by Ana D. Rodríguez
Here in SAA LACCHA we strive to present and stay current of events and people in connection to Latin American and Latin@ archives and libraries, in and out of U.S. borders. Traditionally the focus has been on archivists advancing changes in the field or promoting their work. By adding this section we’re hoping to expand and diversify our archival focus to profile places and stakeholders who have carved also a pivotal role in the development of Latin American and Latin@ scholarship.
Last month of April I had the opportunity of sitting down with one of my colleagues, Gayle Williams, head librarian for the Latin American & Caribbean Information Services Center at the Green Library of Florida International University (FIU). My intention was to talk, know more about her career and life as a Latin American studies librarian, and professional ties with SALALM, and indeed, what an amazing career Gayle has had!
My first question is about your genesis in the field, how you first became interested in Latin American studies?
It was like a lot of things, where I had taken on one interest and it can often converge with another interest. Just started with taking Spanish in the ninth grade. Much against my will, my mother and stepfather pretty much said, “well, we think you should do that.” I wanted to take Latin because I thought that would be cool, and they were like, “no Spanish is more practical.” And even though this didn’t make sense, I wanted to take Latin. I didn’t want to take Spanish because I thought it would be like mathematics which I’ve never been very good at, and I thought it would be one more group class where I will get a C. Instead, what I discovered was that I had a facility for languages, and then, kind of prophetically, my very first Spanish teacher in the ninth grade was Cuban who came into the US at age 17 in 1960. My school was his first place to teach after he got his college degree.
Did you grow up here in Miami?
No, I am from Oklahoma, and that’s where he got his degree, at one of the Oklahoma schools. It was just the fact that I did discover that I was good at languages, so I kept taking it all through high school. At the same time, in the seventh grade, I was returning to work as a volunteer in the library, so before I started college I knew I wanted to be a librarian. Then the question came up of what can I do, because I don’t want to give up knowing Spanish, and is there some way I can work with that? I started discovering there were these people in libraries called research librarians and subject librarians or bibliographers who worked precisely on one specific area. So that helped in all. Because in college was where my interest in Latin American studies came. In Oklahoma the usual reference people had with anything with Latin America are Mexicans, and not in the best light unfortunately.
And that was because of agriculture?
Yes, because of day laborers coming in. That was my point of reference when I started college at Oklahoma State University. I was going to the Spanish club meetings, and the students from Latin America attended this. We had mainly young men, only very few women, but essentially they were in the big programs at Oklahoma State, in petroleum engineering because they were from Venezuela and even Ecuador. A lot of guys in the agriculture school who were also from Venezuela but whose families had huge cattle ranches, and a lot of Colombians who were in different programs, a lot of them mainly in business. One of them was someone I got to know quite well, and he was in business because his father was a big executive in Avianca, the national airline. The idea was he was probably going to go back to Bogotá and follow in his father’s footsteps. What was interesting about that was meeting these guys who also spoke Spanish, but a little differently. It was also, of course, finding out that a couple, some of them, would not eat Mexican food. Because when they got to Oklahoma, ever again, everyone assumes if you have that accent and you speak Spanish we assume you’re Mexican. So people were, you know, it was the usual thing of, “I am going to invite you into my home because you are a foreign student” and then they serve them tacos. And then, some of the Venezuelan guys never saw a taco. So that was also news to me but it also got me, okay so there is a common language but there are these differences in culture and food that I don’t know anything about. And that was really what started my interest.
Then again by the time I started taking library science courses as an undergrad, I found out that I could focus and maintain my Spanish. Initially I thought I was just going to get my MLS at the University of Oklahoma’s program, but then I started going to Austin, Texas on spring break to visit a friend there, and she said “well you know, the University of Texas has one whole library that’s filled with books from Latin America” [the Benson Latin American Collection]. So that’s how I also discovered the library school program also had a Latin American bibliography track. My mother was a little shocked when I announced to her, “you know I am not doing OU, I want to go to University of Texas,” and that meant out-of-state tuition, and I convinced her that this was important to me for my career. She said, “well you know you’ll have to work while you’re in school,” and I said that’s fine. So that was really the start of where I got my interest in Latin American studies.
And when you started, the program was one year or it was still two years like now?
It was a two-year program. I started in spring of 76, and William Jackson, who taught there for many years and did the Latin American bibliography courses, was starting that fall. He was an interesting person, and I just found out he passed away about two years ago. A very nice man in many ways, but a little eccentric. For one thing, in the 1950s and 60s he apparently had a friend in the State Department who was always funding him to go on all these different kinds of fact-finding trips about the state of libraries in Latin America. He was also instrumental in helping build a library science program in Medellín, Colombia, that’s there to this day. Because in Latin America they realized they didn’t have formal library science training like in the states, so he was involved in that. So he was a good person to get to know.
The other nice thing when I got to UT, since I already knew Spanish, I wanted to learn Portuguese which I hadn’t been able to do at Oklahoma State. The course at UT had a whole immersion course for grad graduate students only, and even though it wasn’t going to count for my library degree, I took it. It was a lot of fun because, of course, about 85% of us in the class already knew Spanish. Once you know Spanish, learning Portuguese is very easy since they are both romance languages, and I called them cousin languages. Our language instructor said, “well you have to go to language lab, but most of you already have good pronunciation, and you are understanding things, so I’m going to leave a bunch of my Brazilian music records and you can listen to those instead of all those dumb tapes.” That was really nice that I also got to bring in Portuguese as part of the background, and again just having that opportunity.
For a lot of my coursework that the classes actually took place at the Benson Latin American collection. I eventually started working there. My first job at UT I worked my first semester shelving books at the main old library where the tower is. That didn’t last very long. Then I got a job for a year as a filing clerk position that no longer exist, filing the cards into the card catalog at the Humanities Research Center, the preeminent research collection at the University of Texas with strong emphasis on American and British literature, 20th century culture theater and so on. I was also spending a lot of time, as we said “up the hill” at the Benson, and when a clerical position came open there I was able to apply and get it. It was also really nice and I got to work at the Benson.
It was an interlibrary loan position with a very fancy title, the Benson liaison interlibrary loan clerk, which meant the main interlibrary loan department on campus sent over all the requests that were for things that were held at the Benson. The librarian who I reported to would leave those books in my box, so it was up to me to prepare the things that needed photocopying or microfilming, and pulling the books needed to go out in interlibrary loan, and she would approve which could and couldn’t. It was a great job because I got to know the collection inside out—that was one way that I started learning more about the rare book collections and archives, especially since rare books don’t circulate. I often had to go to the rare books room and asked them to bring out a copy of something so I could get an estimate on how much it would cost for photocopy or microfilm, and one of these requests was for quite a large set of early 19th-century Mexican government documents. One day when I walked in, and it was a bad day because the clerical staff were out sick, and the head of the rare books room was really frazzled, she had all kinds of people there. When I told her what I needed she thought about it very carefully, looked at me and said, “Gayle, I think I can trust you. You worked with us for a while now. I just don’t have time to bring everything out to you the way we normally do, I’m going to let you go into the rare book stacks and work with what it is you need to get so you can keep working on the estimate.” It was a rare privilege because she was a very wonderful woman but very strict, so she almost let no one else in who wasn’t in.
So then from UT Austin, how did you land here at the Green Library?
Boy, that’s quite a few different jobs. Actually, my first job as a librarian was at UT. I got my library degree, my MLS at the end of 1977, so I was starting to apply for jobs, not just as a Latin American specialist, but also just anything general. I knew I needed to get some experience, and during sometime in spring 1978 the head of the Benson collection, Laura Gutiérrez Witt, as I was walking by one day, and she saw me and she gestured for me to let her approach her. She said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard yet that we just got this big federal grant from the Department of Education that involved cataloguing the backlog.” It was an immense catalog backlog over the main library of the Latin American books, more than anyone could do.
Was that because of a lack of specialized staff?
Oh no, they had one full time monographs cataloger working just on Latin American books and, probably books about Spain as well. There were just way more than she could keep up with. They had approval plans for acquisitions. The Benson still gets massive donations and gifts because a lot of people out there in the world think it’s very highly prestigious to have their books sitting in the Benson Latin American collection. Part of this grant was both to do some special acquisitions and micro-filming, but the other part of it was to try to keep up or just dispose of some of the cataloging backlog. They were going to hire the first year three librarians, two to do monograph cataloging, and one for serials. She said naturally if you apply you’d really be reporting to the cataloging department of the main library, and I really encourage you to because I know this is what you are interested in. So I applied for the position and I had really no background in terms of being a cataloger except I taken the usual cataloging courses including an advance class on LC classification and OCLC had just started. So yes, we had an OCLC terminal in the library school and they would let us go and have time to sit down and play with it, but I still wasn’t exactly sure how to use it fully.
So basically you started your career at that point when the card catalog was being replaced by computers?
The card catalog itself still took a few years for it to be replaced. It was the cataloging process that was being replaced, with OCLC of being able to share cataloging records from throughout the country. It meant that the days of also having a clerk typist who typed out cards sets, which is something I have also done, was going to end. You’re sitting in a terminal, and you do all your work with preparing a cataloging record through OCLC, then, everything batches, you get these long boxes of cards in the mail, and you file them into the catalog. UT was pretty standard with a lot of places, but it was still taking about 10 to 15 years to the real transition of having an online catalog. But that really started in the late 1970s, and that was the end goal.
I was happy with the idea of cataloging because actually, the other position I’ve had for years while I was in library school was as a clerk in the main library’s reference department. And again, this was when the main library on campus was still in the big administration building that has the famous Texas tower where the guy went up and unfortunately shot and killed people in 1960s, 1966 actually. But they were running out of space in that building. So in 1978 the Perry Castañeda Library opened on campus which is now the main library. So that had already opened and, what I discovered when they hired me, was they like to hire people from Library school because it would give us an experience with dealing with the public. Since I’m still at that point fairly introverted and shy, I did discover that I didn’t really like working with the public that much, based on that experience. Whether they were students or faculty members, people came in wanting everything, blaming you if we didn’t have the latest addition of a reference book that we would sometimes point out, that we don’t even know if there is a newer edition than this. A lot of people don’t like cataloging because it’s very detail oriented, it is away from the public, but I was satisfied to go into it. Also, just because it was a way to start having a Latin Americanist librarian job, so that was fine with me.
What a very interesting beginning, I’m pretty sure that cemented your foundation as a librarian, definitely.
I think every reference librarian should do cataloging for a year. I think every cataloger should be a reference librarian for a year, even if they each come out of it saying I’m never going to do that again. I think it would give them each a better perspective of what’s involved. Catalogers tend to think that reference librarians are the ones buying all these weird books that no one ever reads, and then sit in their offices to drink coffee all day. Where we are the ones that have to get the stack of books catalogued in and out constantly, it never stops. And, reference librarians think, well these catalogers all they’re hipped on is they want to get periods in the right place, instead of getting our advice on good subject headings to use, they don’t listen. They want to use these stupid subject headings that don’t make any sense. I still feel that way to this day, because I was a cataloger for the first ten years of my career. To me it was an invaluable foundation for understanding bibliography, understanding how to find things and why things are organized the way they are.
On the first year of this Department of Education Title II-C grant, the position was only going to be for a year and it only needed one librarian for cataloging serials. At the end of my first year, the other cataloger they had hired with me had already left for a permanent job, and so had the serials cataloger. We had already met our goal of cataloging backlogged monographs as it was projected in the grant, so for the last month and a half of the job I was kind of afraid, and my boss said, “well since we met the goal on the books and the serials cataloger left, we are going to have you work with Oscar, the Benson’s main serials cataloger so you’re going to expend the last part of your time cataloging serials.” It meant I learned how to catalog serials because a lot of catalogers really, when I was a cataloger most catalogers, just like people are right-handed and left-handed, most only fit into one format of it. Monograph catalogers and the serials catalogers, or maybe once in a while I am a music catalog, even rare or AV catalog. I thought I was the ambidextrous cataloger because I could catalog in two different formats, which I thought was good.
At the end of that year I had applied for the next job in the meantime, just to be on the safe side. I had interviewed for a position elsewhere that I didn’t get and I was waiting to interview for the new grant for the serials cataloger position. I thought I will have a good chance of getting it as I have already gotten some experience. They had hired someone temporary to come in who had a lot more serials cataloging experience. Also, there was a position I saw for a cataloger at the College of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas at the US Virgin Islands. I vaguely knew what the Virgin Islands were, that, you know, that is clumped over somewhere around Puerto Rico, and I knew where Puerto Rico was. I was just trying to figure out how I could work as a librarian in Latin America. I looked into it and it turned out that it was really not that easy to do because, of course, I would’ve been a foreign national.
And you probably needed a visa?
Yes, just all the things that I was young and just not understanding that, but here’s this position in a U.S. territory in the Caribbean, and I thought, why not go for that? So, I applied for it and they flew me down to interview me; it was my first time going to the Caribbean. I’d been outside of the United States a few times, like the summer I turned 17 I got to go on one of these big high school five-week trips to Europe. Also, with my family, we had been over the border into Mexico about three or four times starting when I was age 5. I wasn’t a neophyte to being outside of the U.S., but I was not an experienced traveler either. Essentially, I interviewed for the job, came back to work, and a couple weeks later I was walking into my department from a meeting, and everybody was kind of jumping up and down, “you got a message from the Virgin Islands and they said they want you to call them back.” That was when they had made me the offer, and then my boss said, “well you know,” she just talked to me confidentially, “I really think you should go ahead and take that, as you know the other person is more experienced with cataloging serials even though you’ve been doing a good job, so probably this should be a good opportunity, although it’s not quite Latin America but it’s the Caribbean and this is something you want to do, I think this would help you.”
So, then I had to figure out how you moved to the Virgin Islands? In terms of not just getting on a plane that I discovered that most airlines have airfreight, air cargo and that was how you could move, cause back then I didn’t have a lot in the world. I had just my clothes, but I did have some boxes with few books, and little kitchen goods I had. I couldn’t take it all in the planes, and that was when I discovered what you could do.
I’m imagining you in your process of moving…
I didn’t have anyone that I can really call to say, how you move to an island? Especially because I was in Austin and my family was up in Oklahoma, and as my mother thought it was kind of crazy that this is something I wanted to do. After I moved to the Virgin Islands, as soon as I got there within six weeks she is calling saying, “can we come for a visit?”. Meaning her and a longtime friend of hers that I grew up with who I considered an aunt, and I said sure.
So again, now the College of the Virgin Islands is now the University of the Virgin Islands, I got there and that was a very different experience. The first thing I discovered was people spoke a different kind of English. Just because in the West they had their version of a West Indian accent. How they spoke, how they pronounced certain things, they talk fast. I talk fast as an English speaker but they did it with a different rhythm, so I was wandering around in my first week there, when someone would say something like “can I help you today?” Every so often someone would say, “well, that’s a pretty Americanized place, so it probably wasn’t a big deal for you.” It’s a U.S. territory that is still part of the West Indies where you have a predominantly African descent population, and they can be a little suspicious of newcomers on the island. There are different ways of doing things, and you have to learn, and if you want to get along with people you have to take up a little bit of how they do things and not always think that everything you know is always best or superior.
There was a humbling process with it. The first six months were the hardest. I got there just after a big hurricane, and it meant that when I went to apply for phone service, the hurricane had just downed most of the power lines. It took six months before I got a phone in my first apartment, and luckily it wasn’t an apartment complex on the highest point of St. Thomas, and I had a phone booth. I had to go out and call my mother collect just to let her know how things were going, and that I was okay. One month she complained because my sister had just moved to New York and was doing the same thing, and the collect calls were adding up pretty quickly, and she said, “maybe you don’t need to call for every little thing unless it’s an emergency. Maybe you could wait to call me every couple of weeks.”
It was an interesting position because I was one of three full-time librarians. The director of the library, who’d been there since the college was founded in 1962, and therefore, he was one of these people who thought it was his library only, and that he knew everything to do best. Then, the full-time reference librarian and me as the cataloger. My title really should have been head of technical services, because I cataloged but I also was in charge of getting the cards filed. That job was also living catalog history because after having been used to using OCLC for cataloging and name authority, then I get to a place where we don’t have it, and we still were doing the old-fashioned thing of ordering our card sets from the Library of Congress and then, typing in the headings often. I wasn’t managing serials or acquisitions; the director took care of those.
For how long did you work at the Virgin Islands?
I was there for two and a half years. The first day on the job he said, “well, I don’t know anything about cataloging, so whatever you do back here is fine.” My predecessor left a whole shelf of books along one wall that were waiting for me to take care of, because apparently CIP, cataloging in publication, was still fairly new. She had books sitting up there waiting for the card sets, and it was like, we don’t have to wait for cards sets. This is revolutionary when I told my boss, “you know I can go ahead with a lot of these if we’re still waiting on the card sets. The CIP gives you enough information to put a call number on it, to label it, and get it out of the shelf.” He just thought that was wonderful, but it was also living cataloging history because every time we got a new supplement of the national union catalog, I would go through it. For anything that I needed to order, or to see if they had it in there, so that I could go ahead and photocopy and also start making cards.
It was very different but I also got into the early steps in terms of collaboration because it turned out that the public library system there did a catalog of Virgin Islands documents holdings. That would show which of us had the Department of Health annual reports, the police department statistics. I found out about it because one day I got a phone call from the woman at the public library who coordinated it [the Virgin Islands documents]. Because when I walked in, my predecessor had left no notes or anything about where things were, and again, I had a boss who had no idea what cataloging was.
It turned out that there was a large amount of Virgin Islands government documents just sitting in the back. She was very upset because they actually coordinated getting the copies to our library and into the library on St. Croix CVI campus. She said, “if you are not going to really catalog these, or add your holdings so we can put it into the catalog, I think we need to stop sending them.” So, I said to her, “now let me look into it.” And, so I did. My boss tended to say, “those things are not worth that much, and I don’t want you to spend a lot of time on it.” But, I already looked through them and they’re all serials. I said, “all I have to do is add these to the holdings record in my shelf list, and that it really is not to take much time.” I didn’t tell him that a couple of cases that I was going to have to do some more cataloging because there were names’ changes. I made that my little secret so he would approve.
I also worked reference there one evening a week, so that meant I had a day off where I could go get errands done, and that was really good. It was a good position in a lot of ways that I was interacting, because again in terms of both the local Virgin Islanders, there were populations of people from other neighboring islands like St. Lucia, St. Kitts, and Nevis, visitors from places like Barbados. I was getting a real sense of West Indians. You always think there’s the Pan West Indian, Pan Latin America, everyone coming together because of the commonalities of language, of geopolitical situations. But, you also realize one among all the different groups how they can also differ. I liked to joke that by the time I lived there, I could tell by accent, I could distinguish a native St. Thomian from a second-generation St. Lucian. I just started to pick up on slight differences in how they each spoke.
It was a job that I knew I wanted to move on from because it got to a point where I had done everything there that I could do. There were no real new challenges, and as much as I liked living there, and my mother would, if I had just stayed there permanently, my mother would have moved down and bought a house. But I realized, the longer I’m down here, I’m going to miss out on—I was mainly thinking of myself still as being a Latin American cataloger—in missing out on everything going on with OCLC because it was still relatively a big deal. And, the other part of it was realizing too, when I got my MLS, I realized that to be a Latin American subspecialist, I really didn’t have a great background. My B.A. was in Humanities, which was a great do-it-yourself degree because you could take courses from a variety of areas, and I think they like you to choose two major areas, and mine were Spanish and an undergraduate library science. I was only one course shy of having the equivalent of what it would’ve been a B.A. in Spanish in Oklahoma State. I knew I didn’t really have the subject background. When I was finishing my MLS at UT, I was looking into the Masters in Latin American studies program there, and wondering, should I go ahead and start thinking about enrolling? But at the time, because I got right in from my undergraduate to my graduate degree, I was 21 when I started my MLS which is very young since it’s usually a secondary career for a lot of people.
Gayle, how competitive was the field of library science back then? Now we have many librarians with multiple graduate degrees, but back then, how rare was that?
It was not that rare really. Some of the earliest people in SALALM that I met were doing this. Didn’t always have a PhD but they usually had, at least a Masters in Spanish literature as opposed to actual Latin American studies. But know this, in my area I have always contended, we are actually one of the narrowest job specialties for which there is a high rate of competition. If you look at ads for other positions that can go begging better but still very valuable especially science librarians of all disciplines, those positions can be very hard to fill. Again, it’s a very narrow pool because you do need the educational background. So, I decided that I was tired of being an overworked and underpaid student. I wanted to get out, start working, and get a little experience. My sense was for myself that by the time I was 30 I needed to be somewhere that had a good and a strong Latin American studies graduate program that I could get in. That was part of the other reason that I knew I wanted to leave St. Thomas.
That’s what worked out. After two and a half years there, I went to the University of New Mexico. I was there for seven years, and again, I was hired primarily as a cataloger but the librarians in New Mexico back then were also tenure-track faculty. As I remembered seeing job ads for them in the late 70s, it would have been black type “faculty status obligatory,” in that it would blacktop boldface, it would say, “Publish or Perish,” to make people understand they were serious about that. So, I was hired there as a librarian for the, what we call the Ibero-American cataloging team, and actually was a split position. I was working both in monographs and down in the serials department, on their serials cataloging team as their Latin American specialist. Because again, I could catalog in two different formats.
The other opportunity I had at New Mexico was that because of the faculty status, most librarians there, not just the people in public services, had a subject selection assignment. So, they were asking me would that be something of interest, because it’s changed now in New Mexico but at the time subject selection was actually spread out with the person who had been considered the head bibliographer. Then, there was a reference librarian who was also a Latin American specialist, and so was the team leader for the monograph cataloging team. They were very interested to see if that was something I wanted to be part of, and I said very much so. The woman in reference, she’s been doing literate language and literature because she had an MA in Spanish literature from Duke. Since that was really my strongest area in terms of subject preparation, she wanted to give it up and work more on some of the social sciences assignments, especially women studies. Because, again, kind of the growing thing, it was a new discipline within libraries to look at for collecting. So, I was also able to get my feet wet with collection development in New Mexico as well as being a cataloger, which was really good and it was also where I started learning how to work with faculty as their liaison.
Forging ties and collaborating with faculty…
Yes, and also because New Mexico, just as Texas, had a very robust collection. There was the Institute of Latin American studies, that was a Title VI program, and the director there was a strong advocate and supporter of us at the library. He freely gave us funding for our work and for travel. When I first got there he was like, “we want to take you over to Miguel Merck because he will give you travel money as well as the library to go to SALALM.” So that was really great.
Did you become a member of SALALM from your work at New Mexico?
I was already a member, because when I was in library school, again Bill Jackson, my professor, he was president of SALALM around that time for the 1978 meeting that got held in London. He was encouraging the group of us that he was teaching in the Latin American bibliography courses. This was an organization we should all belong to and it had, of course, the usual student rate that made it less expensive. So, I think I joined as a student, and I don’t really remember anymore, but certainly by the time I finished my MLS, I had joined SALALM. My first SALALM meeting was in 1979 when I was a cataloger. Because of my position as a cataloger, we were actually over at the Benson, because even though the Perry Castañeda library was new, the cataloging department was already out of space for adding three new people. The Latin American serials cataloging unit was already over at the Benson because it also had an acquisitions module. So, they just put us under the supervision of the woman who was in charge of that unit. Even though for the two of us doing monographs, she said, “no, monographs are not my thing.” And this was to help us with the monographs cataloger back at PCL [Perry Castañeda], they put in a phone that only went to her office number. You couldn’t even dial it. If we picked it up, it would ring, and if Anna was sitting at her desk and she would answer it, “Hi, this is Anna.” “Hi Anna, this is Gayle, I have a question about this kind of subject heading,” and that was how it was, part of how we learned.
So, in 1979 SALALM, like ALA, used to have midwinter meetings. It no longer does. UT and the Benson Collection was hosting the 1979 SALALM midwinter, so they were encouraging me to sit in on the meetings, and Laura Gutiérrez Witt, she had a reception at her home for SALALM members, and good people volunteered to pick them up at the hotel and drive them to her house, and I did that. You know, that was my first meeting with Peter Johnson who was the bibliographer at Princeton for many years until he retired in 2002; and with Margarita Anderson Imbert, who was the bibliographer at Harvard for a long time. Her husband was the famous Enrique Anderson Imbert, who if you studied or took any course in Latin American Spanish literature, you would’ve used his textbook. It was the standard in the field. That was my first exposure, and actually, my first SALALM meeting was in 1979 when it was held at UCLA. Then, it being at the Benson was a tremendous advantage because people would look at my name tag that said, University of Texas. I was just part of, as far as I’m concerned – part of the group. “Oh come on over, come with us, we’re to go out of the patio, we’re going to have a beer, why don’t you join us.” “So tell us what Nettie Lee is doing these days.” I didn’t know Dr. Benson that well. She was retired but she was still at the Benson working with the last of her doctoral students, and then using the library on her own.
And that was a funny thing too because I was never formally introduced to her [Nettie Lee Benson]. She made it her business to knew who everybody was working there. So, when I finished my MLS and I was job hunting, she came up to me one day and said, because I applied for a half-time position in the reference department at PCL and I didn’t get it, she said, “well, are they going to hire you for that or not?” because she had a very strong Texas accent even when she spoke perfect Spanish. I said, “I haven’t heard yet,” Then she said, “well, you know there’s that job at Florida, did you apply for that? Do you want me to call Rosa? You know Rosa Mesa, the head of the Latin American collection there?” And I went to Laura Gutiérrez Witt, a couple of years later, I was telling her that. I said “I didn’t even know if she knew who I was,” to Laura, because Laura had been Dr. Benson’s protégé. Laura just smiled and said, “oh believe me, she had her own way of finding out everything about everybody.” She said, “yes, from when you were hired, she would have found out who you were, she would’ve found out that you were in graduate school of library science and everything that she could about you.” So that was kind of strange but a good thing.
I got to know Dr. Benson a little, which really is something I’m very happy about. That is because some of the other leaders of SALALM, the women at the time, the woman from Florida, Irene Zimmerman. She only passed away in about 2005. She was already retired but I never had the pleasure of meeting her. There was another woman, her name escapes me now, but who is actually Brazilian who married an American. She had been working up at Northwestern. They had this early-on cataloging project called the “Venezuelan project” where they were helping create an online catalog for the national library in Venezuela. They had a grant and they were thinking about trying to hire one more person. That was another job I applied for it, but I can’t think of her name, just terrible. Because I never got to meet her in person but I talked to her on the phone. Emma Simonson, that was her name, and people in SALALM just sang her praises. Because they had Nettie Lee who tended to be very opinionated and strong-willed. They also had Marietta Daniels Sheppard who was one of the women who kind of brought SALALM out of under the wing of the OAS (Organization of American States) as an independent organization. Marietta would run these meetings to tell everybody what to do.
I have five more minutes
It’s okay. You have a very interesting career, and I didn’t know you worked at the Benson and the Virgin Islands too.
Okay, so I can compress it from there. So, New Mexico seven years. I started my Masters in Latin American studies, finished it, and there was an ad for a job at the University of Georgia as a Latin American studies bibliographer. My colleague Russ Davidson at New Mexico, who was pretty much our chief bibliographer for Latin American and Iberian collections, encouraged me to apply. Russ gave me many reference letters over the years. It was a brand-new position. It was just time to go in some ways. So, I moved on. I was at the University of Georgia for 13 years which is actually a little bit longer than I would’ve preferred. They had a small Latin American studies program there, and the library administration didn’t necessarily support what I could’ve really been doing. I had a very small budget but, on the other hand, Georgia was where I really started doing much more in terms of information literacy at the risk of bibliographic instruction. That was something I worked on. So, there were things about Georgia that were not great but, the great thing that I really worked on with Georgia were my relationships with the faculty. I had an advantage. The person who is now in charge of Portuguese at Georgia had been there for about three years. She got her PhD in New Mexico where I knew her. We knew each other, we weren’t good friends but we became and we’re still very close friends to this day. Because I had Brazilian literature as one of my big areas in my Masters, but I also had gotten to know the Latin Americanist in the history department. So there were people that I started finding out, who were the ones offering classes and wanted me to do instruction for them, and they’d bring the class over to the library.
And then, the other thing that happened towards the last about three years at Georgia that was really exciting to me was the Latin American Research Resources project, LARR, had been in existence for about not quite ten years. They had gotten one of these Department of Education grants with an even crazier acronym that I will not go into. Essentially, it was a grant to help enhance what they were doing with building a periodicals table of contents database. They had started it as a pilot with just journals from Mexico and Argentina but they wanted to expand it. They wanted to have a coordinator who could actually work with different libraries in Latin America, train them to input into the database. So, they wanted someone to do it on a half-time basis and, Georgia was only too happy to do some salary savings. So, from 2000-2002 I was half-time at my job in Georgia and, half-time in LARR as the Latin American partners’ coordinator.
I was doing about two trips a year, but first we had to find a partner had a good regional collection of Latin American journals. We did CIRMA in Guatemala, the big research Institute, rather than just one of the Guatemalan universities that would only have Guatemalan journals since CIRMA had a regional collection. That meant part of my duties were spending about a week to ten days with the different partner libraries, to show them how to input the database. That part was really easy but, then also, talk to them about what their selection assignment should be for the titles they needed to put in. We wanted them to avoid duplication with HAPI, the Hispanic American Periodicals Index. That was really a great part of my position because it strengthened my Spanish for one thing, because I was doing training all in Spanish except when I went to Trinidad for the University of the West Indies.
I was really proud when we brought in the University of Puerto Rico as a partner. The library director, you know, UPR can be somewhat bilingual but some people really don’t speak much English. Then, the director who was fairly new, I convinced him to let them be part of this. If he knew English I never could figure it out but, he wanted me to meet with his technical department heads, because some of them when they heard about this project they had nightmares about what it meant. The head of interlibrary loan sitting at the table across from me said, “so you’re telling me I am going to get hundreds of interlibrary loan requests now from libraries in Chile and I have to fill them.” And I said, “no, it’s nothing like that.” I was doing all the speaking in Spanish and, the woman who is head of cataloging said, “I just want to tell you that I speak English and I speak Spanish, and that I could never do what you’re doing right now in English,” she said. And believe me, I’m still not really a fluent Spanish speaker.
But there is the fact that you understand it, and you have an interest in improving yourself.
And the library director said to them, “I haven’t heard her speak English once since I met her. We’d only spoken in Spanish on the phone.” And speaking Spanish on the phone is often, you know, “can you speak very slowly please.” Or, the other thing I find when I travel to Latin America, I never have a problem making myself understood but, I always seem to find when I’m out on the city street and I’m a little lost, it always seems like I find the people to ask directions from are usually people who have dental problems. So it’s like a little old man with no teeth, so probably even the locals in that vicinity can’t understand that guy.
Do we have to wrap it up?
I have to go, but I have a couple more questions. You don’t mind if I send you an email? They are very important but, it has been a pleasure talking to you. I have learned so much from you right now.
Five more minutes with Gayle
Can you tell me, again (share with me) how you first became interested in Latin American Studies?
Let me finish here. I left the University of Georgia in 2003 and became Emory University’s first Latin American & Iberian Studies Librarian that same year. I was at Emory for four years and very content there. However, when I saw the Florida International University vacancy, I evaluated my future career, and thought FIU might provide some new challenges. I was right!
How long you have been associated (part of) with FIU Green Library?
I started working at FIU in September 2007 so I’m just a few months from my 10th anniversary.
Which current subjects you deal the most? Areas of expertise?
I work most often with history and literature but have provided assistance for sociology, international relations, political science, anthropology, African diaspora studies. Cuba, Venezuela, and Haiti are currently the countries I get asked about the most. My MA in Latin American Studies emphasized Brazilian literature and history. I’ve developed a strong knowledge of Brazilian Cordel poetry, Latin American cinema, and Caribbean history.
How do you envision Latin American librarianship in the future?
Latin American librarianship for the foreseeable future has its feet in both the waters of traditional acquisitions/collection development, and an increasingly virtual environment. Buying print material that’s not available in another medium is still crucial to providing a good research collection. At the same time, we need to chart which publishers and creators are switching to fully digital delivery. The potential for digitizing heritage collections and employing digital scholarship methods to research also provides a rich and exciting future for the Latin Americanist librarian.
How is your involvement with SALALM? Your history with SALALM?
I became a SALALM member by the time I received my MLS, and have become increasingly more active over the years. I have the honor of being a Past President, twice elected as SALALM Executive Board member-at-large, and have served as Local Arrangement host/co-host for 2 meetings: Athens, Georgia in 1995, and Miami, Florida in 2013.
I founded SALALM’s official listserv, lala-l in 1991, and continue to serve as its listowner. I have chaired numerous SALALM committees and task forces. I have been editor of the SALALM-published Annual Bibliography of Latin American & Caribbean Bibliographies since 1992. I have moderated several panels and delivered papers at annual meetings. I helped broker getting the University of New Mexico Libraries to host the SALALM Secretariat in the 1990s. Because SALALM is a small organization, members get to know one another very well plus there are always new attendees which means I meet someone new every year. SALALM is my top professional priority, and attending the annual meeting is like being at a family reunion.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Sharing my expertise with students so they can best utilize our great resources at FIU and beyond is what means the most to me. That process often puts in me the territory of new research demands which means I’m often learning from them while sharing what I know.
How much has the city of Miami changed in terms of Latin American populations?
The Latin American populations were pretty much in place when I arrived so I can’t say I see much that’s different over ten years, especially when I compare it to my time in Georgia where I did witness massive demographic shifts of Mexican and other Hispanic populations, first in north Georgia, and then Atlanta, when I went from UGA to Emory.
Finally, do you have any words of advice for incoming (future) Latin American librarians?
Understand the balance between the subject expertise and technical skills needed in the workplace. I’m not going to be impressed by a resume with a whole page of software programs and apps someone’s mastered if they can’t speak to the subject needs for a particular collection. Maintain flexibility when it’s necessary to expand your subject expertise. You may have an MA or Ph.D. in Mexican history but if you’re at an institution where Mexico isn’t a priority, put your skills to use in learning the rigors of a new region and/or discipline. The best thing a new librarian can learn is the art of building a professional network to draw upon for support and guidance. That’s where a professional organization like SALALM can come into play.