Adding Value to People's Lives Via Librarianship, Ep. 211

By NYPL Staff
February 24, 2022

Welcome to The Librarian Is In, The New York Public Library's podcast about books, culture, and what to read next.

Augusta Savage with her sculpture "Realization." NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 56806039

Welcome, all! We're excited to bring you our second guest of 2022. This week Crystal and Frank chat with AJ Muhammad, the Head Reference Librarian in the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  

AJ recounted his journey to being a librarian, some of the holdings of the Schomburg Center, and his responsibilities working in such a specialized library. In his free time, AJ is a dramaturg and works with The Fire This Time festival and Classix

Here is AJ's book recommendation:

Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor's Lifeby Marilyn Nelson

Augusta Savage was arguably the most influential American artist of the 1930s. She flourished during the Harlem Renaissance, became a teacher to an entire generation of African American artists, including Jacob Lawrence, and would go on to be nationally recognized as one of the featured artists at the 1939 World's Fair. Deftly written and brimming with photographs of Savage's stunning sculpture, this is an important portrait of an exceptional artist who, despite the limitations she faced, was compelled to forge a life through art and creativity. (Publisher summary)

You can see an item of Augusta Savage's work at the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures at the 42nd Street location. 

AJ also read aloud some of Their Eyes Were Watching God and challenged Frank and Crystal to guess what book he was reading from:

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years due largely to initial audiences' rejection of its strong black female protagonist, Hurston's classic has since become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature. (Publisher summary)

Tell us what everybody's talking about in your world of books and libraries! Suggest Hot Topix(TM)! Send an email or voice memo to podcasts[at]


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[Frank] Hello, and welcome to The Librarian Is In, the New York Public Library's podcast about books, culture and what to read next. I'm Frank.

[Crystal] And I'm Crystal.

[Frank] Hi Crystal. I'm not even going to refer to it. It's been a horrific morning. But we all have horrific mornings. But I'm not -- enough about me in my morning, unfortunately. We have a guest, another fabulous guest from the library -- the world of New York Public Library. Right, Crystal?

[Crystal] Yes. I'm very excited.

[Frank] Are you? Okay, cool. Well, why don't you introduce our guest? You do it.

[Crystal] So our guest is AJ Muhammad from the Schomburg Center. And I have known AJ for a few years now. Three or four? I don't know. Time has passed very strangely. So one of my favorite people at NYPL. Other than you, of course, Frank.

[Frank] Good job. I did not know you knew each other. Hi, AJ.

[AJ] Hi, Frank. Hi, Crystal. Thanks for having me on this episode.

[Frank] Of course. Sorry it was such a nutty morning. I did not know you two knew each other. I have to say I was like, this is just -- to be a backstory to nuttiness. I was like, oh, we're interviewing the head of the Schomburg Center, because in my crazy brain, I was like, there was Khalil Muhammad, who was in charge a couple of years ago. Of course, we have a -- there's a new director, Joy Divans, which I knew. But I was like, oh, wow, the director of the Schomburg Center, we're interviewing. And then I was like, it's just the same last name. Dumb, dumb.

[Crystal] AJ is the head of the reference librarians, right? He is a head.

[AJ] Yes. So as of last fall -- so I was a librarian in the research -- at the James Blackwell Hudson Research and Reference Division. And now I'm the head reference librarian in the same division. And I've worked with Rhonda Evans, who is the Assistant Chief Librarian. And then Maira Liriano is the Associate Chief Librarian of the division.

[Frank] Listeners might know that Rhonda was once a cohost who abandoned me for all her important work at Schomburg. Whatevs. But is she you're, like, boss, your supervisor, Rhonda, or is she just a colleague?

[AJ] So the librarians report directly to Maira. And Rhonda manages the LTAs. And she manages the LTAs and the pages. So Rhonda is the second in command. So that's the structure of it.

[Frank] Wow. And your official title is Librarian 3. Is that true?

[AJ] Yeah. So I'm the head reference librarian, which is a Librarian 3 position. Yes.

[Frank] I think it's like a -- in the branches, like you're supervising or senior something. It's all a nutty hierarchy.

[Crystal] Because a lot of the internal sort of naming of our jobs are kind of weird, I think. I remember when I was in the branches, like, you'd be, like, senior librarian, but that always sounded weird when I said that publicly. Like, am I a librarian that works with senior citizens or whatever? So I would just always go by young adult librarian, which is the department. So I feel like there's always like two different names, the official name, and then what you actually do. Right?

[AJ] Yes. Yeah.

[Frank] But librarian. So I'm just curious. We always want to know we have a guest in the library is just how you got to this point in your career, like, not literally to this podcast, but, like, at your state -- your position right now at the Schomburg. Like, from the very beginning. So you're born. Then --

[Crystal] Which hospital was it?

[AJ] Well. So in terms of, you know, how I became a librarian, when I started undergrad, which was in the early '90s, I got a job as a student part time worker. I was a student at NYU. And I worked at [inaudible] Library. And so my very first library job was working as a part time student. I forgot what the position was called, but I was a student worker. And actually, in the -- I worked in the division which was -- at that time, it was called circulation. No, I'm sorry. It was course reserves, microforms and current periodicals. And the person who hired me, her name is Pat Warrington. She always tells a story how I had approached her after she had already hired everybody, but I begged her to -- I kept bugging her to hire me. So she hired me. And I worked as a student assistant. I really loved working at the library. And it was a public services -- a public facing job. So I worked a lot with the public. And Pat Warrington, who was my supervisor, she was also a mentor to me. So while I was working there, I was able to get a fulltime job in the same division. And I stayed there after I graduated. And then I think at some point, because I want -- you know, I did like working in libraries, I wondered how, like, would I be able to move up working in a library? So I began taking classes at Queens College in the MLS program as a non-matriculating student. And then I eventually matriculated into the program. And it took -- just like with everything in life, it takes me a long time to do something. So I didn't graduate undergrad -- I wasn't on the four-year plan. I was on a six-year plus plan for library school. It took me a long time. I was not on the two-year plan either. It took me longer than I thought it would. But so right when I was getting close to graduating, I was meeting up with Ray Pon, who -- Ray Pon used to work at the Schwartzman library many years ago. And then he eventually got a job at NYU as NYU Shanghai library. And so I met Ray through another colleague of mine, Stacy Williams. And I think Ray -- was I think -- I'm not sure -- I don't know -- I don't remember if he had left NYU at that point. But anyway, Ray -- as a gate opener, Ray comes to New York City every once in a while. And whenever he's in town, he tries to meet up with people. So very coincidentally -- this was, I want to say, in the summer of 2015. I was meeting with Ray at [inaudible] at 42nd street right across the street from Schwartzman Library. And while we were at [inaudible], Maira Liriano walked in, and she saw Ray. And she said, "Hey Ray." And she, you know, spoke to Ray. And Ray introduced me to Maira. And Ray told me that I was graduating from Queens College. And Maira said, you know, there's a opening at the Schomburg Center. There was an opening in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division. And she said, you know, they're interviewing for that position now. So I had applied for that position. And then someone else wound up getting hired. And then a few months after that, it just so happens that in Maira's division, which is research and reference, there was another -- someone had left unexpectedly. So Maira reached out to me and asked if I was still interested in working at the Schomburg Center. So I applied for the position. And I met with Maira and the other librarians as part of the interview. And luckily, I was hired in the position of a Librarian 2. So that's how I wound up at the Schomburg Center.

[Frank] Wow. Back up. Back to NYU, New York University for those outside of New York. And you were in the library there like as an intern, originally. And then so what was it --

[AJ] Just to clarify, I was a part time -- a part time student worker. And then I was hired as a full time library assistant.

[Frank] Oh, so like a work study thing.

[AJ] At first, right. It was a work study position. And then I became -- at NYPL, they call them LTAs or IAs. That was --

[Frank] I want to know, like, what you felt when you -- what made you like working in libraries? I mean, did you have any, like, relationship to libraries before you were work study at NYU? Or did something blossom in you when you were there?

[AJ] Well, interestingly enough, I remember I did, when I was younger, I did want to -- I think I applied to work at the library at the branch in the neighborhood where I lived, but that never panned out. But of course, you know, libraries, you know, I did have a connection to libraries. Incidentally, I do have -- I mean, I had a connection to the Schomburg Center, not through the staff, but my older brother, who was an avid researcher. He would bring me along with him to go to research trips to the Schomburg Center when I was younger. So I was familiar with the Schomburg Center through him. But of course, you know, really loving libraries and what libraries stand for and, you know, access to information and all that. So that was -- I would say that's my connection to the world of libraries.

[Frank] It's interesting if you had gotten that job in New York Public then, like, it might have turned you off libraries forever. [inaudible] had a different career path. It's interesting how that can happen.

[AJ] Well, just to add that -- so the position that I had originally applied for, it was a -- I think it was like a librarian/archivist position to work in the manuscripts division. And there was someone else who had more experience, like even as a librarian archivist. So that person wound up getting the position.

[Crystal] I do love the family connection about you going with your brother. I never knew that. And I think about that, too. Like, my own experience growing up, there was, like, family involved. And that's how my love for libraries started at a young age. I think about that with, like, teen librarianship and things like that, too. I think that's really cool. I love that.

[Frank] How did you two meet again, Crystal and AJ? [inaudible].

[Crystal] We did an emerging leaders project for ALA in 2018. Right? So that was, like, a four-month project where it was like a lot of like late night calls and meetings with our EL group. And yeah, [inaudible] is how we met.

[Frank] That's awesome.

[Crystal] The conferences and things like that.

[AJ] It was exciting. I mean, it was a wonderful opportunity to work with -- to meet Crystal and other people who are in our group, Tracy Drake, Aurelia [inaudible], Donnie Sanchez and --

[Crystal] Claire Nickerson.

[AJ] Claire Nickerson. Just, because we worked on the project about library staff learning how to work with data and library staff of all level, like, you know, getting training to work with data. And it was a top [inaudible] group of librarians around the country and just being able to collaborate. It was a wonderful experience for me. And all of the librarians, they were just -- the whole group, it was an incredible mix of talented and creative and resourceful librarians. And then getting, of course, the chance because the program started at -- in midwinter, which was in Denver. So we got to go to Denver. And that was the first time I had been to Denver. And then it culminated at ALA annual in New Orleans. So just going on those trips, it was -- two trips in one year. That was like -- I felt like a celebrity. I felt like I was on tour. Yeah.

[Crystal] It was -- it was also pre-pandemic. And our project was sponsored by the Public Library Association. So there's like a -- I think there's a free webinar that people can still view. But yeah, and we've still -- I think even recently, we did like a reunion call with all the group members. And Aisha Connor Gayton, who was somebody else that we had met as part of that cohort, was, like, fantastic. So we still keep in touch.

[Frank] So, you know, I know a lot of people who listen are always interested in what people do in the library. And AJ, you work, as we said, Schomburg Center, which is a specialized center, central library, really, for -- devoted to Black culture. It's the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, right? I mean, I work in the Center. I should know. So I want to know what it's like working in a specialized so-called library. And what generally do you -- what is -- this is the classic question. What does your day look like? What do you, like, do as a reference library in a specialized library devoted to a one giant subject?

[AJ] So the Schomburg Center is devoted to collecting materials that document the global Black experience, which is founded by -- which was -- you know, the roots of the Schomburg Center go back to the 1920s. And it goes back to the seed collection that Arturo Schomburg, Arthur Schomburg sold his -- you know, he was an Afro Puerto Rican bibliophile and lay scholar. He sold his collection of over 10,000 items to the New York Public Library, which were added to the 135th Street Library, it was called at that time. So the seed collection dates back to then. And since then, the library has continued to build and add materials that, you know, just document the Black experience around the world. So part of what I do is -- so myself and my colleagues, we each -- you know, our day is divided up by spending time at the reference desk and doing public service with people -- with walk-in researchers. We also answer reference questions through email. And then we also do collection development. So whatever -- we're looking for material for books that don't come in automatically through the approval plan to fill in gaps in terms of collection, fill in gaps in the collection. So part of what we do is we're always on the look for books that are not already here at the Schomburg Center so that they, you know, be ordered for the collection. And then, of course, working on different projects. So at any given time -- so it can be working on blog posts. It could be working on live -- is it lip guides or live guides? I always get tricked. I always get tricked.

[Crystal] Lip guides.

[AJ] Lip guides. Working on lip guides and just, you know, working on different sorts of projects. So each day, we had -- like, we do two -- I would say around two to three hours on the desk. And it's a public service facing job. So it's a lot of, you know, being on the desk and helping researchers come in to locate resources that are relevant to their research project.

[Frank] I was going to say, do -- you told this at your story. Do you think -- are you glad you're in a special library? Or do you -- like, do you interest or -- well, not glad, but, like, have you found your passion that way? Like, I love working in a branch library that's general interest that serves a very diverse crew of people with many different needs. And I think that you guys as well serve that but have a specialized topic of particular interest. I mean, has -- a special library is very intriguing to a lot of people, like, when you when you have this sort of mission to focus on one aspect of, life that is obviously huge, but that is very specific.

[AJ] Well, it ties into my research. I mean, I'm sorry, it ties into my own interests because part of what I did as a student was I was doing Africana studies. So it relates to my own areas of interest and also the performing arts. I get to do that sort of work at the Schomburg Center in terms of collection, development and working with my colleagues at the Schomburg Center. So working in a specialized library, it's exciting because it does match my own interest and then also just getting -- just getting -- having access to the collection. And you never know who -- like, you know, you never know who's going to stop by on any given basis. I remember a few years ago, Alice Walker came to the Schomburg Center. And she was -- there's a guy named Steven Fuller, who was the former curator of the manuscripts division. He was giving Ms. Walker a tour of the building. So seeing someone like Alice Walker come in, you know, and other, you know, artists and, you know, community members and other people who -- as I said, you never know who's going to stop by on any given day. And that's always very exciting as well, just hearing about somebody is in the building for another reason. One day, I remember Yahya Abdul-Mateen, who is -- he was in Watchmen, and he's been in other things. He came to do research in JVH. And I remember that was exciting because this was before Watchmen really blew up. So just, as I said, you never know who's going to stop by. Musicians, you know, artists or artists and scholars. I remember Carla Hall from the -- you know, she's an author and --

[Frank] The cook? She's a chef?

[AJ] Yes, exactly. Yes. So very early -- you know, she was working with the National -- the African American Museum in DC. So she was doing -- I think she was -- we think she was doing research for, you know, for the museum. So she stopped by. And then she was here again for another -- for a public program. And she came down to the reading room, and she was just using the reading room to read.

[Crystal] So when that happens, is there like a notification system amongst staff that's like, here's the text? Somebody is going -- you know, you run upstairs, like, peek behind a bookshelf situation.

[AJ] Well, it's funny that you mention that because I'm -- I don't think there's official, like, chain, but somehow, like, the word will probably get out, you know, to the staff.

[Frank] You know, you hit on something that I really believe in about libraries and librarianship in that when we do programs, I always exhort the librarians to actually bring their own passions to it, because I feel like that authentic passion for a subject or topic or idea translates to the public. And you find your people who need to hear about that passion. And it's rather than doing a program because you have by rote. One's personal interests, I think, are very important as a librarian. So hearing what you said, I think I know a little bit about this, but not a lot, that you're interested in theater. And you're a dramaturge and performance, because I am, too, at the library level. I always want to put on performances. I want to work with actors. I want to work with directors. I want to work with playwrights because I just think it's -- to give someone creative fulfillment and exposure is so important because I think as a library, to enhance people's creativity. Just tell us more about your theatrical endeavors I'm very interested in that. And it's sort of separate from the library. Of course, they coincide but will you tell us?

[AJ] So in addition to working at the Schomburg Center, I am also -- I've worked with the indie theatre company called Fire [inaudible] Festival. It's an Obie Award theatre company that was started in 2009 by a playwright named Kelly Gerard. And the mission of the festival is to showcase the diversity within the Black experience. And the flagship program is a 10-minute play festival every year. And I mean, I haven't worked with the festival from the beginnings. But I want to -- I knew someone who was a producer or who was in the inaugural group of playwrights who were producing who then went on to become a producer with a festival. So it's an artist named Derek McPhatter. So I -- so in supporting Derek, I was introduced to the [inaudible] Festival. And then over the years, I got to meet the founder and the executive director, Kelly Gerard. And she invited me to join the team. And then -- so I worked with them for the past few years. And the work that I do with the [inaudible] Festival is -- because it's indie theater, we all wear different hats. So it can be, you know, working on marketing, sending out e-blasts, helping to pick plays that will be produced in the 10-minute play festival. You know, doing fundraising, which is, you know, asking, you know, people, you know, who I know to donate to the festival and getting the opportunity to work with artists who are at different points in their career. It's been great. And incidentally, there's going to be an anthology of 25 of the 10-minute plays that have been produced over the past decade. It's being published by Bloomsbury. So that's going to be coming out in March of -- in the US, March 2022. So this has been great to collaborate with the other staff at the [inaudible] Festival. And the festival is based in the East Village. So the parent organization that co-presents the festival is called FRIGID New York, which produces a festival called FRIGID NYC, which is kind of like the French Festival. It's a French-type festival. Incidentally, I'm also a member of TLA, the Theatre Library Association. And one of the -- years ago, there was a member who was on e-board named Laurie Murphy. She works at NYU. And through Laurie, I got to serve on a committee for a symposium, which was in 2016. The theme of the symposium was French Festivals. And we were able to get the woman -- I'm forgetting her name -- who started the French Festival in New York. And we also had [inaudible], who's the artistic director of FRIGID, which produces FRIGID NYC. So those are really great symposia, just to hear both practitioners and scholars writing about different French festivals or different French-type festivals around the world. And then, of course, I also work on other -- I do freelance dramaturgy. So I get the opportunity to help playwrights develop their shows or do research. It's really driven by the need of, you know, the playwright or the other artists. And I also work with another organization called classics, which is a program as a collective that was started by a director named [inaudible], who's a Black woman director to put a spotlight on plays from the black theatre canon that don't get produced -- that are not regularly produced to highlight these plays and to celebrate these works through a series of different initiatives.

[Frank] The dramaturgy thing is interesting, because -- here we go again.

[Crystal] I was just going to ask that because I'm not as familiar with drama. [inaudible]. I'm not familiar with plays and drama in that way. But I think -- my understanding of dramaturgy is that you kind of do research about the time periods that help the actors.

[AJ] Yes. Yeah. So that's what -- so dramaturgy is really project driven. So it just depends on what are the needs of the project. So to your point, one aspect is helping the team of a production help fill out the world of the play. And that includes doing research. So if it's a period piece that's set in the past, you're doing research about that era and, you know, what was going on to help build up out the world of the play so that the cast will have that information as, you know -- and that information goes into design. It goes into, like, the music that's played, costumes, set design and other different details of the production.

[Frank] It's a natural fit for the librarian.

[Crystal] I was about to say. Yes.

[AJ] Yeah. Yeah.

[Frank] All right. Let me shut up. Crystal, go.

[Crystal] No, no. You already beat me to it. I was going to say, like, I just love how much that aligns with librarianship and, like, the research aspect of it, too. And I don't think a lot of people think about that when they think about theater and drama. But I think that's really cool.

[Frank] Thinking of the same lines here.

[AJ] And also, I mean, what being a member of -- I'm also a member of an organization called LMDA, which is the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. And also, the Theater Library Association, you get to meet other librarians, who, if not -- who are not necessarily practitioners, but may also do dramaturgy. And also, like, the performing arts is their subject area. So when I was planning the symposium in 2016 of our French festivals, I got to meet librarians at -- there was a woman who worked at the Museum for the City of New York. And there were other librarians who were also based across the country. So just getting to connect with other people in the field is great. And TLA, they've been -- they've had a lot of their events at Library of the Performing Arts over the years. So they would have, like, award ceremonies at LPA and other programs at LPA. So TLA has been kind of embedded within NYPL for a while.

[Crystal] I also love that connection to the Library of Performing Arts.

[AJ] Say that again, Crystal.

[Crystal] Oh, I just said I really like that connection to the Library of Performing Arts. I don't think I always think about what happens there too. I forget about all the libraries that we have.

[AJ] Yeah. Yeah. And the LPA, I mean, it's an incredible collection.

[Frank] Well, I sense a program coming out. I don't -- do you work with the programming department at Schomburg? Like, do you have interactions and work together?

[AJ] So the programs are produced by the Public Programs Division, which is led by Novella Ford and [inaudible] Bates, who is a producer. So it's a different division. But we do often collaborate with Novella, as well, you know, based on what's -- based on what the program is. At one point, you know, there have been experiments with different sorts of tie-ins or ways to tie in the program to the collections. But one of the programs that Novella created was something called an open archive, which is a way to tie the public programs with the actual collection. So a few years ago, what would happen is that on the day of a program, the staff in the research divisions at the Schomburg Center, we will pull materials from the collection and do a presentation about the materials to the public, so that the public could see the material up close in person and demystify what's, you know, the materials that's at the Schomburg Center, and just to let the public know that everyone has access to these materials. All you need is a library card. And what was great about the open archives was that the public could get to see the items up close in person and actually interact with the materials. I mean, of course, like, we had to monitor the materials. But people can actually physically hold things. Like, if it was books or photographs, people got the chance to see these items up close in person and demystify the idea that, you know, that things -- that everything is locked up in vaults and is not accessible. But, you know, we show the public that everybody has access to these materials. You just have to come in and request it. And there's no charge for anything. So that was a way that we got to collaborate with public programs.

[Frank] It's like 100% a different experience when you're looking at and seeing, like, a author's handwritten journal in person and a scan of it. I mean, there really is a different kind of sensation in your body and mind that happens when you see these things. And the library has a lot of them. No, but I'm thinking, like, perfect connection here. I'm going to put this out here that you said the anthology that you're putting out of the 10-minute plays from Fire this time. I see a little projection going on at Schomburg with actors performing some of these plays tied in with the release of this book. So --

[AJ] Okay.

[Frank] [inaudible] Novella. I think you need to work on this because that would be a perfect combination. It would be a great thing [inaudible]. And you can get some young actors from the community and [inaudible].

[Crystal] Are you thinking about yourself, Frank?

[Frank] I am. [inaudible]. I actually love organizing this kind of thing, especially from the community which we work. And, you know, in a lot of ways, Greenwich Village or, like, Harlem are like international communities in a real way. People come from all over to go to these particular communities. So I always think of the community is bigger than just the square footage of the neighborhood.

[AJ] Yeah. To that point, I mean, there are researchers who contact the Schomburg from all over the world. And so it's the community and the neighborhood, but then also the global community.

[Frank] Oh, yeah, I know. [inaudible] tourists in the village who were just like, yeah, they want to go to Harlem. It's, like, on the map. You know, it's a neighborhood to see it's. It has its own history, a huge history, international history. I love it. Oh, so well, you must have a book to recommend to us, right?

[AJ] Yes, I do. What I want to recommend the book is called Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculpture. It's by Marilyn Nelson. And it has an afterword by Tammy Lawson, who is the curator of the Schomburg Center's Artifacts Division. And Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor's Life is a book of poetry that tells -- Augusta Savage was an African American artists who lived in the early 20th century. And one of her most iconic pieces, it was a sculpture of a heart called Lift Every Voice. And it was in the World Fair in the 1930s. And she's done other, you know, other incredible pieces of -- she did a lot of sculpting. So the book tells Augusta' story in poems. And there are also images of Augusta Savage's work. And many of the pieces are held at the Schomburg Center's Artifacts Division. So you can actually see what the -- see what Augusta Savage's artwork looks like and also learn about her life through the poems. And then Tammy Lawson, who -- she did the afterword. She wrote a biography of Augusta Savage that contextualizes her life and her work and the legacy that she left behind.

[Crystal] That name sounded really familiar to me. And I think there is something in the Polonsky exhibition, the treasures one at [inaudible]. It has, like, the Augusta Savage, like a heart of something like that. Right?

[AJ] Yes. So I think -- I mean, I have forgotten that. But so there were different -- Augusta designed different -- there are hearts of different sizes. So I think she -- if it's in -- treasures is probably like a smaller -- it's one of the smaller pieces. Yeah. And so that's what --

[Frank] Did you say harp or heart? Heart?

[AJ] Harp.

[Frank] Like, harp? Instrument. Oh, that's so cool.

[Crystal] I just looked it up. And it says, like, there's a maquette of Lift Every Voice and Sing the Heart by Augusta Savage. It's like a small plaster sculpture that was designed for the 1939 World's Fair. So that's available, I think, for people to see at the Stephen A Schwarzman building.

[Frank] The Treasures Exhibit?

[Crystal] The treasures.

[Frank] [inaudible] you realize there's those, because I did an interview up at Schomburg with -- [inaudible] a while I go. But you have the statues of the actor who played a fellow?

[AJ] Oh, yes. You're talking about -- yes. And I'm blanking on the piece, but --

[Frank] I took pictures of [inaudible]. They were incredible. Incredibly beautiful and detailed and in that great reading room, that, like, oval-shaped reading room at Schomburg.

[AJ] Yes. So the piece you're talking about is a sculpture of Ira Aldrich, the Black Shakespearean actor -- the 19th century Black Shakespearean actor. And that sculpture is in the -- is on permanent display in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books division.

[Frank] Can the public into that room freely or do you have to make an appointment? You could just walk in?

[AJ] So if you want to actually use that, due to the pandemic, that manuscripts is taking researchers by appointment only. But if you just want to see the sculpture, you can go in and just say, "I want to see the sculpture and just to look at it." As far as I know.

[Frank] Very visceral and very intense. I loved it.

[Crystal] There's like a few other -- isn't there like in the -- is it called the lobby? There's that map that's [inaudible] into the floor. That's really beautiful. And I think there's --

[AJ] The [inaudible]. Yes, the [inaudible]. That was designed by Houston Conwell. And it's called Rivers. And it was a tribute to -- in honor of Langston Hughes. It's a site specific art installation that was -- that is on the floor of Langston Hughes lobby. And that building was -- it was completed -- that part of the Schomburg Center was completed in the early '90s. And there was a contest where artists could submit an idea for artwork. And Houston Cornwell proposed -- he submitted a proposal to do the site specific [inaudible]. And he wanted -- he won the contest. And a part of Langston Hughes' ashes are interred inside of the installation.

[Frank] Oh, my god. What a pilgrimage to make. That's so cool. I love the community, like, you know, open up a contest of art and stuff for the -- I try to do it here. I'm just -- it's all about Jefferson [inaudible] and me. No, but I just think that's perfect points to hit because you source from the world around you to make thing happen. [inaudible] beautiful. There's so much to see at the Schomburg. There certainly is.

[Crystal] People should go, for sure.

[Frank] Yeah. I mean, please. Now do you have a passage to read to us that we can guess? Because you know we love this -- I do. I love this guessing game. Or did you not? I don't know if we --

[AJ] I do. Yeah, I do have a passage.

[Frank] Is it a book or a book you're reading or --

[AJ] Well, this is from a book that I read. I read it. And it's a classic book by African American author. It's one of --

[Crystal] It [inaudible]. Good.

[Frank] Very over the top about getting hints for this. Okay. [inaudible]. Sounds good to me. That narrows it down a little bit.

[AJ] Yeah. It's a woman author as well. So --

[Frank] AJ, you're about to give us all the [inaudible].

[Crystal] He's about to give us the name. Don't give us the name yet.

[Frank] Yeah. Like, it's [inaudible] blah, blah, blah. And I'm like, what? The whole point is to guess.

[Crystal] I like these clues.

[Frank] Can you read it for us?

[AJ] Yes. So I'll read -- so I'm going to start from -- this is the very first paragraph of the first chapter of the novel.

[Crystal] Novel.

[Frank] You're giving us too much detail. [inaudible] do what you want.

[AJ] So it's -- okay. So it's ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some, they come in with the tide. For others, they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time. That is the life of men.

[Crystal] Okay. Give us more, AJ.

[AJ] Now women forget all those things they don't want to remember and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. They act and do things accordingly.

[Crystal] These are very short paragraphs.

[Frank] You sure know how to tease.

[AJ] Well, I will say -- so the book was adapted into -- it was adapted into a movie.

[Frank] Well --

[Crystal] I love these clues.

[Frank] Is it a recent movie?

[AJ] I would say within the past 20 years.

[Frank] Oh.

[Crystal] So it's a novel. It's fictional by a Black female author and was made into a movie in the last 20 years and has lots of short paragraphs.

[Frank] It also opens very globally. Like, it doesn't bring you right into a specific character. It's sort of talking about men and women, which, you know, it's not Zora Neale Hurston.

[AJ] It is.

[Crystal] How, Frank? How?

[Frank] I don't trust myself. What book is this?

[AJ] So this is Their Eyes Were Watching God.

[Frank] Oh, really?

[AJ] Yes.

[Frank] I remember that book so vividly. But I remember it so vividly it's like [inaudible] deep character studies. I didn't know she opened so almost -- what's the word? Like, well, elegantly but globally, I guess is the word I'm trying to say. Oh. Zora Neale Hurston. Okay.

[AJ] Yeah. Queen. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. And it was made into a TV movie that was produced by Oprah. And Halle Berry was in it with Michael Ealy.

[Frank] Got to say -- oh, yes, yes, yes. I've read -- I love that book. I should reread that. But I have to say I saw and was on my mind the movie Passing with Tessa Thompson and --

[AJ] Yeah. Irene Mega. Yeah.

[Frank] [inaudible] Ruth.

[AJ] Ruth [inaudible]. Ruth White.

[Frank] Oh, the director was Rebecca Hall. It was such a beautiful movie. And it was such a beautifully made movie. It's in this rich, black and white. The actors are insanely good. And Rhonda had read Passing and talked about it on the podcast. And it was immediately on my list. And I have not read it, but I'm going to. And I know it's not -- it's like a novella, really [inaudible]. So for some reason, I was hoping you were going to read a quote of passage from that book just because I just saw the movie and loved it. That's why I was like, it's not Zora Neale Hurston, right? It's [inaudible].

[AJ] I mean, interestingly enough, I mean -- so, you know, Zora Neale Hurston had a -- she had a connection to the 135th Street library slash the Schomburg Center because she autographed a book. She knew Arthur Schomburg. And she had a relationship with him. They were, like, you know, peers. So she autographed a book that's in -- there's an autographed copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the Manuscripts Division. And in the biography that was written by Valerie Boyd, who passed away recently, Valerie also includes information from correspondence between Arthur Schomburg and Zora Neale Hurston.

[Crystal] Wow.

[Frank] That's a nice little fun thing to drop in there about Schomburg. That's so cool.

[AJ] And Nella Larsen, who wrote the novella Passing, you know, she was a librarian at the 135th Street Library.

[Frank] What? How didn't I know that?

[Crystal] That's so cool.

[Frank] You're an artist in some way. You have a connection with a library. [inaudible] exciting about working here because you can -- I mean, artists are so important. And they're so amazing. I mean, look at the works we're talking about, these roots at the library. And they're still, like, in the culture wonderfully, like, as they should be. So I do recommend that movie, by the way. I'm sure -- you've probably seen it, AJ.

[AJ] I have not seen it. I wanted to.

[Frank] You're going to love it.

[AJ] No, I do. I do want to see it. But I wanted to -- I want to read the book first and then see the movie.

[Frank] Yeah, I'm a big believer in that, too. But I didn't do it with this one. I was too tempted. I was too tempted. But I normally -- you're right. I normally read the book first. I don't want to see a movie version of it. I'm reading Anna Karenina now, as I've mentioned before. And I'm going to wait until the end before I see the Keira Knightley movie. So [inaudible]. Well, thank you AJ. That was great. We're not doing this tarot card business.

[Crystal] Both of us forgot.

[Frank] This morning was a crazy morning, as you guys know. And I apologize, again, for being late and harried. But we're still under construction over here.

[AJ] Well, I was just saying, you know, because I don't have -- I share office space with other staff members in Research and Reference. I remember emailing Christine and say, "Christine, I need to find a quiet space. I don't know where -- you know, like, I don't know where at the Schomburg I can do this." And then luckily, Maira, she reached out to Casey, senior management, and asked if I can use one of the offices on the administrative floor on the administrative side. So Casey was generous -- generously let me use his office to do the podcast. But I was scrambling trying to find, you know, trying to find a space.

[Frank] Sometimes, it's difficult in a work environment. But, like, I would have been after Maira. I met her years ago in a leadership thing. And I would have been after her saying, how dare you not provide him space to do this podcast? It's integral to the library culture. So I'm glad she came through for you. Good boss.

[Crystal] And Frank, of course, is broadcasting from a closet right now. Right?

[Frank] I'm literally in a closet under stairs. If you can hear that tapping, that's someone walking up the stairs. Like, I literally am on a dusty book cart in our under-construction library, almost done. It's a little chilly. That's why I'm wearing a sweater. So I am suffering for my art.

[AJ] We must all suffer for our art. That's a part of like, you know --

[Frank] There's no other way. That's actually a great -- you've inspired me. Just talking to the librarian, it's like I just thought, great idea for a program. Suffering for your art. Like, what does that mean? And also, examples of it. And do you really have to suffer for your art? Or does art include a little bit of suffering by definition?

[AJ] All of the above. And I was going to ask, Frank, I mean, since you talked about the theater, what have -- you know, can you talk a little bit about your -- the work that you've done, you know, working in the performing arts or, you know, any projects in addition to your -- the million things you do at NYPL?

[Crystal] I'm curious, too, because my impression of Frank [inaudible] there's a lot of singing on this podcast. A lot of good singing.

[Frank] Wait, AJ, were you asking me about what I do?

[AJ] Of course.

[Frank] Oh, my God. What a wonderful person you are, shifting things back to me. Well, I mean, I take that to be, like, inspired by each other. But well -- I mean, for example -- like, are you literally asking what I've done in the library? Oh, how sweet of you. All right. We should go soon. But -- and I've talked about this before. For example, like, just to give a global idea of what I like to do in terms of -- that you do, too, like with community. I work with local university, the new school, with young actors, director there and put a play on Uncle Vanya actually [inaudible] Russia, just coincidentally, at the library. We had costumers. We had the whole range from the city, sourced from the city, and tried to give a little bit of a budget for this, too. That's always important. Money is always important. But we also had a dramaturge who obviously helped the actors with this particular culture of Uncle Vanya and then put it on a, you know, our main reading room. And it was a wild success. And it was just a lot of work, as you know, as a producer. To produce something literally is so much work because you're bringing in so many different kinds of people, scheduling. But the core of it is, like, using classic literature for one and giving people a chance to fulfill their creative needs like artists, actors, directors, musicians. We had costumers, dramaturge. I mean, it was so much -- so fulfilling to see it come together. And then you see these actors. I remember one of the young actors was her very, very first acting job in a way after school. Others were much, much more seasoned. We had arranged. And she must have got her Instagram, like, you know, hey, come see me, my first gig. And I was just like, that's what it's about. Bringing people's dreams alive. I just think that's what it's about. And the audience gets to see these things happen. That's why I would love to see this, like, you know, some of the theatrical things you work with, like on -- you have a beautiful theater at Schomburg.

[AJ] We do. So from your lips to God's ears.

[Frank] I know.

[AJ] It would be great to have a program, you know, in terms of the anthology here at the Schomburg Center. But the thing -- I mean, it's such a small world that some of the artists who I've worked with, who I've supported, have done -- have been in public programs at the Schomburg Center, like the playwright Dominic Morisseau, who's a very accomplished playwright. Dominic, her work -- very early in her career, her work was produced by the [inaudible] Festival. And she was here a for public programming a few years ago. She had a play of hers that was produced off Broadway we called Paradise Blue. And she was here to talk about the play and the person that hosted that program, that moderated that particular talk, Kevin [inaudible]. He was one of the producers at the [inaudible] Festival. So it was a very full -- it was a very full, you know, what's it called, full circle moment to see, you know, artists that you work with on the stage. And, you know, some of the artists who I've gotten the chance to work with have come to the Schomburg to do research. So it's this very small world. And the Schomburg Center is -- has been a resource and continues to be a resource for arts community across, you know, across the spectrum. And speaking of passing, I think one of the designers was someone who worked on that film contacted the Schomburg Center about doing research from that era. And I didn't interact with the person, but I remember hearing about it from my colleagues. So --

[Frank] I like it. Full circle is a phrase I like to use because it means something was come to fruition. Something happened. And it also reflects back on the community. So thank you so much, AJ. That was a nice [inaudible]. Thanks for asking about me. He nails me. He nails me.

[AJ] Say that again, Crystal. I'm sorry.

[Crystal] I was going to say, like, this why I really wanted AJ on because I feel like you all could really connect about, like, theater and drama in a way that I just don't understand. But I've learned a lot from both of you.

[AJ] And that's the thing, too. I'm sorry, say that again, Frank.

[Frank] I was saying Sound of Music is the only musical she knows. She's got to bust out of that little box.

[AJ] And that's the good thing about theater is that it, you know, is like -- there are different ways to enter in. I always think there's something that, you know, that -- like, every book has its reader, every -- things in the theater have different audiences. So --

[Frank] Exactly. You can just, like a library does attempt to introduce people to. That's where the passion is coming. You introduce people to your passions. You're passionate about it. Not everyone is going to get it. But some people would. And it could change their life. I mean, they could be introduced to playwriting and write, oh, I can manifest my experience in the world in an artistic way. I didn't know I really could do that, you know. So you give -- you have to go with your passions. I think librarianship is driven by that. If you care about literacy, you care about art, you care about personal expression, I think it adds value to your life. And I think that's we're in the business of, adding value to people's lives in a wonderful, wonderful way that doesn't cost anything. That is for everybody. Don't get me started on a library soapbox, here.

[Crystal] I love that.

[Frank] It's stealthily inspiring me. Coming alive after my terrible morning of mishegoss. Thank you. I think we should move on with our day. I think AJ has a desk to serve in a couple of minutes. So we want to give him a chance to calm down from this thrilling hour of discussion because you'll have to pull yourself together, AJ, you could do your job.

[AJ] It'll be tough, but I'll try.

[Frank] It was a pleasure to meet you and talk to you. Thank you so much for being with the library, AJ.

[AJ] Thank you. Thank you, Crystal and Frank, for inviting me to be a guest and other staff, Christine as well, and the other staff member, whose name I can't remember, who --

[Frank] They're just the producer.

[AJ] The producer.

[Frank] They're behind the scenes. They're not on-air talent like us. There she is. [inaudible] thank everybody for listening.

[Narrator] Thanks for listening to the Librarian Is IN, a podcast by the New York Public Library. Don't forget to subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcast or Google Play or send us an email at For more information about the New York Public Library, please visit We are produced by Christine Farrell. Your hosts are Frank Collerius and Crystal Chen.