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William Gibbons: Archivist for All Seasons
Byline: Irene Gashurov/staff writer, OLS.
As a man of faith, William Gibbons believes things happen for a reason. So, there’s an irony that he nearly missed the phone call from the ALA President about getting the ALA “I Love My Librarian Award” or knew that such an award existed.
This year in January, Gibbons, who is associate professor and curator of archives and special collections at City College of New York, was recognized with the American Library Association’s prestigious national public service prize, “I Love My Librarian Award,” for the care he brings to his local and campus communities, and for helping forge paths for CUNY students to become future educators through the Black Male Initiative. Gibbons was one of the ten honorees selected from more than 1,300 nominations from library users across the country. (watch ALA award presentation)
“It’s really humbling to be recognized for your hard work,” Gibbons said. “I’ve done amazing things that I haven’t really thought about as I do them. Mostly what I do every day and all day is helping people. I don’t have time to pat myself on the back for that.”
Community has been central to Gibbons. Growing up in Detroit, where most people were of African descent, Gibbons was nurtured by an African American community that sustained and contained him. As a child, he thought that African Americans “ruled the world” because the politicians, business people, and clergy were all people of color. At the same time, he lived with the instability of a troubled home life in a city that in the 1980s was known as a murder capital of America. His excellent academics transformed into his ticket out. He won a scholarship to the University of Michigan determined to return and fix Detroit.
After graduating from Michigan, he headed to New York to study urban policy and live in Harlem. “Harlem was where I wanted to be,” he said. “I wanted to walk the streets where the most famous writers, artists, activists, and politicians have walked the same streets”. He found work as a youth counselor at Saint John the Divine. On his lunch breaks, he’d visit the local branch library and talk to the librarian. When Gibbons told him he wanted to write, the librarian encouraged him to pursue a library career, a fitting métier for an aspiring writer. Gibbons took his advice and earned his degree at the Pratt Institute while working as children’s librarian at NYPL, exercising his storytelling gifts and getting children excited about books.
Gibbons is a rare thing, a storyteller. “If people ask me today who I am, sometimes if I want to be cool and smooth, I’ll tell them I’m an archivist,” he said, “but I’m really a children’s librarian at heart. I’m a professional storyteller. I’ve learned the art.”
At CCNY he is archivist, curating private book collections of prominent African American scholars, such as the historians William Loren Katz and John Henrik Clarke, who have shaped our society, but history has overlooked. Gibbons trained in documenting the African American experience when he worked at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture before coming to CCNY. Uncovering things that were deemed unimportant and ignored inspired him to teach a course at CCNY he called “The Evidence of Things Unseen: Art, Archives and Harlem,” which examines the Harlem Renaissance. It is conducted in part at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as a research workshop that gives students hands-on experience with archival collections and digital publishing.
Besides his archival and professorial work, Gibbons spends time teaching students the foundational skill of finding a book on the shelf. “Finding a book is one of the most powerful and uplifting things. When you have millions of books in a space, but you can find exactly your book on the shelf on your own, that’s a skill set for life.”
Looking forward, his plans for CUNY are not surprisingly based in community. He sees a need for CUNY libraries to collaborate and reimagine themselves for a post-COVID world, because institutions, like people, can achieve more working together than they can alone. “We need to think together collectively, diversify our collections, and really, you know, begin to think as one with our own unique spaces and connect our collections.”