|"Helping English-as-a-second-language library patrons is a big part of my heart."
- Lucinda Wiley
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, UNT professor of library and information sciences, 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 -- currently 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 created the Rio Grande Initiative, a program designed to bring qualified, bilingual librarians to border communities.
The Rio Grande Initiative chose 20 scholarship recipients to help fulfill this mission. Some have already worked at border libraries, and the UNT program aims to enhance their abilities. All have been assigned to professional-in-training positions in public and academic libraries along the border.
While filling much-needed positions, participants in the two-year program also earn a master's degree in library science online through SLIS.
"In the past, we gave scholarships to students who came to us," Cleveland says. "Now we are going to the communities. Online distance learning has made this possible."
In addition to taking online courses, the fellows regularly meet to discuss their efforts in the program.
"If this program is successful, two things will occur," Cleveland says. "The participating libraries will gain an experienced librarian with knowledge of the local community, and these libraries will have had the services of a professional-in-training for two years."
The Rio Grande Initiative was developed with a two-year, $790,000 federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Together, SLIS and the IMLS collaborated 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 libraries participating in the program.
"There is no greater task for the people of Texas and New Mexico than increasing the socioeconomic status of their Hispanic populations," Cleveland says. "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."
Being bilingual and understanding the local culture is crucial because 78.3 percent of the residents along the border speak Spanish.
"The language can be a challenge," says Lily Torrez, UNT project coordinator for the initiative. "Many along the border are just beginning to learn English and the language barrier can be an intimidating factor for new library patrons."
Angelica Garcia was selected as a fellow after graduating from the University of Texas-Brownsville with a bachelor's degree in government.
"I needed a job," Garcia says, "but I also wanted to get a graduate degree. The initiative provided me with the perfect opportunity to do both."
As part of the program, Garcia works as a professional-in-training in the academic library at South Texas College in McAllen. Her family moved to Brownsville when she was 5 years old.
"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 of our patrons."
Rio Grande Fellow Dennis Daily works as a professional-in-training at the New Mexico State University 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."
Daily has 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," Daily 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 paper in Mexico.
The NMSU library routinely receives researchers from Mexico needing to access archival materials. Daily's proficiency in Spanish assists them in finding the necessary documents.
Fellow Lucinda Wiley works as a professional-in-training at the Brownsville Public Library. Wiley is in charge of creating and implementing programs to attract people 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.
"Helping English-as-a-second-language library patrons is a big part of my heart," Wiley says. "They need library efforts. But I foresee a day when that is no longer necessary."
Back to school
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," she says. "It has had a great impact on my abilities as a librarian. We help each other out when problems arise."
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," Alvarez 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."
Other partner libraries include the Thomas Branigan Library in Las Cruces, the UT-Brownsville library, the UT-El Paso library and the Weslaco Public Library.
These libraries not only contribute to the fellows' salaries, but they also provide mentors to help guide and develop them.
"I really want them to be leaders in their field and in their communities," Cleveland says.
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," Cleveland says. "This program has been a great recruiting tool for the profession and for UNT."