By Juan Carlos Vega, MLS, Activist Librarian & Information Consultant. Article first published in SALIS News Vol.31 No.3 Fall 2011 – www.salis.org. Guest blogger and Steering Committee Member for the Network for LGBT Health Equity.
Someone once told me that my self-designated title, Activist Librarian, is a redundant one. Throughout our history, librarians have advocated for many issues pertaining to education, information access, copyright issues, and others. More recently, we face issues dealing with the relevance of library spaces and print books, since the emergence of the e-book and other current technologies have taken hold. Our profession is at the forefront of many local and national advocacy and policy issues. Although there may be a level of redundancy, my title comes from the need to show the world that librarians engage in more than cataloging books and providing assistance at a reference desk. My work as an Activist Librarian vigorously engages my information skills for social and health justice causes and community advocacy in Puerto Rico and among disadvantaged groups in the U.S.A.
In October 2010, I read a blog post from the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom, a group of library and information studies students who are interested in promoting intellectual freedom and social responsibility in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, that stated: “Social equality issues such as access to information, documentation of society, and free distribution of knowledge are core principles of modern libraries and archives. However, these principles are often de-accentuated in the day-to-day management of libraries and archives and information professionals can find themselves detached from a social justice perspective.” This post immediately resonated with my primary goals as a librarian wanting to disseminate information for healthier communities. My purpose as an Activist Librarian was to translate into action and steps to create change, information that otherwise would get lost among the information bombardment that we encounter every day. My title continues to be a direct action as a community advocate utilizing librarian skills.
Tobacco control has provided the framework to engage in other issues like Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual (LGBTT) equity, family health, obesity, and hate crimes. It was the basis from where the first LGBTT Community Health Survey of Puerto Rico: 2009-2011 was developed. We wanted to learn the smoking prevalence among this marginalized community. As of today, the survey showed a difference between the general population and the LGBTT communities in the U.S.A. in socio-demographic descriptive data, general health, tobacco use (39.7%) and some other health risk factors like alcohol consumption (64.8%). Due to this effort, the Puerto Rico Department of Health has included the LGBTT community as a population in disparity in its tobacco control strategic plans and has begun collecting gender identity and sexual orientation data in the local Quitline, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveil-lance Survey (BRFSS), and other surveys.
National and international organizations like Substance Abuse Librarians & Information Specialists (SALIS) Association, the National Latino Tobacco Control Network (NLTCN), the Network for LGBT Health Equity, the Latino Commission on AIDS, The Praxis Project, Lambda Legal, and Movement Matters have played a vital role in supporting local health initiatives and in my quest to disseminate current trends and models, publication development and promotion, conference and webinars opportunities, funding availability, and federal standards to follow. They are the portals to continue my work as a librarian in local communities while contributing to the national and local public health debate.
In March 2011, in coordination with volunteer community members, we put together the 1st LGBTT Health Summit of Puerto Rico. I managed all the required coordination using my library skills for information dissemination, publication development, use of current technologies, and integrating multicultural and multilingual perspectives. After several years of engaging in tobacco control in Puerto Rico, we were able to move to health and social justice work with over 140 participants, 36 panelists, and the support from national, local, health, and government entities that made this a historical success.
Librarians and information specialists need to prove our relevance today, evolve in our information gathering and dissemination skills, and engage interest from users. For the last four and half years I have developed relationships with researchers, community members, local coalitions, university students and professors, non-profit organizations, volunteers, and even try to show my nephews that being a librarian is a cool and wonderful profession. It has taken time to build these relationships, but my personal and professional investment has provided me with the opportunity to really understand the local perspective and what are their information needs to move towards healthier communities.