On the border

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Rio Grande River meanders for more than a thousand miles through the parched land demarcating the United States and Mexico. In recent years, drought and other factors have nearly halted the river's flow. However, water is not the only resource in short supply. Communities along the river in Texas and New Mexico are experiencing a shortage of librarians.

Ana Cleveland, a professor of library and information sciences at the University of North Texas, says many librarians hired to work in border communities are not bilingual and fail to understand the local culture. That's led to a high turnover rate and unfilled professional positions -- from one to six professional vacancies per library.

Cleveland and Philip Turner, UNT professor of library and information sciences and vice provost for learning enhancement, learned of this shortage from their peers at various border libraries and schools. In response, UNT's School of Library and Information Sciences, or SLIS, created the Rio Grande Initiative, a program designed to bring qualified, bilingual librarians to border communities.

The initiative

Under this initiative, 20 students are named Rio Grande Fellows. They receive two-year scholarships to earn a master's degree in library science online through SLIS while working in professional-in-training positions in public and academic libraries along the border. Some scholarship recipients are assigned to libraries in their hometowns, having already worked in the libraries there and seeking to enhance their skills through UNT's program. The students meet regularly to discuss their efforts in the program.

Cleveland says if the Rio Grande Initiative proves successful, the participating libraries will gain not only the services of a professional-in-training for two years, but also "an experienced librarian with knowledge of the local community" when the students receive their degrees.

A challenge

SLIS developed the Rio Grande Initiative with a two-year, $790,000 federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, with both collaborating with border libraries to implement the initiative. The IMLS grant pays for the fellows' tuition and fees. Their salaries are paid by the grant and the participating libraries. The libraries also provide mentors to help guide and develop the students.

"I really want them to become leaders in their field and in their communities," Cleveland says.

Cleveland says increasing the socioeconomic status of Hispanic populations is an important task for both Texas and New Mexico.

"Since this can be primarily achieved through increasing the participation of these populations in our higher education system, we believe libraries are the start of that process," she says.

She says librarians in border communities must be bilingual and understand the local culture because 78.3 percent of the residents along the border speak Spanish. Lily Torrez, a project coordinator for the Rio Grande Initiative, notes that many of these residents "are just beginning to learn English , and the language barrier can be an intimidating factor for new library patrons."

Rio Grande Fellow Angelica Garcia works as a reference and circulation specialist in the academic library at South Texas Community College in McAllen. A native of Matamoros, she immigrated with her family to Brownsville when she was 5 years old.

She applied for the Rio Grande Initiative after graduating from the University of Texas-Brownsville with a bachelor's degree in government, and says the program provided her with a perfect opportunity to work while earning her graduate degree.

"Being in the program is very rewarding," says Garcia, a reference and circulation specialist. "Because I'm proficient in both Spanish and English, I'm able to serve all our patrons."

Another fellow, Dennis Daily is a professional-in-training at the New Mexico State University's library in Las Cruces.

"This grant is allowing me to do something I couldn't have done otherwise," Daily says. "I have a wife and family to support. Without this grant I couldn't have paid for my master's degree."

Before becoming a Rio Grande Fellow, Daily worked for several years with colleagues in Mexico, microfilming historical documents.

"There are a lot of historical documents in Mexico that still need to be microfilmed, especially those documents pertaining to colonial New Spain," he says. "When only a single paper copy exists, it's very vulnerable. The microfilming project not only preserves these documents, it also creates wider access to the material."

Last year, Daily presented a paper about his microfilming efforts to the International Congress of Archives in Austria. He later presented the same paper in Mexico.

Fellow Lucinda Wiley is assigned to the Brownsville Public Library, creating and implementing programs to attract patrons 18 and under to the library.

"Libraries have traditionally neglected teens and tweens," Wiley says. "I try to create cool programs for young adults."

She says professional bilingual librarians are needed along the border "because we are dealing with a non-traditional culture of library patrons."

"We have to educate newcomers as to what libraries are for and why they should come," she says.

Wiley says she's particularly fulfilled in helping library patrons whose primary language is not English.

"They need library efforts. But I foresee a day when that is no longer necessary," she says.

Another fellow, Rosie Alvarez, works at the Speer Memorial Library in Mission, where she does reference work and handles interlibrary loans. Through the Rio Grande Initiative, she has created contacts with librarians all along the border.

"I've made friends from Las Cruces to Brownsville. It has had a great impact on my abilities as a librarian. We help each other out when problems arise," she says.

Alvarez says she initially had some doubts about applying for the program.

"I was apprehensive about going back to school after more than 20 years," she says. "But after completing the first two semesters with A's, I'm more confident than ever about my academic abilities. I'm really grateful for the chance to realize my dream."

The Rio Grande Initiative stands as the only program of its kind that has reached out to border libraries and that is nationally accredited. The fellows are scheduled to graduate in December 2006. Cleveland says the next step is to apply for a continuation of the grant so the initiative does not disappear like its namesake.

"Other border libraries have been showing an interest," she says. "This program has been a great recruiting tool for the profession and for UNT."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108