A conversation with Gina Schlesselman-Tarango
Gina Schlesselman-Tarango is the Instructional Services & Initiatives Librarian at California State University, San Bernardino. In this role, she teaches, provides reference services, participates in collection development, and is the library liaison to Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Gender & Sexuality Studies programs on her campus.
Chelsea: Hi Gina! Thanks for chatting with me. I’ve been inspired by your work on critical information literacy and feminist pedagogy since I was a student in graduate school and know our readers will learn a lot from you. What was your journey to librarianship like, and what made you decide you wanted research to be such a significant part of your work as a librarian?
Gina: While I had positive experiences with libraries growing up and in college, I didn’t become a librarian because it was something I had always dreamed about. Rather, I tried some things (waiting tables, working at a youth residential treatment center, teaching high school Social Studies, summarizing legal depositions) but never felt the same satisfaction I had while in school. I received my undergraduate degree in Sociology and Anthropology and a master’s in Social Sciences with an emphasis on Gender Studies, so I spent many years thinking deeply about how exactly this world around us operates, and the one thing I knew was that whatever career path I eventually chose, I wanted that thinking to always be a part of my life. While in my first master’s program, a very wise professor advised that if the pathetic job market for PhDs turned me off (it did), I should look into academic librarianship. The more I learned about it – that it’s a profession that involves skills I already enjoy and am good at, such as detail-oriented work, teaching, and research – the more obvious it became that this career would make sense for me. I ended up applying to library school and graduated with my MLIS in 2014.
As far as research goes, I guess I’ve always been drawn to it because I am a curious person. I get a thrill from working through ideas. I also find that most (but not necessarily all) of it involves spending sustained amounts of time alone, whether you’re conducting a literature review or coding participant responses or working out your own argument. Because I’m an introvert, I do like that time with my own thoughts – it’s something that isn’t encouraged with other jobs, but as an academic librarian with faculty status, research is a requirement at my institution. And on a more self-serving note, I honestly think there’s nothing more satisfying that seeing your ideas morph into a study or essay that is eventually published. You’ve created some sort of legacy that will outlive you and hopefully will be useful – or at least thought-provoking – to others in the field for many years to come. I think it’s super cool.
Chelsea: You’ve been in the field for just over three years and are already a prolific scholar. How have you approached developing a research agenda?
Gina: Well, I wouldn’t refer to myself as prolific, but I appreciate the compliment! I have two research agendas that aren’t mutually exclusive but are distinct in some ways. The first is focused on the scholarship of teaching and learning, which for me means looking at critical information literacy as a social justice pedagogy in higher education. Much of my work in this area has been presented in case study form, detailing how an idea or approach was or could be implemented in the classroom/library. This agenda is easier for me to develop – if I’ve done something that is successful and that I think others would find useful, I entertain the idea of writing about it. I think it’s quite common for librarians to conduct research that’s related to their day-to-day practice, but as others have said, we limit ourselves, our scholarly communities, and the profession when we are so practice-focused.
My second research agenda, and the one I’m frankly more excited about, links to my day-to-day experiences as a librarian but less explicitly so to my day-to-day practice. In short, I have been and continue to be interested in looking at how race and gender mark our profession. I think a big catalyst for setting me on this path was an elective I took in library school – Critical Race Theory in Education, taught by William Cross. In that class, I read an excellent chapter that has obvious implications for librarianship, a white- and female-dominated profession, and I started thinking about what would eventually become the Lady Bountiful article. More recently I’ve looked at how race and gender surface in aesthetics in librarianship, which was something of an expansion of the ideas presented in the aforementioned paper. I’ve also been looking more closely at whiteness and exploring critiques of anti-racist politics. The goal of this second agenda is to stimulate critical thinking about LIS as a profession and field, which will hopefully lead to more just and equitable ways of thinking and doing in library/information work and studies.
Chelsea: In those three years you’ve published and presented quite a bit, edited a book on whiteness in libraries, developed a suite of tutorials for faculty to incorporate information literacy into their classes, and you were named Librarian of the Year by your institution. How do you balance research with your other duties?
Gina: At my institution, we don’t get research days, so I squeeze it in when I can. Shortly after I started at my institution, I got a feel for what projects or type of work is best suited for which time of year. For example, fall is incredibly busy, so I don’t plan to do much of anything then. Winter and spring are a bit quieter, and summer is when I really have time to commit to research. What’s worked well in the past has been to think in year-long chunks of time. So I’ll map out what I want to get done when – for example, conduct a literature review in the winter and spring and write and submit in the summer. I also received the good advice to always have multiple projects going at once since after you submit something, it’s difficult to know when and if it might finally be published.
I should say that I don’t think I have good work-life balance. I’ve spent way too many weekends working on research behind my desk at home. I think there’s some sort of romance to that idea – the solitary writer typing away furiously at their desk, coffee and cigarette at hand (no smokes for me, however) – but I got over it pretty quickly and am trying to be more intentional about not taking work home with me. I also recognize that I’m not a caregiver, don’t need to work a second job, etc., so I can take the time to write if I want or need to, which isn’t a luxury available to everyone.
Chelsea: I know what you mean about the romance of the solitary writer. It’s something I was always drawn to but in practice can make for a relatively dismal reality. The ever elusive work-life balance becomes especially blurry when we love our work. As a naturally curious person who enjoys working through ideas, do you think the romance we can see in our dedication to our intellectual work can infringe upon our inner lives, or is it a natural extension and expression of them. Or, as with most things, is it different for everyone?
Gina: I imagine it’s different for everyone. Personally, I certainly see my dedication to intellectual work as an expression of my inner life – or perhaps it would be better to say my interests, preoccupations, and beliefs – and, of course, as a response to the requirements that I publish. And as I mentioned, much of my work entails critique – if you’re paying attention to the world, you can’t just turn that off. There’s an element of responsibility that comes with that. Definitely there are times when I wish I could tell my brain to relax (when I’m trying to fall asleep, for example), but that’s always easier said than done.
Chelsea: In your most recent article, “How cute! Race, Gender, and Neutrality in Libraries”, you pull extensively from other academic disciplines such as gender studies, sociology, cultural studies, and American literature. This is true of a lot of your other work as well. How do you feel this impacts your work conceptually and procedurally?
Gina: Conceptually, it makes the whole process that much more exciting. I like the challenge of looking at problems those in other disciplines are concerned with or have identified, and thinking about how those same issues might show up in librarianship. To me, it’s an exercise in imagination. Procedurally, it takes longer because you are taking a much broader body of literature and ideas into consideration. Defining the scope of what you’re going to look at can be overwhelming.
Chelsea: What advice do you have to new and/or new-to-research librarians?
Gina: I already alluded to this, but I would encourage new librarians or new-to-research librarians to look to topics and methodologies outside LIS. It’s very likely that most academic librarians have an undergraduate, if not additional graduate, degree in something other than LIS. Draw from those disciplines! Not only is there so much great stuff out there that can be applied to our field and that LIS can learn from, but it also can be so much more interesting. Nothing irks me more than running into folks in library land who insist that we need to write about our day-to-day activities, which typically results in research that doesn’t take into account the other forces that shape our world. I love this quote by Emily Drabinski, where she writes that “the field could stand to look up from our close reading of library problems to the social, political, and economic forces that structure those issues for us.”
Chelsea: Lastly, what are three sources of inspiration for you right now?
Gina: This is cliche, but escaping the built environment. There’s something so rejuvenating about being “out in nature” – it’s a huge de-stressor, and I often get some of my best ideas while on a hike. I’m really looking forward to attending a women’s backpacking retreat at Joshua Tree National Park in a few days.
Sianne Ngai’s work on aesthetics continues to fascinate me – I want to return to it, particularly her work on zaniness and the gendered dimensions of labor and precarity, as well as interestingness and classification and epistemology. I think there’s a lot to unpack there as far as how aesthetics like these manifest in library and information work.
I’m currently reading Sunaura Taylor’s Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. I think she’s added a critical dimension to Carol J. Adams’ analysis, which looks at the links between women and nonhumans. Taylor is also an artist, and her work is provocative, to say the least.
Chelsea Heinbach is an editor and co-founder of The Librarian Parlor. She is currently a Teaching and Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is interested in critical pedagogy, encouraging civic engagement through information literacy education, and curiosity. She tweets here.
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