In an age of digital communication and ever-shorter messages, what value do old-fashioned books have?


Inside the Black Cultural Center, on the first floor of Squires Student Center, the Brian K. Roberts Library gives students an opportunity to dive in to an array of literature and expose themselves to a plethora of new ideas.  

Monica Fikes of Alexandria, Virginia, a junior majoring in agricultural, leadership, and community education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has used the Roberts collection and is appreciative of its breadth. “This is priceless – like an experience that needs to be had. His [Roberts] choice of books definitely seems intentional,” Fikes said. “I have admiration for the possibilities they present.”

The books cover a wide range of topics and genres – from history, biographies, and fiction to prison reform, religion, and haiku. Fikes recently read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which gave a passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement and became a national best seller when it appeared in 1963. She loves the fiction of Toni Morrison and cited the 1997 novel Paradise as a favorite. She is also fond of The BFG (short for Big Friendly Giant), a 1982 children's book written by Roald Dahl. All are books from the Roberts collection.

Originally from Washington, D.C., Brian Roberts (“B-Rob” to his friends) graduated from Virginia Tech in 1985 with a degree in urban affairs from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. A motivated and passionate student leader, Roberts was a trailblazer for black and African-American students and remained an active and committed Hokie alumnus until his death in 2014.

As a black student on a predominantly white campus during a time when racial tensions were prevalent, Roberts brought power to his community by creating awareness and giving black students at Virginia Tech a platform to express themselves. He was instrumental in founding the Virginia Tech chapter of the NAACP and served as its president. He was founding chair of the Black Organizations Council (BOC) and wrote its first constitution and bylaws.

In 1984, black student leaders ― Brian Roberts among them ― proposed the establishment of the Black Cultural Center (BCC) as an important component of Virginia Tech’s efforts to create a welcoming and inclusive campus. The BCC opened in 1991 and is utilized by the campus community for educational programs, exhibits, meetings, and receptions. The BCC includes comfortable space for community building and for studying. This spring marks its 25th anniversary.

After graduation, Roberts worked as a community and tenant organizer at the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Application. In 1993, he obtained a Juris Doctorate from the University of Minnesota and served as national chair for the National Black Law Students Association. He went on to work as a trial attorney at community-based defender programs in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Roberts continued his involvement with Virginia Tech as a member of the Black Cultural Center Alumni Advisory Board and the regional committee for the university capital campaign. Roberts also had a role in the endowment of three scholarships for African-American students at Virginia Tech. Black and African-American students at Virginia Tech were honored in 2011 when Roberts returned to campus and met with the executive board of the Black Organizations Council to share the history of BOC. He was also the keynote speaker at the Donning of the Kente ceremony that year.

In 2014, Roberts died after a long battle with brain cancer. His death was a great loss, not only to his family, friends, and colleagues, but also to the Virginia Tech community. He directed his entire personal library be given to the Black Cultural Center.

“When students stop by the BCC and read literature from the Brian Roberts Library, they are reminded of this remarkable individual who had a passion for social justice and change,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Patty Perillo. “Brian was a Hokie with a mission to bring a voice to black students at Virginia Tech, and he will continue to contribute to that mission for decades to come.”

“Brian Roberts was dedicated to the success of the Black Cultural Center at Virginia Tech because he knew how important it was for students of color to have a safe haven within the university community,” said Matt Winston, Virginia Tech's senior associate vice president for alumni relations. “He also recognized the value in creating a campus space where the contributions of the black community can be celebrated and where scholars of all backgrounds can expand their knowledge about the African-American and African Diaspora experiences and contributions to society. Brian was a dedicated Hokie alumnus whose actions were guided by his passion to make Virginia Tech a better place, and all the students who have come behind him should appreciate all he did to help provide this resource that we celebrate during this anniversary.”

Written by Sandy Broughton and Hayley Childress of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a senior majoring in public relations in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

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