Librarian, Storyteller, Advocate Kathryn Blackmer Reyes Wins National American Library Association Award
Kathryn Blackmer Reyes is a 2023 recipient of the American Library Association’s #ILoveMyLibrarian award. Photo by Robert C. Bain.
One of Kathryn Blackmer Reyes’ favorite memories of being in a library occurred when she was a Chicano Studies major at UC Davis. To complete a research paper, she had to access archives written in longhand Spanish at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. She invited her mother, who translated the written oral histories for her project. It was a full-circle moment for the first-generation college student, who later went on to direct the Africana, Asian American, Chicano & Native American Studies (AAACNA) Center at San José State University’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. This year marks her 15th anniversary directing AAACNA, and her 25th as a librarian.
“Libraries have always been a part of my life,” said Blackmer Reyes, ’96 MLIS. “Working at the library has allowed me the platform to do what I love to do, which is to give other voices a space to tell their stories.”
A 2023 recipient of the American Library Association’s competitive I Love My Librarian Award, Blackmer Reyes has single-handedly transformed the AAACNA Center’s space on King Library’s fifth floor into a living, breathing exhibition space, home to multiple collections and two endowments. She has partnered with cultural organizations and partner organizations from around the Bay Area to host 5-6 exhibitions annually, while also attending to the everyday demands of librarianship in a unique city-university setting.
The 6,000-square-foot AAACNA Center, which was originally conceived as an extension of SJSU’s Chicano Resource Center established in 1982, has grown exponentially during Blackmer Reyes’ tenure. Though the space itself has not grown, she has established its digital collections, which are the beginnings of telling the San Jose story before the dot-com explosion. She has also maintained the center’s four collections and created the Native American and the comparative ethnic studies collections.
She first learned that she’d received the award midway through installing the “Celebrating the Alexanders” exhibition this winter, which featured imagery and artwork by alumni Chuck Alexander and his wife Saphrona. Chuck, who died weeks before the opening, is credited with helping fellow Spartans find adequate housing during Jim Crow-era San José, when many Black Spartans and people of color were denied places to live. He founded the Good Brothers home.
Blackmer Reyes worked closely with Chuck prior to his death, as well as his son Tony, SJSU Associate Professor of Journalism Duane “Michael” Cheers, and members of the Antioch Baptist Church, to curate the exhibit and host its opening.
“I don’t do this work to be recognized,” Blackmer Reyes said. “I do it so the Chuck Alexanders are recognized. I do it so students can get involved in a different conversation about cultural art. When installing an exhibit, we have to ask, what story do you want to tell? How do you want to tell it?”
Library as offering
One way to tell stories has been through ofrendas, special altars created for Day of the Dead. For years Blackmer Reyes, in collaboration with SJ Multicultural Artist Guild, has planned, hosted and expanded the library’s annual Día de los Muertos exhibition. After the ofrendas are set up, guests enjoy live music, food and experience a beloved cultural revitalization during a community reception.
Every year, Blackmer Reyes brings people together in new, innovative and healing ways. Following the tragic Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting and recognizing police/minority youth violence before the Black Lives Matter movement in 2019, she coordinated multiple organizations and artists to provide altar space to commemorate victims. In 2020, she advocated for the center’s first-ever virtual reality experience so community members could connect and learn together from the safety of their own homes.
“Over the years, Kathy has curated a space that is welcoming for students but also meets cultural needs,” said Julia Curry, professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies and member of the AAACNA Advisory Board. “The changes she has made are in the art she exhibits and uses throughout the collections. She has an eye for selecting meaningful icons that matter to students of all ages.”
Curry added that Blackmer Reyes’ contributions span far more than meets the eye, such as installing electrical outlets for laptops and providing tables that can be moved for group study.
“The AAACNA floor is a vibrant location for students from diverse backgrounds and even nationalities,” Curry said. “It is a vibrant space alive with diverse languages, cultures and expressions.
“The Center is also a site for international and national scholars who don’t come to use the collections but rather for the people, for the exhibits, and for its permanent art collection. People come to be greeted and helped by Kathy. There is no other place in the library where the librarian/director is on the floor doing diverse library space work (like shelving, weeding or setting up an exhibit).”
Over the years, Blackmer Reyes has collaborated with King Library’s Special Collections & Archives, as well as the Public Library’s California Room and other community resources, to make history come to life.
“It’s not enough for collections to sit in some hard drive in some room,” she said. “It’s about making history available and expanding our collections — making the library reflect the community we’re a part of.
“As a student of Chicana and Chicano Studies, and someone who oversees Ethnic Studies and understands the history of minorities in California and the United States, I understand the importance of San José. AAACNA has given me the opportunity to expand my role and create a vision for this space.”