Librarian, master storyteller. Baker, the first African American to hold an administrative position in the New York Public Library, was born on April 1, 1911, in Baltimore, Maryland, the daughter of Winfort Braxton and Mabel Gough. Her father was educated at Morgan College and taught mathematics. Keeping with the custom of the times, her mother retired from elementary school teaching following Baker’s birth. Baker’s mother had a profound influence on and nurtured her love of reading and her overall education. “I was an only child, and I was fair prey, you see, for my mother to teach,” Baker noted in a 1989 interview. Baker also cited her grandmother’s influence on the development of her literary abilities: “my earliest recollection too…was a storytelling grandmother, and that may have been the seed for my later interest in storytelling.” Having developed an early love of literature and literacy, Augusta was advanced in elementary school and subsequently graduated from high school at age fifteen. She entered the University of Pittsburgh, where she met and married her first husband, James Baker. The marriage produced one son. The two moved to Albany, New York, where Baker continued her studies at New York State College for Teachers, earning a B.A. in education in 1933 and a B.S. in library science in 1934. The Baker marriage ended in divorce, and on November 23, 1944, Augusta married Gordon Alexander.
During her accomplished career as a children’s librarian with the New York Public Library, Baker received the first Dutton-Macrae Award in 1953 for advanced study of library work with children. Her knowledge and capabilities were recognized by the Georgia Teachers and Education Association (GTEA) in 1956 when they requested that she provide consultation toward the advancement of the Librarians’ Section of the organization. She later served as consultant to other organizations and programs, including the long-running television series Sesame Street. She was an early supporter and contributor to the development of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, which was first presented at the American Library Association Conference in 1970, and in 1974 she was the first African American to receive the Clarence Day Award.
In 1980 Baker joined the University of South Carolina (USC) and became “Storyteller-in-Residence.” This position was created for Baker, and her goals were to teach others how to create enthusiasm in children about stories and reading. In 1987 the city of Columbia established a yearly festival in her honor, “A(ugusta) Baker’s Dozen: A Celebration of Stories,” recognizing the importance of stories and storytelling. Through the joint efforts of the USC College of Library and Information Science and the Richland County Public Library, each celebration features authors, illustrators, storytellers, and a keynote address focusing on Baker’s lifelong dedication to the creation and expansion of African American children’s literature, the development of literacy skills among children and young adults, and the increased usage of libraries among children and adults. She received honorary doctor of letters degrees from St. John’s University in 1978 and from the University of South Carolina in 1986. Augusta Baker retired from USC in 1994 and died in Columbia on February 23, 1998.
Baker, Augusta. “My Years as a Children’s Librarian.” In The Black Librarian in America, edited by E. J. Josey. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1970.