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Interview with SALALM Scholarship Awardee: Emma Whittington

Portrait of Emma Whittington, SALALM Conference Attendance Scholarship awardee

How did you find out about the SALALM Scholarship?

I first heard about the SALALM scholarship through the UT iSchool’s listerserv, where a Dean had sent the announcement. I was also reminded by various colleagues at the library where I work.

Did you know about SALALM before you applied for the scholarship?

I had heard of SALALM before I applied; many of my colleagues are members. However, I didn’t know much about the organization or their aims until I applied to attend the conference.

Where did you earn your MLS/MLIS and what was your area of specialization?

I am earning my MIS at the University of Texas Austin. I am concurrently earning an MA in Latin American Studies, so that is my “specialization,” though within the iSchool program I focus specifically on archives.

What drew you to the field of librarianship/archival studies?

I had a long-standing interest in libraries and archives and recognized that I would likely get a Master’s in the field as early as my second year of undergrad. It wasn’t until I began doing archival research for my undergrad thesis that I started seriously looking into programs and considering my options. I did research using the University of Virginia’s Jorge Luis Borges collection, which led me to apply to a fellowship with the Rare Book School (RBS). These two experiences played a significant role in solidifying my desire to pursue a graduate degree, as did my subsequent position as a Programs Assistant at RBS.

When did or when do you expect to graduate?

May 2018

Do you have other graduate level degrees?

I do not currently possess any other graduate degrees, but will get an MA in Latin American Studies from the Lozano Long Institute at the same time that I receive my MIS, May 2018. The opportunity to work towards both degrees simultaneously has allowed some wonderful and unique chances to combine archival theory and practice with scholarly, archival research and helps me to think about the functions of the archive from many different perspectives.

How did you become interested in Latin America/Iberia? Describe your language abilities and experiences studying and/or traveling in Latin America.

I always say my “way in” to Latin American was through Jorge Luis Borges. I first fell in love with his writing when I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia reading his short stories in a seminar. It wasn’t until I learned of UVa’s incredible collection of Borges materials that I really started to consider how I could turn my interest in Borges into a career. During my thesis, I went to Buenos Aires to conduct interviews with various antiquarian booksellers—I was studying the history of several of the major publishers who published Borges material. This lead me to eventually move to Buenos Aires in 2013, where I spent one year living and working. I moved there specifically because of my interest in Argentine authors and my desire to become a confident Spanish speaker. While there, I traveled within the country and also made trips to Uruguay, Chile, and Bolivia. If all goes as planned, I will be back in Buenos Aires to conduct fieldwork for my Master’s thesis in the Summer of 2017. Meanwhile I am happy to take any trips to Latin America that I can; I’m currently writing this from Mexico City!

Have you worked with a Latin American/Iberian archival or library collection? In what capacity?

I serve as Graduate Research Assistant for the Special Collections department at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas Austin. I have held this position since September 2016. It’s a unique opportunity to get a feel for the day-to-day work that goes on in a Latin American archive, including everything from assisting researchers in locating records, pulling collection materials, maintaining order in the stacks, and processing archival collections. Since beginning, I have processed three collections. The first was a small collection of 47 items, all related to the Concrete Poetry movement in Argentina. The second was a collection of papers and business documents of William Schuchardt, who served as American Consulate to Mexico in the 1800s. The most recent project was a collection of legal records related to the Hacienda Palmira, an important property located in the region of Coahuila y Tejas and owned by the influential Madero Family. In addition to these collections, I also played a role in processing the Benson’s recent Ernesto Cardenal acquisition, and over the summer I held a temporary position at the Harry Ransom Center working to digitize materials in the Gabriel Garcia Márquez archive. Next semester I will begin working on the papers of Jacqueline E. Barnitz, a noted historian of Latin American art.

Were you able to attend the annual SALALM conference? When and where?

I was fortunate to receive a scholarship that allowed me to attend the May 2016 SALALM conference in Charlottesville, Virginia. The conference was a bit of a homecoming for me, as I completed my bachelor’s degree at UVa and loved having the chance to see old faces alongside new ones.

What was the most interesting or unexpected thing that you learned at the conference?

What surprised me the most was the camaraderie of the members, many of whom have been attending for many years. SALALM is one of the smaller conferences I’ve attended and I was really impressed by how well people seemed to know on another. I was also struck by the fact that many of the people in attendance hold long-standing affiliations with their institutions and have careers spanning 30+ years—something to aspire to!

Did you attend any committee meetings?

I did. I attended the committee meeting on Digital Primary Resources.

If you gave a paper or presentation at the conference, give a brief description.

I did not give a presentation because I was intimidated by the prospect. Now that I have been to a few presentations, met some participants, and gotten a feel for what the typical talk looks like, I will be much more likely to participate in the future.

Was SALALM helpful in the development of your career? In what way?

Yes. As someone who is still transitioning into the professional world, the exposure to the SALAM community was a great way to see who professionals balance their own work at their institutions with their desire to participate in professional development events. Many attendees came in and out of sessions or attended for 4/5 days; as someone who hadn’t really attended a major conference before last May I think the biggest thing I learned was protocol. I also really, really appreciated going to the panels; I know that I want to present at conferences down the line but until I saw other people give talks I wasn’t sure what that format was supposed to look like. It was great to see people who gave formal presentations right alongside more casual, informal talks that became opportunities to share professional frustrations or to get feedback on specific issues. It was a great experience.

I never would have been able to attend the conference without the scholarship. I was also very grateful for the per diem, which was more than I typically spend as a broke grad student. That generosity allowed me to pick up the tab for a couple of lunches I had with folks I met at the conference, which I think sent a great message about community building among SALALM. Also, the fact that the conference was in Charlottesville meant that I was able to see a lot of old friends and co-workers who’ve meant a lot to me over the years; I stayed for several days after the conference ended and used that time to catch up with old professors and mentors, as well as took a couple days to visit old friends and family. I am so grateful to have had that time as I don’t foresee being able to go back anytime soon.

Is the SALALM Scholarship listed on your CV?

Yes, and I suspect that having that award listed has helped me greatly. Since I was able to add that detail to my CV in May, I was hired first for a position at the Harry Ransom Center—digitizing the García Márquez manuscripts—and later for my position as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Benson’s Latin American Collection.

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