Taliah Abdullah, new Gloria Coles Flint Public Library director: “Community is at the heart of who I am”

By Canisha Bell and Jan Worth-Nelson

“I believe in community – community is at the heart of who I am as an individual, what I believe in and why I became a librarian.”

That’s how Taliah Abdullah, executive director of the Gloria Coles Flint Public Library since July 24, described her commitments and values in a wide-ranging recent interview with East Village Magazine.

Abdullah, finishing her second month as the library’s top executive, said one of her most important priorities as she delves into her work is listening — listening to how the people of the community are using the library, how they would like to use it, and how to join in future conversations of “shared visioning.”

Settling in to her fifth floor apartment with her golden doodle in one of downtown’s old buildings, Abdullah said she finds Flint “amazing and very welcoming.”

“I walk out the door and decide which direction I’m walking in, just to be able to learn the city.  As I meet people I’m asking them for recommendations of where I should go or do.  I’ve found everyone to be so welcoming.”

And as for her role in the library, “My vision is to have some community conversations and together [with the community] talk about what does the library mean to you, as an individual — and  how can the library support you and your family?”

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She anticipates having those conversations both inside the library and through outreach into the community. “What I’m doing now is figuring out who are those people that i need to talk to” – both community leaders and those who do not yet have a seat at the table,” she said.

In an hour-long conversation, Abdullah talked about the history of her passion for literacy and  libraries,  the future of the book and reading, the implications of book banning, and  most of all, how to make sure the library, reopened in 2022 after a transformative $21 million renovation, is an inclusive and welcoming environment.

Library love started early

Abdullah’s love of libraries began early in life. Growing up as one of six children –four girls and two boys — in Champaign, IL, she said, “I was at the library like once a week. We had a neighborhood branch and we had our main branch.…Our parents took us there every week – it was just part of what we did.”

Following her passion for literacy, she began her college career in elementary education.  She said she  did not realize then that librarianship could be a career.

But something significant changed all that. While student teaching at an elementary school in Champaign, IL, Abdullah met, for the first time, an African American school librarian.  Her name was Dorothy Vickers – Shelley.  She told Abdullah she could be a librarian, that there was a career available for something she already loved.

For the first time, Abdullah said, she could see herself, as an African American,  in that role.

It was  “huge, HUGE,” Abdullah recalled.

“I finished my student teaching that semester and enrolled in library school the next semester… I chose elementary education [for undergrad] because I knew that I wanted to do something with literacy, but once I found librarianship was a career opportunity I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”

She always remembered that life-changing librarian,  and went back years later to thank her  for “this amazing career that she really helped me to realize.”  Vickers-Shelley has since died, but her legacy continues to be honored.

Reflecting on her career trajectory, Abdullah said “Working as a school librarian was definitely in my top three careers that I’ve had – being the heart of the school, knowing the names of all the children, knowing the families, supporting the educators.”

But the transition to a public library system in Colorado opened up other doors, preparing Abdullah for the opportunities she sees ahead in Flint.

What about the book?

She said she knows that while the future of the book may mean differing formats and different platforms, reading itself is far from going out of style.

“People are always reading,” she said. “The format is just different….Young people on social media are reading posts — that’s considered reading.  as people are playing video games, might have to read instructions—that’s reading.

“So I think books will always be here – people  are going through a transition of how they are engaging with book.  For some people, myself included, the print book will always be near and dear to them.

“The nice thing about that is that we have so many different opportunities for people to engage with reading, whether that’s a traditional print copy, or reading from your phone, or Ebooks or audio books  I love a print copy, and  – I also love listening to books, or have somebody read to me – I love to have a narrator.”

Nurturing the joy of reading

Part of nurturing a love of reading, she suggested, has to do with how students are invited into the pleasures of it.

“There is something with our educational system where sometimes we do young people a disservice, when people get away from reading because they are forced to read certain material because the things they have to read are not engaging — or their schoolwork keeps them so busy that they don’t have time for pleasurable reading.

“I see my role as a public librarian  is to have conversations with educators – just to get them to think about the joy of reading, and fostering and encouraging the joy of reading in students.  One important aspect of that, she suggested, is what reading looks like after high school.

“After people are not as busy…sometimes people come back to the library after high school, when people don’t have to do the formal learning, when they don’t HAVE to do the expected reading.   It’s important for parents, caregivers, educators to think expansively about reading – people should be able to read whatever they want without judgement.”

Book bans are “destructive”

Abdullah spoke out strongly on the implication of book bans.

“I believe very strongly in intellectual freedom,” she said. “People should be free, should be able to receive the information that they need.

‘We know that not everything is for everyone, and I should be free to make that choice of what I need, and you should be free to make the choice of what you need.  So just because I may not be interested in a certain topic or a particular book, okay, that shouldn’t impact your ability to have access to that information.  I believe very strongly in access to information, and that that is a personal decision.”

“Book bans are destructive,” she said. “They’re destructive for people’s access – and book bans often impact marginalized groups.”

So far the Flint library system has been spared attacks from book banners, and Abdullah is clear: When book bans hit libraries, the implications can be  dire. Historically , she said,  libraries impact underserved groups,  “and so,  if we’re taking material away where people can see themselves… where they can get necessary information to help them live their healthiest, most fulfilled lives, you’re impacting people’s ability to live the way that they need to live.

There’s “a level of privilege” at play for people who choose to participate in book bans,  she said, and that extends into cultural implications.

The “erasure” of history:  that’s what book banning does, she asserted, along with the erasure of information for people who want it – for example, people who are finding their way related to identity.

 “If they are unable to see themselves in the library, in literature, and choose to get it somewhere else, we have to deal with the misinformation.  At least if it’s in the library, it’s accurate.  There’s a skill to be able to navigate the internet – all resources are not the same.”

Addressing the intimidation factor

Part of Abdullah’s job, she acknowledges, is helping penetrate the “intimidation factor” of coming into the library.

“Even for me who’s comfortable in libraries, who’s comfortable in most spaces, It can be intimidating,”  she observed. But she has plans to address that.

“You have to have staff who are welcoming, who make eye contact with you when you walk in the door…my vision internally for us as a library team is that we are greeting people when they walk in the door, we’re acknowledging people –

“There’s something about being seen that creates a sense of value…walking people where they need to go, not just pointing.  That’s the foundation :a welcoming, inclusive, accessible space, and it starts with our staff members, it starts with having that shared expectation.

“I want us to be that space where you walk in, you feel seen, you feel valued, you feel celebrated –  we want to thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come into this space…cause there are other spaces that you could be in.”

“Word will spread”

“Word travels,” she noted.  “if people have a negative experience, it will be shared widely – it’s important that we have as many positive experiences in the library – when somebody is talking to their family or their neighbor oh, I went to the library and they were so nice…Once people have positive experiences with us in the community…word will spread.”

Though her roots, family and educationally were in Illinois, Abdullah came to Flint from the Arapahoe Library District in Englewood, CO.  She has worked in academic, school, and public libraries in multiple states, holding management positions for 20 years.

She said initially Michigan was “not even on my radar before applying for this position.  I saw the job posting, came to visit, saw the library and interacted with some staff members here and thought, okay, I can do this.”

And now Flint is her home, and she makes clear she is eager to learn more about it and about what people want from the library.

“I’m really looking forward to the outreach, being able to talk to people…”  she said.

“I hope people will take the time to hear my story and learn the library story and allow me to hear their stories.”

“I know how difficult it can be for people to think about an outsider coming in, you know, like ‘what do you know about Flint?”

But she said she is eager to listen and learn, and is fully committed to finding out, as she stated, “How folks/community are currently using the library, how they would like to use the library, and to join in future conversations of shared visioning.

EVM Reporter Canisha Bell can be reached at canishajbell@gmail.com.

EVM Consulting Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at janworth1118@gmail.com.

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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