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Nikki Giovanni’s Wonderful Poems Celebrating Libraries and Librarians

“(You never know what troubled little girl needs a book)”

Nikki Giovanni’s Wonderful Poems Celebrating Libraries and Librarians

“A library is a focal point, a sacred place to a community,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her impassioned case for the sacredness of public libraries. Thoreau saw libraries as a potent fertilizer for the human imagination and for literature itself.

It’s little wonder, then, that libraries have continued to enchanted the literary imagination generation after generation. One of the most marvelous manifestations of that enchantment comes from beloved poet, activist, educator, and queer icon Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943) — a woman of great wisdom on love, friendship, and loneliness.

Giovanni’s 2007 collection Acolytes (public library) includes three absolutely lovely poems celebrating libraries and librarians — please enjoy.


This is my first memory:
A big room with heavy wooden tables that sat on a creaky
     wood floor
A line of green shades—bankers’ lights—down the center
Heavy oak chairs that were too low or maybe I was simply
     too short
          For me to sit in and read
So my first book was always big

In the foyer up four steps a semi-circle desk presided
To the left side the card catalogue
On the right newspapers draped over what looked like
     a quilt rack
Magazines face out from the wall

The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books — another world — just waiting
At my fingertips.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

(for Kelli Martin)

a Library Is:

a place to be free
to be in space
to be in cave times
to be a cook
to be a crook
to be in love
to be unhappy
to be quick and smart
to be contained and cautious
to surf the rainbow
to sail the dreams
to be blue
to be jazz
to be wonderful
to be you
a place to be
yeah… to be

Photograph from The Public Library by Robert Dawson

(You never know what troubled little girl needs a book)

At a time when there was not tv before 3:00 P.M.
And on Sunday none until 5:00
We sat on the front porches watching
The jfg sign go on and off greeting
The neighbors, discussion the political
Situation congratulating the preacher
On his sermon
There was always the radio which brought us
Songs from wlac in nashville and what we would now call
Easy listening or smooth jazz but when I listened
Late at night with my portable (that I was so proud of)
Tucked under my pillow
I heard nat king cole and matt dennis, june christy and ella fitzgerald
And sometimes sarah vaughan sing black coffee
Which I now drink
It was just called music

There was a bookstore uptown on gay street
Which I visited and inhaled that wonderful odor
Of new books
Even today I read hardcover as a preference paperback only
As a last resort

And up the hill on vine street
(The main black corridor) sat our carnegie library
Mrs. Long always glad to see you
The stereoscope always ready to show you faraway
Places to dream about

Mrs. Long asking what are you looking for today
When I wanted Leaves of Grass or alfred north whitehead
She would go to the big library uptown and I now know
Hat in hand to ask to borrow so that I might borrow

Probably they said something humiliating since southern
Whites like to humiliate southern blacks

But she nonetheless brought the books
Back and I held them to my chest
Close to my heart
And happily skipped back to grandmother’s house
Where I would sit on the front porch
In a gray glider and dream of a world
Far away

I love the world where I was
I was safe and warm and grandmother gave me neck kissed
When I was on my way to bed

But there was a world
Out there
And Mrs. Long opened that wardrobe
But no lions or witches scared me
I went through
Knowing there would be

For more of Giovanni’s openhearted genius, see her wonderful meditation on what amoebae can teach us about love. Complement this particular fragment of Acolytes with Joseph Mills’s delightful poem “If Librarians Were Honest” and Robert Dawson’s photographic love letter to public libraries.

Published December 11, 2015




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