Welcome to Shhh…Secrets of the Librarians, a new series (inspired by our long-running Secrets of the Book Critics) in which bibliothecaries (yes, it’s a real word) from around the country share their inspirations, most-recommended titles, thoughts on the role of the library in contemporary society, favorite fictional librarians, and more. Each week we’ll spotlight a librarian—be they Academic, Public, School, or Special—and bring you into their wonderful world.
This week, we spoke to the founder of the Free Black Women’s Library, OlaRonke Akinmowo.
Book Marks: What made you decide to become a librarian?
OlaRonke Akinmowo: I have to say that I do not have a master’s degree in Library Sciences or any official training and did not go to school to become a librarian, I started the Free Black Women’s Library as a social art project to because I wanted to do something that smashed together the things I am passionate about: books, black womanhood, and community. I wanted to explore the idea of using books by black women to build community, create change, educate, heal, inspire spread joy. I wanted to do something that centered black women but in a way that didn’t feel tragic, traumatic or pathological, something that showed our brilliance, imagination, strength and diversity. I love books and I love libraries, they feel like one of the few safe places on earth (depending on who is running the space).
BM: What book do you find yourself recommending the most and why?
OA: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler because it feels very relevant to what is happening in the world today.
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde because it offers a brilliant and accessible foundation around the importance and layers of Black (intersectional) Feminism. The essays and speeches help to provide a deep necssary analysis around the dangers of racism, sexism, classism and poverty.
The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon for young adults because its a sweet and well written love story for teens that doesn’t involve, drug addiction, poverty, violence, murder, police violence, rape, physical abuse and all the other awful stuff that seems to take place in YA fiction for Black readers.
BM: Tell us something about being a librarian that most people don’t know?
OA: It’s one of the coolest jobs in the world and requires knowing about more than just books, it requires people skills and being very very detailed. Librarians love to research and share information. Librarians are stewards of knowledge who help to create the frameworks for how society views art, history and culture.
BM: What is the weirdest/most memorable question you’ve gotten from a library patron?
OA: “Where is your erotica? My grandma only likes to read erotica…”
BM: What role does the library play in contemporary society?
OA: It is a social site, an infinite resource, a place for people to learn new skills for free.
A place to study, take naps, connect with members of the community, use computers and the internet.
A place to get books and other media of all kinds for free, a safe space for children and elders to spend time alone or with friends.
It’s a community hub that provides ethical access to information.
BM: Who is your favorite fictional librarian?
OA: Zelda Schiff from The Magicians and Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl
OlaRonke Akinmowo is an interdisciplinary artist, set decorator, yoga teacher and Black Feminist scholar. Her research and artistic practice focuses on exploring and uncovering the complexities and intersections of race, culture, spirituality and gender. She works primarily in collage, paper, print and installation, and is guided by nature, sacred rituals, history and imagination. She is also the Creator and Director of The Free Black Women’s Library, an interactive mobile trading library that features a collection of 1200 books written by Black women, as well as performance, poetry readings, film screenings, creative workshops and critical conversation. She has received fellowships and grants from Culture Push, The Laundromat Project, Center for Whole Communities, Brooklyn Artists Council, The Awesome Foundation and Robert Blackburn Printmaking Shop.