At Its Core, Area Specialist Librarianship Has Always Been About Building and Maintaining

At Its Core, Area Specialist Librarianship Has Always Been About Building and Maintaining

At its core, area specialist librarianship has always been about building and maintaining collections of materials from a specific world region—in my case South Asia—and assisting scholars in using those collections for their research. While this mandate has remained constant over time, changing conditions in academia, global publishing, and the world economy have shifted the ways in which area specialists approach this work. Today’s information landscape is characterized by an overabundance of information in both print and electronic formats and it is easier than ever before to acquire vernacular language materials from overseas. Despite this wealth of material available for purchase or curation, South Asian materials remain less visible than their US and Western Europe counterparts on the web, and stagnating or shrinking collections budgets require thoughtful, collaborative collection development. In addition to a new emphasis on building collections that are distinctive and specialized rather than comprehensive, today’s South Asia specialist librarians also expend significant energy on public engagement and outreach activities in order to put their highly specialized materials into the hands of scholars. Though previous generations of scholars have published about South Asian librarianship, their focus was largely on collection development and reference resources. There is a pressing need to update the professional literature to better address more contemporary issues such as developing niche collections and public engagement and outreach.

My research began with a broad focus on these newly emphasized competencies and evolved into a more narrowly focused inquiry based around one distinctive collection I have been developing, the South Asian comic collection. This trajectory was an organic evolution that was only made possible by having thought deeply about area studies librarianship as a field, refining my professional activities as a librarian, and having developed experience and confidence in employing qualitative research methods.

My early work has built a foundation from which I can expand to address niche collections. This foundation is useful not only for the purpose of laying the groundwork for future research, but it also establishes a baseline for how South Asian studies librarians build their collections in order to benchmark our collecting practices. My 2015 article, “Beyond Library of Congress: Collecting Practices of South Asia Area Specialist Librarians” surveyed my colleagues from the Committee on South Asian Libraries and Documentation (CONSALD), the professional organization for South Asian studies librarians in North America, to examine the extent to which we continue to rely on the SACAP program today and the extent to which we acquire materials using other methods. My findings show that South Asian area specialists continue to do the bulk of their acquisitions using SACAP, which underscores the importance of collaborative initiatives such as the annual collaborative collection workshop, as well as the importance of building up areas of unique local specialization. This work was published in the highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal Library Resources and Technical Services (LRTS).

A follow-up article on challenges, opportunities, and best practices overseas buying trips was accepted by LRTS to be published in 2017. Overseas buying trips are particularly effective for acquiring rare and unique materials, and therefore a valuableacquisitions technique for building distinctive collections. Overseas buying trips require specialized knowledge of a geographic destination and its publishing landscape, as well as experience in collection development as these trips take librarians outside of their home countries and institutions for the purpose of developing their international collections. I became interested in learning about these as I began planning my first buying trip to India in February 2013. I found the planning process to be complex and challenging and was concerned by the limited availability of substantive peer-reviewed studies about overseas acquisitions trips. I interviewed South Asian studies colleagues about recent buying trips and found that while they are complex to plan, they are one of the most effective ways to get unique materials, build an international network, and deepen relationships with major vendors. My work in this area led to my being invited to co-present on the topic of overseas buying trips to heads of area studies libraries from across the nation at the International and Area Studies Collections in the 21st Century conference in 2016.

Given the amount of time, effort, and money it takes to build international and area studies library collections, it is important to periodically assess our collections. Assessment ensures that our collections are meeting the needs of our users and also helps us prove a return on institutional investments. I have been part of a group working on an innovative way to assess the impact of area studies collections. Analyzing local circulation data is an insufficient way to measure collection impact, especially in the case of highly specialized collections which may have a narrower readership. Our study looks at the Interlibrary Loan (ILL) statistics for Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL) materials[1] to assess the impact of our multilingual language collections. The article, for which I wrote the methodology, the majority of the results, and half of the literature review, was published in 2015 in one of the top peer-reviewed journals in the field, College & Research Libraries, and demonstrates that area studies materials have a national impact and are used not only by large research libraries, but also by federal, state, and local governments, community colleges, public libraries, and many more.

While the study of ILL statistics for LCTL materials was insightful, we found that limiting our analysis to LCTL materials gave an incomplete picture since many areas, including South Asia, have significant publishing output in Commonly Taught Languages (CTL). A 2014 grant from the University of Illinois Libraries Research and Publication Committee has allowed my group to expand and improve upon our previous work to look at ILL statistics based on country of imprint. Preliminary findings that have been presented at the Charleston Conference and the 2015 Association of College and Research Libraries conference indicate that including CTL materials causes the lending statistics for South Asia increase significantly. Based on the feedback we received at our presentations, we expect that some of our area specialist colleagues will adopt this as an assessment method at their own institutions. We plan to submit an article about this research to College & Research Libraries this spring and have several additional presentations scheduled for the summer.

In addition to evolving collection development practices, public engagement and outreach activities are an increasingly integral part of area studies librarianship. This is especially true at a land-grant university such as the University of Illinois. I have put a lot of effort into developing innovative public engagement and outreach programs that encourage students to expand on what they are learning in class and interact with the local community to exchange ideas about the world we live in. One of my current research projects explores a collaborative engagement program I developed with a History lecturer to assess how engagement activities can provide much needed support to non-tenure track faculty and how using a library event as the focus of a project-based learning assignment can enrich undergraduate education. The article which will be submitted to Portal: Libraries and the Academy in February 2017 may provide a model which could be applied in other courses or contexts.

The last three years of using research as a platform in which to critically assess my collection and engagement activities as a South Asian Studies Librarian and to think about trends in area studies librarianship more broadly, has provided a solid foundation of professional practice and has enabled me to develop some exciting professional projects such as the South Asian comic collection. The South Asian comic collection has proved to be one of the most interesting, challenging, and impactful undertakings of my career and I am now inspired to shift my research focus to Indian comics. The inspiration came from a scholar based out of Delhi, India who contacted me to inquire about planning a research trip to Illinois to use our collection because, generally speaking, libraries in India don’t collect comics. I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about the status and perception of comics in India, the value of popular culture preservation, and the role libraries should play in preserving popular culture internationally. I wondered about any ethical implications of a scholar having to travel overseas in order to have ready access to products produced in their own country.

Answering these questions is an ambitious and exciting undertaking that will call upon all the experience I have developed in doing research using qualitative and case study methods, as well as my deep subject knowledge of South Asia. Given that there is very limited research on Indian comics outside of the disciplines of history, comparative literature, and cultural studies, I have planned a multi-step research plan. To begin, I developed a research proposal to do an exploratory study of the changing status and perception of comics in India. I traveled to Comic Con in New Delhi in December 2016 to conduct semi-structured interviews of comic fans, publishers, and artists to ask about how they perceive Indian comics and what place they think they have in library collections. The results from this first trip will be utilized in several ways. First, I intend to submit an article to Library Quarterly to discuss the findings about fan and publisher perspectives on whether Indian libraries ought to be collecting comics. In the meantime I will also prepare a Campus Research Board application to undertake two additional trips to India in order to get an idea of whether there is regional variation in these perspectives, and to interview librarians to get their perspective on the value of comics for libraries and as part of India’s popular cultural heritage.

I am uniquely positioned to be able to undertake this project given my experience working with libraries, the body of knowledge I have built up around South Asian comics, and my extensive network of comic artists and scholars in India. The timing is also ripe for this sort of work given that after a period of stagnation and decline, the Indian comic industry is evolving, growing, and attempting to find international recognition. My hope is to leverage this project into an eventual monograph on popular cultural heritage preservation in India using comics as the starting point but expanding to include other popular cultural products unique to India pulp fiction, films, and Hindu poster art. This will be a vital contribution both to the field of South Asian Studies overall, and for librarians who collect materials from South Asia.

My research trajectory began with an inquiry into trends in area studies librarianship, especially around collection development and engagement. This first phase of inquiry served to help fill a gap in the literature concerning best practices for South Asian Studies Librarians and, I hope, provided some interesting models and ideas to be adapted by other area specialist librarians. Through this work I was able to improve my professional practice as a librarian and also gain vital experience in using qualitative research methods and case studies.Having established this foundation, I am ready to apply these skills to an ambitious project about South Asian comics that will allow me to make unique and valuable contributions to scholarly discourse around Indian popular culture, especially where it intersects with questions of cultural preservation and the role of libraries.

[1]LCTLS is a designation used in the United States for languages other than English, Spanish, French, and German.