamuy Denise and illustrated by Paula Escobar, this book is an homage to libraries and Belpré’s creative stories. Upon working at the New York Public Library, Belpré realized that there were no books in Spanish in the library! According to this book and other sources (see the end of this piece for more), Belpré wrote her own books and created her own storytime traditions and activities in Spanish. She brought her Puerto Rican heritage to her work in the library to enrich and encourage the lives of others.

The book itself sprinkles in Spanish words throughout the English text. There’s no italics here: no othering of the Spanish language. Instead, context guides the placement of Spanish words, making it easy for a non-Spanish speaker to understand a sentence that includes a Spanish word.

This book is an homage to Belpré’s life, to libraries, to books, to sharing stories and cuentos. As the title says, Belpré planted stories in her work at the library. The work she did and that this book celebrates lives on today in the way that many libraries celebrate and honor different cultures at Storytime and other kinds of programs. As some of the upsetting stories of the experiences of many people of color at ALA Midwinter shared on Twitter and elsewhere remind us, though, libraries of all kinds still have a long way to go in this area.  As library school students, we need to learn about the leaders who have come before us while also working to become the leaders who will make necessary changes in our field.

For further reading about Pura Belpré:

Tribute of Pura Belpré by illustrator Rafael López

Pura Belpré Life and Legacy from Colorin Colorado

Lib Guides about Pura Belpré from CUNY

Biography of Pura Belpré from Reforma

Pura Belpré Medal

Sarah Davis is a Bilingual (English/Spanish) Youth Librarian at a public library in Oklahoma and an MLIS student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.

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