I’ve always felt that Augusta Baker belonged to me. Usually I don’t tell people about such impertinence. It would be like my saying that Louisa May Alcott was a personal friend, or that I knew Betty Smith of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN fame.
Augusta Baker was a children’s librarian for the New York Public Library when I was growing up. Not only did she live in St. Albans, Queens, not far from where I lived, but as a teenager, I worked as a page, shelving books, in our little storefront library there, which was part of NYPL. Often I listened to stories Miss Bailey, the librarian, told me about writers and stories and librarians she admired.
I don’t remember when I first heard about Augusta Baker, I don’t remember when I heard her tell a story to enraptured children. But I do remember that I thought it would be the best thing in the world to tell stories and have children listen.
There was something else. I read that Augusta talked about her love of story having to do with her grandmother. “One of the ways my grandmother kept me quiet was to tell me stories,” she said.
That reminded me of my own grandmother.
Years later, I spoke at a conference in Athens, Georgia, and that evening—a magical evening—I sat in a living room, listening to Augusta tell her stories. We shared memories of St. Albans and the New York Public Library, (which also belongs to me.)
Augusta would have been one-hundred this year, born in April, as I was. What an honor to have been asked to speak at the festival honoring her at the Richland Public Library in Columbia. Augusta belonged to the people of South Carolina. After she retired from the New York Public Library, she became the storyteller-in-residence at the University of South Carolina.
I loved the A(ugusta)Baker’s Dozen conference and listening to Leonard Marcus presentation about the emergence of realistic fiction in which Augusta had such an important part. Listening to the storytellers and watching the children who were absorbed in those stories was a joy.
The dedication of the librarians reminded me of my own beloved Miss Bailey. So is it possible then for me to say that those librarians and the Richland Public Library belong to me?