Letters from the Road - Day 4

Holding Space: Strengthening Communities and Developing Leaders at HBCU Libraries

Hello from Pine Bluff,

Today I had the pleasure of hosting a town hall at the John Brown Watson Memorial Library at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, spotlighting the significant role of Historically Black College and University Libraries (HBCU) in shaping the future of libraries, students, and developing the library leaders of tomorrow.

For today’s discussion entitled “Strengthening Communities and Developing Leaders at HBCU Libraries,” we were joined by an esteemed group of leaders, activists, and legends in librarianship.

Our panel included Edward Fontenette, director of the John Brown Watson Memorial Library; Dr. Jessie Carney Smith, Dean Emeritus of the Library, Fisk University; Shauntee Burns-Simpson, President of BCALA (the Black Caucus of the American Library Association); Andrew “Sekou” Jackson, Executive Director Emeritus, Queens Library's Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center, and Trustee, Queens Public Library; and Kathy Anderson, Director, D.W. Reynolds Library & Technology Center, Philander Smith College.

Our conversation was conducted under the banner of “Holding Space,” and I think it’s particularly important to hold space and help people understand how the current moment—both the impact of the pandemic on communities of color and the civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd--has impacted communities and libraries. It is the library profession’s time to engage communities through education and lifelong learning, and to empower the leaders of tomorrow.

Social justice is a topic that is close to my heart and one that is especially relevant on a day when we have laid to rest Congressman John Lewis, a great leader whose life was influenced by his experience as a student at Fisk University, a Historically Black University founded barely six months after the Civil War and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Fisk’s first students came from backgrounds of slavery and poverty, but were fueled by an insatiable appetite for learning. Access to information and academic achievement inspired and activated students and many who became the national leaders of color we know today.

Dr. Smith, along with other longstanding leaders in HBCU librarianship, as well as some rising stars, shared experiences within university libraries that clearly illustrate how HBCU libraries shape leaders and not just with their student bodies.

Faculty rely on the expertise of academic librarians. HBCU libraries play an important part in scholarship. In particular, they play a unique and important role in preserving history that is not always visible in white institutions.

As a Howard University alumnus, where I was influenced by the presence of and access to scholars and guidance from librarians at Founders Library, there is little doubt that HBCU libraries develop leaders within their communities, but we need to continue cultivating within the profession as a whole.

As part of its ongoing commitment to furthering equity, diversity and inclusion in librarianship, ALA’s Spectrum Scholarship Program, which actively recruits and provides scholarships to American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern and North African and/or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students to assist them with obtaining a graduate degree and leadership positions within the profession and ALA.

It was great to hear from Bradley Kuykendall, Reference & Instruction Librarian, Lincoln University, and a member of my presidential advisory committee, who moderated the discussion, talk about his experiences as a Spectrum Scholar. He said the program brought him into contact with people with similar experiences and challenges. He looks forward to giving back by helping other Black librarians.

I would also like to congratulate the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) on 50 years of excellence. I appreciated hearing from BCALA president Shauntee Burns-Simpson, who shared information about BCALA’s plans for the 51st anniversary celebration in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from July 28 through August 1, with the theme “Culture Keepers XI the Sankofa Experience: Inspired by Our Past, Igniting Our Future.” It will include a tour of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street.

I look forward to BCALA’s celebration next year, but in the meantime, it is important to mark this milestone for an organization that has profoundly impacted me, the panelists who participated today, and so many other librarians around the country.

Jackson spoke about such inspirational figures as BCALA founder Dr. E. J. Josey, who spawned his activism. He said BCALA is necessary because there is still work to be done.

Fontenette talked how his library offers a program called Student Success and noted that the school encourages its librarians to have second master’s degrees. He also discussed the library’s work in restoring the John H. Johnson. Johnson Delta Cultural and Entrepreneurial Center and Complex, a center for community education and empowerment.Panelists spoke about their commitment to the future of the profession. Anderson said she likes to be a mentor to her students so they are able to become role models themselves.lift

As we wrapped up, Burns-Simpson emphasized the need to focus on collaboration and fundraising efforts that will influence decisions within political, economic, and social institutions.

“So the status quo is no good anymore. Words need to be followed by action. We have to hold folks accountable. We can’t afford not to. Like John Lewis said, ‘Get in some good trouble.’ It’s necessary trouble. We need it at this time.”

This was my fifth stop on an exciting 12-stop virtual tour, Holding Space: A national conversation series with libraries. My goal is to spotlight how libraries of all kinds across the country are addressing the needs of their diverse communities and engaging stakeholders to advocate for libraries.

To learn more about the library communities’ efforts to support diversity and inclusion please visit ALA’s Libraries Respond page.

Also, it is not too late to join us for future dynamic discussions. Visit the Holding Space website at http://www.ala.org/advocacy/holding-space to register or follow #ALAHoldingSpace for tour updates.