So you want to be a Latin American/Area Studies librarian?

So you know that you want to be a librarian, but have you thought about specializing in a certain field? If you have an interest in foreign languages and cultures or Latin America, a career as a Latin American/Area studies librarian may be for you. To get an idea of what this job entails, we asked a few LAS librarians about their careers.

Meet our contributors:

Alison Hicks is the Romance Languages, Literatures and Cultures Librarian at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She received her MSIS from the University of Texas, Austin and her MA in French and Spanish at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. (@alisonhicks0)

Alyson Williams is Reference and Embedded Librarian Team Leader at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC. She received her MLIS and her MA in Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. (@alysonkwilliams)

T-Kay Sangwand is Human Rights Archivist and Librarian for Brazilian Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. She received her MLIS and MA in Latin American Studies from UCLA. (@UT_HRDI | @tttkay)

Tim Thompson is Metadata Librarian (Spanish/Portuguese Specialty) at Princeton University Library. He received his MLS/MA (Latin American and Caribbean Studies) from Indiana University Bloomington.


Flickr Commons

Photo from Wally Gobetz, Flickr Commons licensed under CC 2.0

1. What made you want to become a Latin American/Area studies librarian?

Alison: My decision to become a librarian felt quite stressful- I remember skulking around the library in the last few weeks before I graduated trying to work out whether I could become one of those people working behind the research desk. When I finally decided that I could rock that cardigan, a Spanish and Latin American focus seemed like a natural fit, mostly because my degree was in languages, but also because my first visit to Latin America when I was 21 had left me kind of intoxicated and touched by the liveliness and friendliness of the region. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong on that trip did, but it was too late- I was hooked. Growing up in the UK, I had spent a lot of time in Spain but after these early experiences, I purposely decided to apply to library school in the US so I could focus on Latin American librarianship.

Alyson: Becoming a Latin American Studies librarian for me happened kind of by accident.  I was almost one semester into my Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS) MA when a professor asked me what I planned to do with my degree.  I hadn’t even started thinking about post-graduation plans at that point, but the first thing I thought was “I could work in a library.”  From that epiphany, I applied to UW-Madison’s School of Library and Information studies and enrolled in a course on Global Librarianship.  It was a great decision and while it wasn’t a part of my original plan, each course/practicum I did confirmed that I had made the right choice for me.

T-Kay: I worked in my college library for three years, which was my main influence for deciding to pursue a MLIS. I loved working in an intellectually curious environment but knew I didn’t want to be an academic, so an academic librarian seemed like the next best thing. When I entered the MLIS program, I intended to follow a career path towards a Latin American Studies librarian position as I was also working towards an MA in LAS at the time. However, along the way I took an archives course which showed me how archives could be used as a tool of empowerment for marginalized communities. I then decided to pursue a career as an archivist committed to social justice broadly and Latin America more specifically. At my current position at UT I am fortunate to work in both areas as the Archivist for the Human Rights Documentation Initiative and Librarian for Brazilian Studies at the Benson Latin American Collection. The latter occurred serendipitously after the Benson’s Librarian for Brazilian Studies retired and no other librarian on staff had much experience with Portuguese or Brazilian Studies.

Tim: First off, I’m not sure whether I would consider myself to be a Latin American studies librarian. I’m primarily a cataloger/metadata librarian, and my particular bailiwick happens to be material from Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula. That said, I do think it’s worth emphasizing that area studies librarianship is a broad field that encompasses different kinds of librarianship. We tend to identify it with subject specialists on the public services side of the library, but librarians in technical services also have a vital role to play in providing access to the resources that support research on Latin America.

At the same time, my decision to become a librarian in the first place was directly informed by my interest in Latin American studies, with a particular emphasis on Brazil. To make a long story ridiculously short: I had friends from Brazil in college, started learning Portuguese, and eventually married a Brazilian. Initially, these personal connections did not influence my career choices. I had studied English in college and went on to get a master’s in English. But life happens, and the personal sometimes overtakes the professional, or becomes indistinguishable from it. As my Portuguese improved and my contact with the local Brazilian community increased (I started teaching English as a Second Language on the side), it began to infiltrate my research and influence my sense of academic and professional identity.

In large part, I decided to become a librarian because it gave me the chance to reset my career and focus on the things that really interested me—and to find an academic and professional niche without having to specialize in a particular discipline, period, or theory. One of the things I like best about area studies librarianship is that it lets you be something of a generalist-specialist.

2. What steps did you take to prepare for a career in this field?

Alison: I’d say that my career has been a mixture of steps that I have purposely taken and luck. Thinking about steps that I took, two of the most fun experiences that I had when I was a student were the internships that I carried out at the Institute of the Americas Library in London, and at the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. I also managed to get two temporary jobs when I was a student- one at LANIC, which provides web based Latin American resource guides, and one at the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat in Buenos Aires, both of which taught me a great deal about the more technical/digital aspects of librarianship. Finally, I’ve taken a lot of language classes over the years (French and Spanish) and next year marks my first decade as a volunteer indexer for HAPI, the Hispanic American Periodicals Index. I’ve also relied a lot on my amazing colleagues- watching, learning, listening. As for luck- that was probably when I arrived in Argentina a couple of days after graduating and only knowing one person- who happened to be a librarian. 

Alyson: For me, working hands-on with a Latin American studies librarian is the best way to prepare. I worked with the Latin American Studies librarian as her student assistant and arranged to do a practicum with her as well. I was able to work on library exhibits, the first Cartonera Conference at UW-Madison, and work with the collection of Brazilian Chapbooks. In my practicum, I designed LibGuides and presented them to different courses. My Spanish was pretty strong by the time I started Grad School, so I started studying Portuguese. Knowing Spanish and/or Portuguese is key for a Latin American Studies Librarian. Finally, I also went to SALALM as a student. I went first as a participant and then as a presenter. I recommend doing both.

T-Kay: During my undergraduate years at Scripps College, I majored in Gender and Women’s Studies but was drawn to Latin American Studies due to my interest in women’s roles in social movements in Latin America. At the time there was no Latin American Studies minor so I designed one, which I’m proud to say is now officially on the books as a minor option at Scripps. I studied abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico which led to my decision to do my thesis on grassroots organizing around reproductive justice in Guanajuato. When I learned that UCLA offered the dual master’s opportunity in Information Studies and Latin American Studies it seemed natural to pursue both. For my MA I chose Archives, Spanish and Portuguese as my areas of concentration and was researching Cuban hip hop through an archival lens. I received the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship to study Portuguese in Brazil, where I hoped to research Brazilian hip hop and draw connections between afro­diasporic hip hop in Cuba and Brazil. Unfortunately, time ran out for me in Brazil to do the academic research but I still actively research and listen to Brazilian hip hop for my radio show, Hip Hop Hooray. And I’ve recently have started picking this research topic back up for my upcoming presentation at SALALM 2015.

Tim: Round two of graduate studies took me to Indiana University Bloomington, which offers a dual-degree program in Library Science and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. I received a pair of Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships that allowed me to further hone my knowledge of Portuguese and do advanced coursework focused on Brazil. In 2011, I spent a year abroad as a Boren Fellow in Brasília, where I carried out independent research for my master’s capstone project in Latin American and Caribbean Studies: my fieldwork centered on a series of 13 interviews with Brazilian digital library project managers. Using the technical skillset I had acquired in library science courses with Indiana’s John Walsh, I transcribed these interviews using TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) markup in XML and created a coding scheme to analyze their content. I also completed an internship with Indiana’s Librarian for Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese, Chicano-Riqueño, and Latino Studies, Luis González, and worked with him to redesign a website that he had created, called Researching Brazil.

3. Describe a typical day at work.

Alison: I work with four different departments and centers on campus so my work typically involves a lot of juggling. Most of my day-to-day work tends to center on preparing or teaching classes and research consultations- I tend to teach about 15 classes and do about 30 research consultations each semester for Spanish, Latino and Latin American Studies undergraduates, graduates and faculty. I’m also starting to get more engaged in running workshops on digital scholarship for the departments with which I liaise. Collection development is important for me too- depending on the time of semester, I’m wading through book catalogs, preparing for bookfairs, or in contact with various Latin American book vendors and libraries. Lastly, we’re tenure track faculty librarians in Colorado- so a typical day sees me trying to spend at least 30 minutes on professional development type activities, and keeping up to date with research in our field and beyond. Overall, I would say that about 70% of my work is foreign language related, while I also help out with more general reference and instruction duties as well as committee work that focuses on technology and outreach.

Alyson: A typical day for me is varied and busy, just the way I like it. Part of each day is spent on tasks related to being a team leader. I manage the Subject and Embedded librarian program and the Reference Desk.  My work focuses on improving  and exploring new services as well as organizing the library-led trainings. I am also a Subject Librarian, and I work with two Vice-Presidencies at the IDB. Each day I spend time answering the requests I receive from researchers. Another exciting aspect of my job related to publications has been investigating Altmetrics to see how those measures can be incorporated into reporting. The newest, and arguably most exciting, project I am working on is IDB Open Data Platform Numbers for Development.  The library is leading this open data initiative at the Bank so a lot of my time has been spent writing content for the site and learning more about data & visualizations in Socrata.  So that’s a little flavor of the things that keep me busy during the week.

T-Kay: There is no typical day at work, which I think is exciting. I’m currently Co­Principal Investigator on a Mellon funded project, “Post­Custodial Archival Development and Digital Scholarship: Learning from Latin America,” and so I’m doing a lot of project management with our post­custodial archival partnerships in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. For these projects, I was able to travel to El Salvador and Nicaragua to bring equipment and lead digitization workshops with our partners. When I’m in the office, I do reference, instruction, as well as collection development of our circulating collections and archival materials. I also supervise a full time archivist as well as a half time graduate assistant. Our institution is in the middle of improving its digital infrastructure so it’s also exciting to be an active part of that process.

Tim: As a metadata librarian, most of my work focuses on resource description, so there is a production aspect to it. My day-to-day activities involve creating catalog records for material acquired by our Librarian for Latin American Studies, Latino Studies, and Iberian Peninsular Studies. I do authority control and original cataloging for a range of resource types, from monographs and journals to DVDs and ephemeral publications (an area in which Princeton’s holdings are particularly strong). Currently, I am working on a pilot project to describe a collection of unprocessed serials from Argentina using BIBFRAME, the Library of Congress’s new linked data vocabulary. This project has involved supervising a student worker and designing a new cataloging tool for BIBFRAME-based resource description.

4. What advice do you have for LIS students who are considering a career in Latin American/Area studies librarianship?

Alison: Probably the most important advice is to join SALALM, the Seminar for the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials. It’s a small professional organisation so it’s super easy to get to know everyone and people are really friendly- we also have a mentor program, and a lively listserv/facebook page. Student membership is pretty cheap too. On a related note, try and attend the annual SALALM conference. We offer 1-5 scholarships/year for students who are interested in Latin American librarianship to attend the conference. Outside of SALALM, try and get as much experience as you can- either interning or doing a fellowship with a Latin American Studies librarian, or working with a Latino/Iberian/Latin American collection or group in your area. Another important aspect of Latin American librarianship is language skills- whether you are interested in collection development or instruction, it really helps if you are fluent in at least 1 of the region’s main languages, with working knowledge of others.

Alyson: For me, finding a mentor was extremely important in my growth as a Latin American Studies Librarian. I am still in touch with her and continue to value her input and advice. To get a taste of the career, join professional organizations, such as SALALM, and I would recommend presenting at conferences during graduate school. SALALM is great place to start presenting because the atmosphere is extremely supportive and the members are working. Finally, I would say gaining hands on experience as soon as possible is a great way to see if the field is right for you.

T-Kay: As someone who has sat on search committees for multiple Latin American Studies librarian positions at my institution, I can say that academic libraries with significant Latin American holdings will want candidates to demonstrate substantial subject knowledge in the area as well as a bare minimum of strong reading knowledge in Spanish, Portuguese, or an indigenous language from the region.

Tim: First and foremost, pursue mentorship opportunities and reach out to the Latin American studies librarian at your institution. Take every opportunity to work with them, whether formally or informally, and find creative ways to make your LIS coursework and final projects relate back to the library’s Latin American and Iberian collections. You don’t have to have a formal internship or hourly position to gain relevant experience—although it certainly helps! Offer to redesign a website or do an assessment of some aspect of the collection. When I took Collection Development, for example, my final project involved assessing the library’s holdings of books by prize-winning authors from Brazil and Portugal. Second, become involved in SALALM, the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials, which provides many opportunities for professional growth and development and is very welcoming to new members.

5. This one’s just for fun – what is your favorite book of all time?

Alison: I’ve got a real soft spot for Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo– this was one of the books that I read after getting back from my first trip to Mexico and the elusive narrative, to say nothing of the ghosts around every corner kind of blew me away. Honestly, my favourite probably changes every week though- I’ve always got my head in a book. 

Alyson: A hard question, but I think I have to go with American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  It is one that I choose to re-read again and again.  A fascinating, modern twist on mythologies that never fails to draw me in.

T-Kay: I don’t often re­read books, but I can say that I am currently enjoying All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. And I often give Sherman Alexie’s books as gifts because they are so fabulous for everyone at any age.

Tim: Before accepting my first position as a professional librarian, I had seriously contemplated going back to graduate school (round three) to study the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. His Book of Disquiet (Livro do desassossego) is one of my favorites—the fragmentary diary of a Lisbon bookkeeper with a rich inner life.


Do you have any more questions for our contributors? What do you think about the Latin American/Area studies specialization?

1 reply

  1. Hello! My name is Selena and I am currently studying Latin American and Latino Studies at Depaul University, but I am interested in pursuing a Master’s in Library Science or something similar to that. It;s not offered at my current university, which I really don’t mind, but I am not sure how to pursue this interest. Any advice? Thanks!


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