Ringing in the new year got me thinking about how fast my time here at Syracuse University is flying by. This time last year I was finishing up my application for SU’s MSLIS program. Now I’m already in my second semester of four! As this new semester unfolds, I realize that although I have been inside all of the SU libraries on campus, (thanks LISSA leadership team for giving first-year students a tour on orientation day), I have yet to learn about the unique histories of the different libraries, as well as their various collections.

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this month, and Black History month right around the corner, plus the peaceful protests around the world as of late, I thought— where better to visit than the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on campus for this month’s “Library Friday”?

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Angela Williams— the full-time librarian on staff at the MLK Jr. Library, who came to Syracuse University in 1998. In talking to Angela, I learned about the student started collection housed in Sims Hall— a space that was at one time all dorm rooms— and became familiar with Angela’s efforts. I learned about her conjunction with community organizations, SU professors, and students, to ensure that the library continues to evolve.

A brief history of the collection

When Angela and I first began discussing the history of the MLK Jr. Memorial Library on campus, Angela shared, “I was very excited about the way the library was created”.  To explain, in 1971, a group of students who were hoping to expand the ideology of Dr. King started to put together, what is now, the collection of materials housed in the MLK Jr. Library on campus. Said students came together with limited funds, but a whole lot of heart. They began by filling a single shelf in a professor’s office with books. Impressively, from 1970 to 1993 the library was run entirely by students and grew tremendously over the years as renovations in Sims Hall allowed for more space.

Today, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is a part of the Syracuse University Libraries system. This means that a student can look up resources in the library itself, or while in Bird Library, or remotely. The library contains somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 volumes. A moderate sized media collection consisting of documentaries and popular titles, as well as three special collections: the Harriet Tubman Collection, the Ford Foundation Collection, and a Rare and Autographed Books Collection. The Ford Collection is the largest of the three and contains books on gender, black feminism, and environmental justice.

Current students are still inspired by the students who started the library back in the 70s. According to Angela, “Each year as students graduate and leave campus, they pay homage to the library’s beginnings by donating something. Whether it be a book, artwork, a plant— it is all very special and we very much appreciate it.”

What is your personal background and ideologies as a librarian?

Angela received her ALA-accredited MLS degree from the University of North Texas. When I asked Angela what made her pursue a career in librarianship, she replied, “I actually started off as a student worker in a college library, and then developed a passion for it”. Excitingly, Angela has worked in several different settings— a law library, a public library, a community college library— and the list goes on. While enrolled in library school, her focus was the Management of Information Agencies, and prior to that, Angela studied the Social Sciences.

When Angela became the librarian at the MLK Jr. Memorial Library at SU, she made some notable changes. She implemented viable library policies and expanded the collection. She made sure that even though the library was growing and changing, it continued to support the department of African American studies (AAS). Most importantly, Angela kept the idea of ‘access’ at the forefront of every decision she made. Angela urged, “It is our mission as librarians to provide access to resources. If you are at a great university, you should have access to great resources.”

In the introductory course, IST 511: Introduction to the Library and Information Profession, use LIS students cover the topic of ‘space’ in libraries. Angela’s mantra is, “If you build it, they will come,” in hopes that the MLK Jr. Memorial Library can grow in the near future.

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What are some projects you help students with and/or reference queries you receive?

“A lot of graduate students visit the library to view the rare items. We get a lot of students from the Social Sciences & Humanities, including the Women’s Studies program, Communication and Rhetorical Studies, African American Studies, as well as the Pan-African Studies program, who come in to do research. In some cases, students have a requirement to work with a librarian in order to qualify their research. Students from SUNY ESF find great use of the Ford collection, too, because of the environmental justice piece.”

Over the past two years, 35 Fulbright Scholars at SU used the MLK Jr. collection. They use it to supplement their knowledge of local sites related to the Underground Railroad. Currently, the MLK Jr. Memorial Library is a part of a community project that will help restore the People’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in downtown Syracuse, a site with historic ties to the Underground Railroad.

What do you think the library profession can do to better celebrate diversity?

“Well, there is a huge push by ALA to establish cultural competence. And it even goes back to one of S.R. Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Librarianship: The library is a growing organism. This means that we, as librarians, have to do a lot in order to honor our growing communities. We serve as a repository that documents their contributions to our country.”

Angela went on to say, “I believe libraries must hire subject specialists. How will a librarian support and provide a safe space for a Vietnamese community, for example, if he or she cannot speak the language or is not well-versed in the culture? Not only will the librarian’s specialty and background help give those patrons cultural ownership, but it will empower them to take ownership of their role as players in American society, too.”

On the topic of library resources transitioning from physical to mainly digital, Angela offered this. “The problem is, librarians must assist users in platforms that may not be too user-friendly. We didn’t create the programs that people are now using, so we are working even harder to help patrons navigate them. Everything is online now, which makes everything seemingly easier to do. But what happens when it’s not actually that easy? What happens when low-income or unemployed or elderly patrons fall behind and are not so adaptive to using these technologies? That’s when a librarian’s role as a facilitator is so crucial.”

Even though the MLK Jr. Memorial Library is an extension of the AAS department, Angela claims that students from all backgrounds frequent the library and are drawn to it for its unique collections. “I think our patronage represents Dr. King’s notion of a common community. All students are welcome here, and they all feel comfortable working in the space together.”