Librarian; Educator;Writer; Scholar
The service of Edward Christopher Williams as a librarian was of a high order. He became the first documented African American graduate of library science. Williams revolutionized librarianship and library education. President Charles F. Thwing of Western Reserve University (WRU) said this concerning Williams, “I believe him to be the best man in Cleveland and among the best of any librarians.”
Edward Christopher Williams was born of mixed racial parentage on February 11, 1871, in Cleveland, Ohio. His father, Daniel P., was an African American, while his mother, Mary Kilkary Williams, an Irish.
Williams graduated from Central High School in the Cleveland public school scheme. In 1892, he attained a bachelor’s degree in Arts from Adelbert College, WRU. He graduated as valedictorian of his class and joined Phi Beta Kappa, an honorary scholastic fraternity.
Williams married Ethel Chesnutt in 1902. They had a son, Charles Waddell Chesnutt Williams. Charles became a practicing attorney in Washington, D. C., but his untimely demise did not allow him to complete his father’s biography.
Williams started a career in librarianship in 1892. He worked in Hatch Library, Adelbert College as an assistant librarian. In 1894, he was promoted to head librarian and served until 1898, when he became the University librarian.
In 1898, Williams enrolled at New York State Library for a master’s degree in librarianship. Though it was a two-year program, Williams did it in one year. He made history by becoming the first trained black librarian. He resumed his roles at WRU as an instructor and librarian until 1909.
Edward Williams resigned and became principal of the prestigious M Street School (Dunbar High School). In 1904, he was appointed as the New York State Library School Association’s vice president.
In 1916, he was designated as Howard University’s head librarian. He served as a bibliography professor and director of library training until 1921. He assumed responsibilities as German language instructor, Romance language department chair, and advocated for the need of professional personnel.
Williams made a significant landmark in writing an epistolary novel. One of his renowned writings is; A Love Story – When Washington Was in Vogue.
Williams authored “Present Condition of the Library of Adelbert College” and “A Sketch of the History” in 1901. He became an editor of Howard University Records and authored the following plays, ‘The Sheriff’s Children,’ ‘The Exile,’ and ‘The Chasm.’ He published poems, essays, and short stories with anonymity.
His outstanding performance in athletics kept him in good physical condition. He was interested in outdoor sports, mainly track and baseball.
Edward Williams was on the committee that started library science school at WRU. The school opened in 1904, and he taught bibliography, reference work, and public documents.
Williams had charter memberships with the American Library Association (ALA) and Ohio Library Association (OLA). 1928, he organized Fisk University’s first conference held in 1930 for African American librarians.
Awards and Accreditations
Williams was credited with a massive increase in collections and tremendous growth in the quality of the library at WRU. He was recognized as an expert in library organization and bibliography.
In 1929, Williams was awarded a Roosevelt fellowship for advanced study. He received the fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. He enrolled in September for a doctoral degree in the School of Library Service of Columbia University.
Shortly after beginning his Ph.D., Williams fell ill. This forced him to return to Washington in early December when his illness became severe. On December 24, 1929, he died.
However, his sudden demise did not bring an abrupt end to the accomplishments of his career. He had laid the foundations for the progress of institutions he had been associated with. His legacy for developing library facilities and training for professional service in transforming Negro institutions remains alive.
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