Sophia Brewer is applying her longtime experience as a Grand Rapids librarian to a statewide role as a recently elected director to the Michigan Library Association board. Brewer has served as a part- or full-time librarian at Grand Rapids Community College since 2007 and previously served in various roles at the Grand Rapids Public Library. The MLA supports more than 2,000 libraries across Michigan and includes strategic priorities around diversity, equity, accessibility and belonging. These priorities particularly align with Brewer’s goals to combat longstanding and ongoing efforts around censorship in libraries, a timely topic in West Michigan where at least one community has sought to defund its library over LGBTQ-themed books. The problem is not specific to West Michigan, however, and Brewer believes librarians play a key function in standing firm against book banning. A native of McComb, Miss., Brewer attended Jackson State University, one of the largest Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the U.S., and later earned a master’s degree in library science from Wayne State University. She recently spoke with MiBiz about her new statewide role and why book banning is an affront to fundamental freedoms.
What are some of your duties as a GRCC librarian?
I am the collection development librarian here, basically responsible for the overall collection. We have individual librarians assigned to different areas — all of our librarians have a specialty, and mine is collection development. I oversee the funding for books and materials, and also oversee what we deselect, or pull from the collection, and add to the collection, and make sure we are matching the needs of students here. All of the librarians here at GRCC also teach classes on research and information literacy.
Can you talk about your work as a liaison for several departments, including the business department?
Each of our departments are assigned a liaison librarian. That liaison is responsible for reaching out to faculty members, department heads and people who teach courses asking if they need anything or specific instructions on business resources. I’m in charge of overseeing and purchasing business resources, and I’m the expert on those resources.
How has your prior experience prepared you for this position at the Michigan Library Association?
The Michigan Library Association is the longest-standing library association in Michigan; they kind of oversee all types of libraries. Being on the association board allows me to have a bird’s eye view of what all libraries are doing and what’s trending in libraries and what might come to a small two-year college’s library based on what’s happening at maybe the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Western Michigan University or Grand Valley State University.
It also gives you a bird’s eye view of the type of trends coming to other libraries, and also the types of problems that might be arising at libraries that we might also encounter here at GRCC.
I worked for 23 years as a public librarian at Grand Rapids Public Library. I started as a page and worked my way up to supervisor and head of programming. I then worked at both GRCC as an adjunct librarian and GRPL as a full-time librarian from 2007 to 2014. Then I came over to GRCC full time. I have progressed from a public librarian to an academic librarian.
What keeps you up at night when thinking about the state of library systems in Michigan?
Not just here in Michigan but all across the country is this idea of banning books. Book banning has been a long-term issue that comes up in libraries. People want to ban books … and libraries have to stand firm in making sure we have a variety of resources on a variety of topics for people who might come into the library. The idea of banning books — and just the whole idea of not celebrating and not wanting to ensure that people learn history from people with all types of backgrounds — is the main issue.
Is censorship the biggest barrier or challenge in your profession?
It’s definitely one of the biggest opportunities — I try to see the glass half full. It’s an opportunity for us to connect with people who don’t understand how libraries work, and an opportunity to make sure libraries work for everyone. If someone has a problem with what’s on the shelf, we need to make sure they know that those items are on the shelf because they are representative of a community who often seeks out those materials. It’s about building understanding around why libraries have to be unbiased and open and accessible to everyone. The idea of libraries is rooted in our constitution under our freedoms and rights to just be people and have information and be able to feel like we are a part of this great nation. It’s the idea that having access to material is a freedom.
What’s your reaction to the discourse around banning books or a certain curriculum because some people claim they are divisive or controversial?
I go back to: Having access to material that represents every single community is essential. We need to build understanding around those ideas, and we need to build understanding around why libraries can’t close out or ban someone’s perspective and someone’s history.
Interview conducted and condensed by Andy Balaskovitz. Photo courtesy of GRCC Communications.