Poet, educator, and activist E. Ethelbert Miller has tasked librarians with finding our way.
“We must construct a moral pathway to the future,” he said. “It’s the library that pushes back. We must be truth protectors.”
Miller—who has written 12 books and two memoirs, and was director of Howard University’s African-American Resource Center for more than 40 years—was the keynote speaker at the Closing General Session of the third National Joint Conference of Librarians of Color in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on September 30. He praised the many roles and challenges that librarians of color face in society.
“You are harvesters,” said Miller. “Protectors of culture, first responders… guardians and gatekeepers, map makers and explorers.”
“There are times when a librarian of color must be a committee of one. I suspect it also means being a radical librarian. The work that you do is linked to social movements,” he said. “I know you can feel the chill in the air when you hear the words ‘fake news.’ I know you feel the chill when you hear the words ‘build the wall.’’”
Miller was also quick to acknowledge the realities of library budgets and working conditions.
“How many librarians of color retire every year? How many positions have been eliminated by budget cuts? How many work in conditions that are unsafe?” he asked. “Too often we focus on acquisitions and storage instead of the daily environment.”
He drew a parallel to the fire that consumed the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in September, where most of its 20 million items were destroyed. “A curator told the media that a fire was bound to happen one day,” he said. Miller reflected on his own experiences with building neglect: “I am not innocent, I am guilty; I might as well be a child of Brazil.”
Miller said that infrastructure, air quality, pest control, and other basic needs must be addressed so that the library can stay a sacred space—“the library is where a child tells a parent ‘not yet, I’m not ready to go.’”
“Everyone should have access to a library,” said Miller. “A house without books is a place subject to darkness.”
Miller closed his speech by reading two of his poems, and by maintaining that there is something “divine” about library work.
“Your workplace is defined by who you are,” he said. “As librarians, you must be committed to doing the heavy lifting.”