The work of a librarian has always come somewhat naturally to Ashley Hoskins. She’s a resourceful fanatic of literature, keen on knowledge building and passionate about her neighborhood. For the Chicago-born and Third Ward-raised educator, libraries are the beating heart of a community.
Hoskins is the founding director of Houston’s chapter of The Free Black Women’s Library — a mobile- book-trading and interactive installation that centers on literature by Black women. TFBWL was originally born in New York and has since expanded to Los Angeles, Atlanta and Detroit, with Houston home to the second most active chapter.
“I've always been a lover of reading and a resource for my friends who come to me for book suggestions,” she tells Houstonia while sitting in the backyard of Kindred Stories bookstore in Third Ward, wearing a crisp white sundress with warm pink lipstick and braids accented with ornate beads. “I always loaned out books and grew up saying that I want to be surrounded by them."
Growing up in the Third Ward, where she frequented the neighborhood’s Pan-African community center S.H.A.P.E., the scholar dedicated her alone time as a kid to journaling and reading. After graduating from Jack Yates High School, she studied political science at Hampton University, and returned to Houston to teach upper elementary. Her journey as an educator inspired her to pursue a graduate degree at the University of St. Thomas. It was in a course called “The American Girl in Literature'' that lit the spark to her life’s work as a librarian.
In 2019, Hoskins discovered TFBWL online and reached out to its New York-based founder, Ola Ronke — who helped her create some guidelines and launch the library in Houston. With one Instagram post on Nov. 11, 2019, the library’s Houston chapter came to life. Shortly after the chapter launched, the world shifted, leaving Hoskins to readjust. COVID-19 put a pause on in-person programming, but social media helped the community stick together with virtual book discussions attended by folks as far away as Washington, D.C., and London.
“The first virtual book discussion restored my faith because I felt like COVID would keep me from following through with my initial vision for the library,” she says. “When the city shut down, I had to redirect. Now I still feel like I’m on the right track.
Hoskins is continuing to build the library by paying attention to what the community is reading and acquiring new releases and other trending titles. The late Toni Morrison has been an anchor of the TFBWL, and Hoskins even hosted one of the first post-lockdown events in tribute to Morrison on the front lawn of her home.
“I want [the library] to be a safe space for people to come together and discuss what they’re reading. I am from this community,” she says. “Even with gentrification and the community changing, we still have our feet planted here and are intentional about remaining present.”
Other popular pieces include Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun; Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americana.
What started as 20 books in her personal collection slowly evolved into a nearly 400-volume inventory. The challenge of operating a trading library, Hoskins notes, has been getting visitors to swap books. “People are very connected to their books and they really don’t want to let them go,” she says. “I’ve always loaned and shared books because I can usually get them again. It doesn’t keep me from treasuring them.”
Although it’s a welcome opportunity to share something new, she longs to encounter more of Houston’s voracious readers and is working on ways to make the unfamiliar reader more acquainted with these underrecognized literary giants.
“It’s very treasured when I come across someone who really loves literature, and particularly Black women’s literature,” she says. “I want to hold on to that person and not let them go.”
Learn more about Houston’s chapter of The Free Black Women’s Library here.