Latin@ Scholar Spotlight: Dr. Antonio Sotomayor, Librarian of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

By: Ana D. Rodriguez

Sotomayor. Illinois News Bureau 2

Tell us about your career in academic libraries, what motivated you to pursue a librarian position?

During my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, I always kept an open mind regarding professional alternatives. When the position of Assistant Professor and Latin American and Caribbean Studies Librarian opened at the University of Illinois, I was very excited about the opportunities it could provide. I was particularly interested in this position because it is a tenure-track faculty position in one of the best academic libraries in the world, with an equally unique Latin American and Caribbean collection. The required emphasis on research was a perfect match with my career aspirations: to educate and contribute to the academic conversation with original research. The educational work involved in libraries was and is very appealing to me. Librarians have a unique opportunity to impact the lives of students and scholars. As librarians, we are entrusted with the duty to organize information and teach the critical lessons of information literacy. I do this from the point of view of a published scholar. With students I not only discuss the (re)sources necessary for their studies, but I also talk about the ways to use them in a scholarly argument, and sometimes even how to organize them in a paper. I truly enjoy discussing the research process with everybody as well as to aspire to understand a region of the world we all are passionate about.

Sports and Nationalism are two prominent subjects in your teaching curriculum (looking at http://www.asotomayor.com), how do you get to this professional intersection (how you became an expert in these disciplines)?

My main scholarly interests are culture and politics. I find fascinating the ways in which groups of people find ways to define themselves. Particularly, I am interested in the processes by which societies identify themselves as a nation. National identity and nationalism are powerful concepts that have mobilized humanity in dramatic ways. Sport is a recent component in the study of nationalism and national identity, despite being an increasingly powerful social aspect of modern societies throughout the globe. To me, Puerto Rico represents an ideal place to study the power of sport in the process of national identity formation, especially the Olympic Movement, due to Puerto Rico’s special political and cultural condition: a colony of the United States considered a Caribbean and Latin American nation. Officially, an unincorporated territory of the United States for almost 120 years now, I find fascinating how this society has adhered so tightly to its definition as a Hispanic people, while possessing citizenship from a country mainly thought of as Anglo-Saxon (despite being really a multi-cultural country). The Olympic Movement plays a crucial role in this process of identity. By having a sovereign Olympic delegation, Puerto Ricans participate as a unique nation, with their own flag and anthem, and separate from the United States. By doing this as U.S. citizens, they challenge the notion of both the meaning of Latin America and the United States. That is, are they Latin Americans or U.S. Americans?  The answer is not easy and such requires close study. In this sense, Olympic sport participation provides a powerful component in a cultural practice of vital stature. Puerto Rico’s Olympic Movement also has a direct political role. Puerto Rico’s Olympic delegation acquires a prominent role in the discussion of whether the island can or should become a state of the Union. I argue that Puerto Rico’s Olympic delegation poses a serious obstacle to Puerto Rico’s bid for U.S. statehood, especially for local statehood promoters. But for the U.S., Puerto Rico’s unescapable profile as a Caribbean and Latin American nation should also be considered as they ponder on this prospectus.

As the Latin American librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, how you serve the community of Latin American and Latino students?

I serve the Latin American and Latino student population in multiple ways. I receive numerous visiting scholars and students from Latin America at the library. Given that my native language is Spanish, and that I’m also fluent in Portuguese, students and visitors can discuss their projects in their native language if they wish. This breaks a huge language barrier and they quickly become more comfortable and express better their research projects. Our conversations are thus more meaningful and productive, just the way I do with English speaking patrons. We have prepared introductory library guidelines in different languages, including Spanish and Portuguese, for those scholars new to the country who would like to begin their stay on campus on a familiar language.

But for all students, Latino or Latin American or Caribbean, I hope I can serve as a role model. I hope they can see that it is possible to achieve what they aspire to. I always enjoy being approached by a Latina/o student to talk about my experiences and trajectory because others did it when I was in their shoes. I’ve served as a faculty mentor, dissertation committee member, or simply a good listener. I like to think as someone open and available for mentorship, advice, or just chit-chat. I have also been asked by different Latino/a organizations on campus to give talks about my research, which I’m always happy and honored to do so. I was even invited to read to local elementary school children on Latino book night, and I found that particularly special.

Describe to LACCHA the focus (collection development policy or plan) of the Latin American Collection at Urbana-Champaign University Library. By materiality, by country, by Latin American communities present in the state?

Our collection development plan is comprehensive. Today, the collection is nearly 990,000 volumes, covering multiple languages and formats. It is one of the largest in the nation, known for its size and comprehensiveness. We have material from all countries and territories, but our strengths are the Andes, Brazil, and the Southern Cone. Nonetheless, we have many special items from all over the region including a strong Mexican collection that includes a series of legal documents from 1562-1623 New Spain, and a very rare collection of some 1,476 pamphlets from Mexico from 1813 to 1908. The papers of anthropologist Oscar Lewis, notable for his work in Mexico and Puerto Rico, are available in our University Archives. Our library has been collecting material on or about Latin America and the Caribbean since its foundation in 1867, when the library’s first collection included titles such as History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) and History of the Conquest of Peru (1847) both by the eminent historian William Prescott. By 1916, the collection had some 2,500 titles, covering multiple languages, and from different countries. Back then, the focus was Argentina and the Southern Cone, with Brazil also getting good coverage. Later, in the middle of the 20th century, Illinois’s responsibility under the Farmington Plan was Brazil and we began collecting more strongly on that country led by prominent scholars like economist Werner Baer and historian Joseph Love. At the same time, Illinois enjoyed a serious scholarly focus on the Andes with preeminent anthropologists such as Tom Zuidema, Norman Whitten, Joe Cassagrande, and Donald Lathrap, among others, while keeping its strong tradition on Brazil. After the 1960s, and as part of the University Library’s traditional commitment to collections, Latin America and the Caribbean grew overall, including Central America and the Caribbean, especially after the Cuban Revolution. All of this activity enjoyed a very productive partnership with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, one of the first to be established in the nation in 1963. Today, we still collect material (books, DVDs, music, serials, etc.) from all countries in the region. We have established a strong and productive collaborative relationship with specialized academic book vendors throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe that supply academic books in Spanish and Portuguese through a system of approval plans. I prepare an acquisitions profile that these book vendors use to select materials for us. This profile takes into consideration our traditional collection strengths, the current needs of scholars and students on campus, and prepares for future research coverage. A special focus on the collection since I arrived here is a Latin American and Caribbean Sport collection, the first of its kind.

How do you envision the panorama of Latin American scholarship in the future?

Latin American and Caribbean scholarship in the 21st century has to include the digital world. More and more students and scholars immerse themselves in the digital platform, and librarians have been good at embracing this now almost basic format. Websites, online research guides, digital humanities, digital scholarship, social media, are all the new turf and the landscape of the field. This trend is not necessarily driven by scholars in the U.S., but also many Latin American countries are developing initiatives and projects related to the digital humanities spectrum. Their robust open access policies for journals are more advanced than the States, and it’s up to librarians to disseminate this knowledge and show users how it affects their scholarship. That is, we need to effectively communicate that there are a variety of digital platforms that are of use in our scholarship. Organizing and optimizing the digital world is our major task. This is the aspect that’s missing in Latin American open access policies; there’s no consolidated space to gather all these journals. Redalyc and SciELO are starting points, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Not everything exists in digital form. Communicating and teaching our students that there are more books and other resources in the physical world than in the digital is another challenge. Teaching about online resources needs to include the important caveat that not everything is online, and much work needs to be done to locate all possible resources for our studies. Lastly, if we want to advance Latin American and Caribbean scholarship we must become part of the academic conversation and engage dynamically with the scholarly community. Librarians need to go beyond the library, as well as to bring people to the library, all in the effort to see the library and librarians as part of the scholarly endeavor. We need to attend campus lectures, as well as device programs or design our spaces so that the library community are seen as collaborators, teachers, and colleagues equally significant.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your career? (teaching Latin American studies)

By far the most rewarding part of my career is having a chance to talk to people about what most interests us: Latin America and the Caribbean. I enjoy working with undergraduate students, and having the chance to play a small roll in teaching them about this fascinating region of the world by introducing them to the plethora of resources. I enjoy explaining how to search, how to use the information, and even how to structure arguments based on the sources. I also truly enjoy working with graduate students because I make sure they are taking full advantage of the library. With them I push a bit harder and begin to inquire about experience with databases, archives, etc. I do this in the most casual and sympathetic manner because my goal is to develop a working relationship that, hopefully, will last their entire graduate career at Illinois. Lastly, but certainly not least, I enjoy collaborating with fellow faculty members. We are here to make sure we best prepare our students and to contribute to making Illinois a world-class institution for comprehensive research on Latin America and the Caribbean. I do most of this work through collaboration with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies. As such, dealing with visiting scholars is highly important. We want them to feel that their time at Illinois was very productive and that they have colleagues here that they can count on.

The other rewarding aspect of my job is collection development. I have been given the most challenging and extraordinary task: to steward and build on a preeminent collection at a world class library. I undertake this job with lots of humility, pride, and enthusiasm. The materials I acquire, the guides I curate, the resources I organize will have a much larger impact than my time at Illinois. I’m working on a bibliography of the collection done by the first Latin American faculty historian, William Spencer Robertson, from 1916. Robertson, perhaps the first Latin American “librarian,” sought to make a catalog of the library’s holding at the time, probably to evaluate our collection needs, to help others find resources, or to make a case to the administration to bring more attention to the collection. Whatever his intentions, he left us with a snapshot of the collection at a crucial time of the institution and, indeed the world, given that the “Great War” was fully underway. Back then, the collection was around 2,500 volumes in size. One hundred years later, the collection nears one million. Who knows how the collection will be in 2118 but knowing that I played a small role in the library’s collection during my tenure is truly exhilarating.

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