CORONA — Andrew Jackson vividly remembers the award ceremony he attended in his fifth year as the director of the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center on Northern Boulevard.
He was there with other Queens Library employees getting pins for their many years of service. There were people honored for 20, 30, 35 and 40 years with the library. It made him think about his job, where he had originally intended to only stay a few years.
“If people are here this long, it must be a great place to work,” he thought.
That was nearly 31 years ago. Now Jackson, also known as Sekou Molefi Baako, is set to retire from his position at the end of the year. He leaves behind a long legacy at the library, which has one of the largest circulations of books on the black experience in the country.
It also serves as a community hub, which goes back to its roots as a community-run library.
“I attribute everything that has happened to my life and for my life to Langston Hughes Library,” he said. “I’m an example of how libraries change lives. It changed my life.”
Jackson, 69, grew up in East Elmhurst, where he used to ride his bike to watch planes take off right inside LaGuardia Airport. He doesn’t remember wanting to be a librarian back then — “I probably couldn’t even spell librarian as a kid,” he joked — but he was involved in the community at a pivotal time in its history.
His neighbors were involved with the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam, and it was this activism that allowed the Langston Hughes Community Library to first open.
Neighbors utilized federal funding from the Library Services and Construction Act of 1964 and took over an old Woolworth storefront on 100th Street and Northern Boulevard.
It opened in April 1969 and acted as an independent, community-run library up until 1986, when founders entered into a agreement with the Queens Library that still allows the board to be involved.
“It was a perfect venue to create a library here in Corona,” Jackson said. “It was creating a service that was not being met at all.”
After high school, he spent four years in the Air Force, then worked for eight years in the human resources department of a city agency. He moved out to California after that, working for Chevrolet.
When he returned to Queens, he struggled to find work until elders at his church recommended he apply for the position at the library. Two were on the board, which ran the library, and found his business background and community activism would be a good fit.
“When they hired me, the community hired me, not Queens Library,” he said.
He lacked a college degree, although he later received a BA at York College in Black Studies and a masters in library science at Queens College.
From the start of his job he recognized the library’s unique role in the community and across the borough.
Since its inception, Langston Hughes Library did things a little differently.
“We had a non-traditional approach that, at the time, libraries didn’t do,” Jackson said.
They circulated paperbacks and comic books — which was unheard of at libraries — and started an information service so residents could find out where to get help in the community.
“Our mission was to literally attract non-library users and non-readers and transform them into library users and readers,” he said. “And the only way to do that was to find unique ways to get them to the library.”
They were heavily involved in programming, including music and arts events. While that’s common now at the Queens Library, Langston Hughes was a pioneer in recognizing their building was not just about lending books.
The library upgraded from the storefront to a modern building in 1990, although Jackson made sure they kept the open front that the old library was known for.
The library on Northern Boulevard. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)
His devotion to the library, and its profession, has allowed the space to grow, according to the Queens Library’s interim president and CEO, Bridget Quinn-Carey.
“Andrew Jackson‘s leadership has been pivotal in keeping true to the guiding vision while developing a community library and a knowledge base for African-American culture that is relevant in the 21st century,” she said.
“He is leaving a powerful legacy.”
Jackson said it was the death of three colleagues that got him thinking about his exit.
John Watusi Branch, who ran the Afrikan Poetry Theater in Jamaica, died in December 2013. Kimati Dinizulu, who ran the Akan Cultural Center in Queens, died in July 2013. Dr. Martin Antangana, a dean at York College, also passed away that year.
“When it hit me, I’m sitting here. I started thinking, if that happened at Langston Hughes, they won’t know what to do,” he said.
“I need to do an orderly transition. I’m healthy, I’m still lucid for the most part. But I need to start planning for an orderly transition.”
He’s spent the last few years making sure things were together at the library, updating their agreement letter with the Queens Library and settling plans.
Jackson, who will stay on through the end of 2016, plans to continue teaching and wants to devote more time to writing books.
And he still hopes to stay involved with the library, helping to select his replacement.
“Nobody’s supposed to come here and fill my shoes, they’re supposed to come here and establish their own footprints,” he said.
The ideal person would have a passion for being a librarian and the purpose of libraries, but would hopefully find new ways to make the library more accessible.
The replacement may not be from the local community, but they can hopefully make the same impact.
"The profession chose me, I was just smart enough to follow the path that the Creator laid out for me," he said. "It’s been fun, I’ve had a good time."