A year of Pan-American LIS: some thoughts

La Fonoteca Nacional, Coyoacán, Ciudad de México

La Fonoteca Nacional, Coyoacán, Ciudad de México

I’ve been in Mexico nearly a year, and my Fulbright-Garcia Robles grant is up in two weeks. I’ve learned a lot here. I’ve learned a lot about things I didn’t necessarily start out to learn, which have been some of the most valuable parts of my stay here. Talking to people, writing to people, and visiting institutions to get an overall idea of how Mexican galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs) are dealing with the implications of taking on the responsibility of being the custodians of an onslaught of digital information and cultural heritage has been the core of my experience. I’ve also seen the imbalance of a global dialogue, one that tends to mirror the imbalances of global power and access to resources between the United States and the Global South.

My challenge is that the LIS community in the United States take a step away from eurocentricity (and whiteness) and embrace the fact that the Western hemisphere includes all of the Americas and the Caribbean. In fact, those of you familiar with my work know that I’ve written about this before (both in English and Spanish.) Sure, the United States shares a lot of history with Europe and European traditions, but it’s always been more than that, contrary to what many of our high school history text books might allude. The Indigenous, African, Creole, Mestizo, Asian, European–all of these traditions and cultures have agency and a role in the history and present of the United States, and we share that history of multiculturalism, slavery, colonization, and amalgamation with all of the Americas. We already know the LIS profession in the US has what Chris Bourg terms a problem with the “unbearable whiteness of librarianship.” This needs to change within the US LIS profession, but I argue we must also go one step further. We need to recognize that the US profession in large part has an isolationist attitude toward librarianship and professional practice. There is a need for greater consideration of geographic diversity, to recognize, without having to think about it too hard, that the US is part of the Americas and that the US LIS profession does not exist in a vacuum confined by the linguistic and cultural borders of the idea of a white, Anglo “America.”

La Fototeca Nacional, Pachuca, México

La Fototeca Nacional, Pachuca, México

GLAM professionals in Latin America and the Caribbean are paying attention to what is going on in the United States, but I would argue that few and far between in the US are paying attention to what our colleagues are accomplishing to the South. This has to change. For example, the Internet Archive purports to archive the web, and does have some measures in place for international outreach and is working with some Latin American institutions on capturing national domains. But many of its initiatives and programs are still US/English-centric, especially those programs that are innovative and attempt to harness the power of the Internet to bring about social and political change. There are individual, somewhat isolated efforts to mitigate this, such as the web archiving focusing on Latin American issues done at the University of Miami and the University of Texas at Austin. All worthy initiatives. But let’s take it further.

From the nearly forty institutions that I have had the opportunity to visit and get to know in Mexico, many of the challenges we face in the “knowledge economy” of the the 21st century are more often similar, not different, across borders. Mexican universities are building scholarly repositories and scholarly communications programs that champion the Open Access ethos, and they have arguably been Open Access advocates for much longer than most libraries in the US have been at it. They are finding ways to promote national and regional scholarship in a way that does not privilege the mega vendor system of knowledge distribution that has entrenched itself in US academic libraries. Museums, such as the Museo Universitario del Chopo, are experimenting with and making progress with capturing and preserving digital forms of art. Archives are digitizing their collections, but are also confronting many of the same major issues that archivists in the US encounter when it comes to project management, resources, and long-term digital preservation of these costly projects.

But what is really at stake is more than just technology, LIS practices, and the Open Access movement. As the US LIS profession (hopefully) diversifies and undergoes transformation, it simply cannot remain geographically isolated. This geographic isolation is just a further contributor to the whiteness issue in LIS. This growth and transformation period will not only require diversifying the ranks of librarians and archivists in the US, but will also require opening the borders of collaboration, discussion and sharing; and placing the US in context with a Pan-American approach to information work and knowledge economies. There are already some great efforts underway to get this started, like the work of GlobalDH; the more than sixty-year-old professional organization, Society for the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials; and the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Archives roundtable of the Society of American Archivists, namely the group’s Desmantelando Fronteras/Breaking Down Borders webinar series. Many large professional organizations such as the American Library Association and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) have groups focusing on Latin America and the Caribbean. These are all good starts, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to true inclusion and admitting the fact that US LIS is not a dangling extension of Europe; we are the Americas.