Voces del Sur (Voices from the South): Rethinking LIS from the Latin American and Caribbean Perspective [Series]

Editor’s note: This is the first post in our Voces del Sur series, featuring writers from the blog Infotecarios. Guest bloggers will answer questions about their experience as librarians and library school students in Latin America. Head on over to Infotecarios to read this post in Spanish

Guest blogger: Alejandra Sofía Méndez

Country: Puerto Rico

Education: Master in Library and Information Science from University of Puerto Rico, class of 2014.

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Alejandra Sofía Méndez is an Academic Librarian and a doctoral student.  She is currently working as a Puerto Rican Studies and Assessment librarian at Universidad Metropolitana  She is pursing a degree in Education with a specialization in Learning Technologies at University of Puerto Rico.  Her areas of interests are information Literacy, social justice, critical discourse of technology in the educational arena.

 

How did you become interested in library science and how did you become a librarian?

Probably one of the main reasons that I hung out at the school library was the fact that I considered it a safe haven.

I first became interested in Library Science when I was pursuing my undergraduate studies in ESL Education. However, I have wanted to work in a library since I was a child. Throughout grade school, I was involved in the Library Club and I hung out in the school library during my lunch breaks. Probably one of the main reasons that I hung out at the school library was the fact that I considered it a safe haven. I continued to visit and use the services in the library until High School. Once I finished my undergraduate studies, I applied to the master’s program of Library and Information Science at University of Puerto Rico. When I started my MIS studies, I wanted to specialize in archives and repositories. However, my plans changed when I started taking courses that focused on Information Literacy (IL). It was then that I became interested in the pedagogical side of LIS.

Could you describe your specialization or interest within the field of library science?

Assessment has been an acquired taste of sorts. I would have never considered working with it, if it had not been for the director of the library.

My area of specialization, while I was in Library School, was school librarianship. My capstone project addressed the techniques and initiatives carried out by librarians to engage their students into reading. However, when I started working, I was immediately immersed in the academic world. Currently, my work is focused on the assessment of library service. Assessment has been an acquired taste of sorts. I would have never considered working with it, if it had not been for the director of the library. The moment that I started as an Assessment Librarian my main interest became finding ways to evidence student retention and information seeking behavior. Aside from assessment, my main area of interests is the development of IL competences, critical discourse that addressed social justice in LIS, and cataloguing practices. With respect to social justice in LIS, I’ve grown interested in the professional development of librarians in Puerto Rico, and special collection management in the Caribbean.

What is your favorite thing about the library school you attended?

Being able to put into practice and seeing my mentors work as actual librarians was refreshing. It is fulfilling when one is able to put into practice all the theoretical knowledge acquired in class.

My favorite thing about studying at Graduate School of Information Sciences and Technologies (GSIST) at University of Puerto Rico (UPR) was being able to work with my professors doing research or as a student librarian. After I took courses in cataloguing, I worked at the Seminario Multidisciplinario José Emilio González, a small seminar that was managed by one of my cataloguing professors. The Seminario catalogued, for example, scripts from the Drama Department and faculty-related documents and books. I also did an internship cataloguing thesis and graduate capstone projects at the College of Architecture at UPR. Being able to put into practice and seeing my mentors work as actual librarians was refreshing. It is fulfilling when one is able to put into practice all the theoretical knowledge acquired in class. This type of experience can help a student face the possible challenges in librarianship or address doubts about the profession that was not answered while taking a course. While working as an student librarian at the Seminario, I came across a blog, created by the previous student librarians, that gave best practice tips for cataloguing, pointed out cataloguing rules that need to be kept in mind while dealing with special materials, and observations about the cataloguing software that the University was using. Although the blog was not a face-to-face dialogue with the fellow students, it was my first contact that dealt with critical discourse about LIS and cataloguing practices.

What is the most interesting class you have taken in library school?

The most interesting class was Reference. The class was dynamic. Not only did we read important Reference texts, such as Katz, but also we read recently published articles about best practices.

Although working as a cataloger was interesting and gave me food for thought about the linguist aspect of subject headings, the class itself was tedious.
The most interesting class was Reference. The class was dynamic. Not only did we read important Reference texts, such as Katz, but also we read recently published articles about best practices. By the end of the semester each student had to make a reference collection focusing on a topic. Mine addressed socio-cultural factors about HIV/AIDS in minority groups. Although I chose this topic for my information needs course, I felt that the Reference course was more challenging. The final project, building a reference collection, required the application of previous knowledge obtained from other courses in order to make the reference collection work. This was one of the first courses that I had to incorporate other skills acquired in past semesters to do an assignment.

What is a trend in library science that interests you and why?

Yet, for me, not everything is about the web tools that make information more accessible. It is more of an issue of how the librarians accommodate their surroundings to meet their patron needs, how librarians enrich their institution through their knowledge about their culture and experiences, and the incorporation of diverse materials.

One of the trends that I am very interested in is the critical discourse about diversity and multiculturalism within the field. Although this has been only discussed openly in the US until recently, I find it quite interesting. As an academic librarian, I serve students that are from various places in Latin American and the Caribbean. Although Puerto Rico can be classified under the mentioned regions, I have experienced that these students have their own unique culture, custom and point of view regarding the education that the university is offering them. In addition to the cultural aspects of service, there are also patrons with special needs. Discussing or reading about how LIS should be more inclusive is one of the main social justice issues that was narrowly discussed in LIS School. It was sort of disappointing that while the School of Education at the University of Puerto Rico is taking part of this discussion, GSIST fell behind; especially when some professors were discussing the digital divide. Yet, for me, not everything is about the web tools that make information more accessible. It is more of an issue of how the librarians accommodate their surroundings to meet their patron needs, how librarians enrich their institution through their knowledge about their culture and experiences, and the incorporation of diverse materials.

What do you think are some of the greatest challenges facing training new librarians in your country?

This collection has countless books and historical documents, and it has become an unintended national repository. Yet, the University does not invest much of its budget into the preservation of the book itself, materials to clean it, or the place where it is stored.

The main challenge that librarians are facing in Puerto Rico is the preservation of special collections. To me this is probably one of the most talked about issues that many libraries in the country are facing. The preservation of special collections goes in hand with work conditions. Right now many libraries do not have the required budget or tools to preserve its collections. Also, many libraries are built in not so eco-friendly places. One of the main examples of this situation is the challenge that the Puerto Rican Collection at University of Puerto Rico is facing.
This collection has countless books and historical documents, and it has become an unintended national repository. Yet, the University does not invest much of its budget into the preservation of the book itself, materials to clean it, or the place where it is stored. Because of this poor preservation practice, many librarians working in this collection have to manage books that are covered in mold and fungus causing them to develop severe allergies and respiratory illness. Let’s not forget the fact that fungus is considered an epidemic that spreads and damages the rest of the collections. In 2013 many librarians at the University of Puerto Rico library system held a silent protest in which they wore surgical mask with messages about their work conditions. I would point out that this is another topic that is rarely discussed in LIS School at University of Puerto Rico. Although professors and students sometimes point out these situations in the hallway, they are not properly addressed in class because it is considered in bad taste to talk disparagingly about the profession. In fact, there is little research about this topic nationwide.

Where do you work? Describe a typical day.

I work in Universidad Metropolitana library in Puerto Rico as an assessment librarian. A typical day consists of developing policies regarding thesis and dissertation collection, or developing data gathering instruments for the current assessment project the library is working on. So far, the assessment project the library is focusing on is the relation between IL instruction workshops and the retention of first year undergraduate students. For the implementation of development of these instruments I work closely with the IL Instruction Program coordinator and the Faculty Liaison Librarian. The three of us plan and design activities that promote the library services, research tools and instructional practices to the students or professors of the university.

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