"Priceless": An Interview with Brandon A. Owens, Sr., Ph.D., Director of Library Services, Fisk University
Founded in 1866, Fisk University is a private university in Nashville, Tennessee, with a long-standing reputation for academic excellence. Fisk is currently ranked #6 among historically black universities, according to U.S. News and World Report. Today Fisk offers more than 20 wide-ranging undergraduate and graduate programs, yet its curriculum remains grounded in the liberal arts.
The new Director of Library Services at Fisk University’s John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library is Brandon A. Owens, Sr., Ph.D. He is also an Adjunct Lecturer with particular interest in education, race, religion, and related topics in African American history. In September 2020, after securing approval from Fisk Interim President Vann Newkirk, Sr., Ph.D., Dr. Owens was able to use a portion of the CARES Act Relief Funds to acquire a significant number of Readex digital collections. Among these are African American Newspapers, African American Periodicals, African Newspapers, Afro-Americana Imprints, American Race Relations, Apartheid, Civil Rights in America, Caribbean Newspapers, and several other acclaimed resources.
Now that Fisk students and faculty will have online access to these historical databases, I asked Dr. Owens if he would share a few details about his successful effort and tell us more about his own vision for the Fisk Library.
Petz: Brandon, what was the impetus for your consideration of these digital resources?
Owens: The impetus was actually your email, Joanne, which you sent to my mentor and now Fisk University Librarian Emerita, Jessie Carney Smith, Ph.D., and former Provost, now Interim President, Vann R. Newkirk, Sr. In your email you highlighted the value of these digital primary source collections for the community of scholars at Fisk University, and you alerted them to the opportunity to use the funds Fisk received from the CARES Act to enhance our library with these online resources. Simultaneously, they both forwarded your email to me in support of your proposal. After reading your email, I too began to consider how the funds we received from the CARES Act could help Fisk acquire these digital collections and strengthen our ability to give students and faculty access to the primary resources they need for remote research and hybrid learning.
Petz: What was it about these resources that appealed to you and the Provost?
Owens: These resources appealed to us because they support Fisk's tradition of research and scholarship in the areas of African American history and culture, race relations, and social justice. We wanted to secure digital access to these primary resources in support of our history, African American and African studies, English, political science, women and gender studies, sociology, and social justice programs.
Petz: Would you explain the significance of CARES Act Relief Funding to Fisk University and perhaps to other academic institutions that might be similar to yours?
Owens: With the ever-present threat of COVID-19, it is more important now than ever for Fisk and other historically black college and university (HBCU) libraries to transition from print to digital collections. Many were financially unstable in this area before the pandemic, so the CARES Act Relief Funding is a significant way to help HBCU libraries not only navigate the routine financial difficulty of reduced budgets, but also thrive despite the rising costs of journal subscriptions and online databases.
Petz: How do you envision these primary source collections enhancing curriculum, research and scholarship at Fisk today?
Owens: I foresee a future in which students and faculty will use these digital collections to conduct research and write new historical narratives based on African and African American contributions to local, state, national, and global societies. I hope students and faculty will use these resources to tell the lesser-known stories and broaden what we all know about African and African American history and culture. I also anticipate the discovery and advancement of knowledge through research in the social sciences and humanities at Fisk.
Petz: Have you received feedback yet about these new resources from your history and political science faculty? What are their views?
Owens: Yes, history and political science faculty members are excited because these resources not only advance the University’s mission, but they also align with our strategic goal to promote a learning-centered environment through immersive educational experiences to facilitate excellence in teaching, research, and creative activity. According to the faculty, these resources offer a unique opportunity to enhance pedagogical approaches to encourage critical thinking and problem solving. Furthermore, many of the resources we acquired support the rich curriculum and vigorous extracurricular programs within our entire School of Humanities and Behavioral Social Sciences which is comprised of Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, History, English, Arts, and Languages.
Petz: You became Director of Library Services at Fisk this past July. Please tell us about the unique strengths of your library and about your own vision for advancing it in accordance with Fisk’s mission going forward?
Owens: The liberal arts curriculum reflects our distinct mission to produce graduates from diverse backgrounds with the integrity and intellect required for substantive contributions to society. For more than 150 years, Fisk University’s library has developed under the direction and guidance of educators and librarians who endeavored to collect, organize, and provide access to materials related to the university’s curriculum, history, and culture, but special attention has always been given to the collection, preservation, and promotion of African American history and culture. As only the third head librarian in the past 77 years, it is an honor and a privilege to continue this tradition by building up an adequate digital library collection to support a first-class liberal arts program that allows students to learn about the experiences of Africans and people of the African Diaspora.
Petz: On a personal level, what has the transition to library director meant to you?
Owens: The transition from assistant librarian to library director has been surreal. I had to quickly adjust the library’s strategic goals and priorities to meet the changing needs of not only the student body, but also the faculty as I assumed leadership in the midst of a global pandemic. With little time to plan, we had to find a way to curate digital content and provide library materials and services to support online research and teaching. Although it has been stressful, we have successfully transitioned from face-to-face to online library instruction and services.
Petz: What message would you like to share with other academic library and university administrators about the value of these digital primary source collections that you have helped bring to Fisk?
Owens: These digital primary source collections are priceless, and this is a great opportunity for other academic libraries and university administrators to secure long-term availability and/or perpetual access to online primary source documents relating to African and African American studies.
Petz: Thank you very much for your time! Is there anything else you would like to add?
Owens: I just want to thank you for this opportunity to discuss my vision and how the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library at Fisk University has contributed to student learning and success despite the challenges of the pandemic.
To learn more about the Readex collections recently acquired by Fisk University, or ways in which the CARES Act may be used by your library, please contact Joanne Petz.