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Amanda Zimmerman, Reference Librarian, Reference and Reader Services, Rare Book and Special Collections Division
Elizabeth Gettins, Digital Conversion Specialist, Library Services
Created: February 11, 2022
Last Updated: February 14, 2022
Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994) was born in Oklahoma City and studied at Tuskegee Institute in 1933-36. During the Depression he participated in the New York City Writers' Project under the Works Progress Administration. He served with the U.S. Merchant Marine from 1943 to 1945 and married Fanny McConnell in 1946. During a long and distinguished literary career he taught at the following universities and colleges: Bard (1958-61), Chicago (1961), Rutgers (1962-64), Yale (1966), and New York University (1970-79), as well as Columbia, Fisk, Antioch, Princeton and Bennington. He served as the Library of Congress' Honorary Consultant in American Letters from 1966 to 1972.
Although Ellison published a number of short stories and numerous essays, including the collections Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), much of his reputation rests on the novel Invisible Man. Published in 1952, this novel became the pioneer work of fiction for the genre of African American literature. It won the National Book Award in 1953 and can be credited with stimulating a vital strain of ethnic fiction, drama and poetry in the United States that has flourished since. Ellison's seminal novel portrays the inner realities of a black youth as he moves from the South to the North and then underground. It is considered a major achievement in both American and world literature.
The unique materials of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, now totaling over 1 million items, include books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. At the center is Thomas Jefferson's book collection, which was sold to Congress in 1815. The Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room is modeled after Philadelphia's Independence Hall. This room is home to the divisional catalogs, reference collection, and reference staff. Collections are stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults.