Archivist Spotlight: Natalia Fernández, Multicultural Librarian, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon

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Tell us about your beginnings in librarianship and archival science, what sparked your interest in the field?

I grew up in “The Old Pueblo” Tucson, Arizona, and attended the University of Arizona for both my undergraduate and graduate studies. As an undergraduate, I majored in Art History and Spanish Literature. During my undergraduate years, I began thinking about graduate school when a friend told me about the university’s master degree program in information resources and library science. I began working at the university’s main library as a shelver and pager, and I spoke to a number of librarians about their work. My first experience in a special collections and archives was during my honors thesis research process, and the type of work done by archivists fascinated me. As someone who naturally loves to organize and categorize materials, the concept of being able to do that as a career seemed too good to be true, and it also seemed like a good match for my undergraduate studies. In 2008, I became a part of the University of Arizona’s Knowledge River program, a program that focuses on community-based librarianship and archival work to serve traditionally underserved populations. In addition to the program, I interned with as many archival repositories as I could and, again, sought out advice from others within the profession. My supervisors’ commitment to using history as a means to empower communities, educate the public, and celebrate heritage inspired me greatly.

How instrumental was the Knowledge River program in your career?

The University of Arizona’s Knowledge River (KR) program focuses on community-based librarianship and partnerships with traditionally underserved communities, with a focus on Latinx and Native American communities. The program trains future librarians to have a better understanding of library and information issues from the perspectives of Latinx and Native Americans, as well as to be advocates for culturally sensitive library and information services. I am currently the Curator and Archivist of the Oregon Multicultural Archives and OSU Queer Archives, as well as an associate professor, at the Oregon State University Libraries and Press Special Collections and Archives Research Center in Corvallis, Oregon. The Knowledge River program was quite instrumental in securing my position.

The KR program offers a great combination of theory, practice, and network building. As part of the program, all KR scholars are required to complete the course “Information Environments from Library and Hispanic and Native American Perspectives” during their first semester. The knowledge gained in this course was fundamental for me as I then applied a more critical lens to my other courses that did not include non-traditional perspectives. As part of the program, I worked as a graduate assistant at the University of Arizona Library Special Collections, which has a wide variety of materials pertaining to the Latinx community. I also worked as a graduate assistant for a local tribal community’s summer early literacy program. Because of my employment experiences as a KR scholar, I obtained internships and student jobs at a variety of other archival repositories. In part, this job experience helped me secure my current position. The other piece of the Knowledge River program that was instrumental in starting my career was the network of Knowledge River scholars and the reputation of the program within the field. While at the University of Arizona, my supervisor at the time had also graduated as a KR scholar. She had worked for my now current institution and acted as a reference. Now in its 16th cohort (I was in cohort 7), it is incredible to think about the ever expanding network of amazing KR graduates.

What does your current position as Multicultural Librarian at Oregon State University, entail (types of ethnic communities you’re working with)?

In November of 2010, I began my job as the curator and archivist of Oregon State University Oregon Multicultural Archives (OMA). In 2014, I co-founded the OSU Queer Archives (OSQA). The mission of the OMA is to assist in preserving the histories and sharing the stories that document Oregon’s African American, Asian American, Latinx, and Native American communities. OSQA’s mission is to preserve and share the stories, histories, and experiences of LGBTQ+ people within the OSU and Corvallis communities. The majority of my job for both archives is to collect materials, from both individuals and organizations, to add to the archives. I also curate exhibits and collaborate with other organizations on special projects as well as with professors for their classes.

Talk to us about the Latinos en Oregón Oral History project, how it started, objectives, and response from the community?

As the curator and archivist of the Oregon Multicultural Archives, I develop relationships with communities of color to share information about the process of documenting their histories, the opportunity to do so, and the importance of ensuring that their stories are preserved and made accessible to current and future generations. In the summer of 2014, I took a variety of research trips across the state and spoke with museum curators and archivists about their current and future plans to document local area communities of color. One of the predominant topics of discussion was the need to connect with local Latinx communities and better represent their experiences in the historical record. According to the August 2016 report, “Latinos in Oregon: Trends and Opportunities in a Changing State”, Oregon’s Latinx population in 2014 was 12% of the state’s population, up from 8% in 2000. Various archival repositories in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, located in western Oregon, such as the Oregon Historical Society, Pacific University, and the University of Oregon, have oral history collections documenting the Latinx experiences in their areas. However, the institutions with which I spoke in central Oregon did not; they recognized the growth of the Latinx population in their local communities and the need to document the Latinx experience. In early 2015, recalling my conversations and the research I had conducted, I had the opportunity to connect with members of the Madras, Oregon, Latinx community, and I jumped at the chance. Madras is a small town in central Oregon with a population of about 6,000 people, 38.5% of which are Latinx. In the spring of 2015, I began the Latinos en Oregón oral history project in Madras, Oregon.

The purpose of the Latinos en Oregón oral history project is to document the Oregon Latinx community’s stories, from their perspectives. Through the OMA, I wanted to connect with local communities to document the stories of everyday life – the family stories, traditions, opinions, and diverse perspectives – of Latinx communities in Oregon. The project has various objectives including: creating an archival collection for public access to increase awareness of the contributions and challenges of Latinx community members in Oregon; honoring and celebrating the state’s Latinx communities; establishing and strengthening relationships with and within the Latinx community; and most importantly, providing the opportunity for Latinx communities to be empowered to share their stories and have them become a part of the larger Oregon historical narrative.

In central Oregon, the project’s first collaboration began with the Oregon State University Juntos program, a program that partners with schools to provide Latinx families across Oregon with the knowledge and resources to gain access to higher education. In collaboration with my community liaison, I developed a set of questions that were modified based on each individual’s needs; but overall, there were five main sections for each oral history interview: family/ancestors, immigration stories, life in Oregon, topics/traditions, and plans for the future. The oral histories I conducted included questions about the interviewees’ childhoods and educational experiences, opportunities to share the stories of why and how they moved to Oregon, as well as their thoughts regarding life in Madras and the connections, or lack thereof, between the Latinx community and non-Latinx community members. A large portion of each interview consisted of the interviewees sharing their thoughts on a range of topics covering a variety of life experiences: cultural celebrations and traditions, religion, values, hobbies, etc.

The community response has been amazing. In 2016, I expanded the project to Yamhill County in collaboration with the county cultural trust, the local historical society, and the Latinx community organization Unidos, along with a dedicated group of community volunteers. In Clackamas County, Oregon, I partnered with the Canby Public Library, and most recently I began a collaboration with the Hood River Museum to expand the project in that region. For each collaboration, I worked with community liaisons who have already established trusting relationships with community members and who can act as advocates for the project. Early on, I realized I needed to build project capacity and sustainability, but also that I did not need to be the only one conducting interviews. I developed a flexible project workflow where I could conduct interviews in some areas, and train local community members in others. The result is that oral history interviews are added to the Oregon Multicultural Archives, but this approach expands the scale of the project and allows for deeper engagement within communities.

How do you envision the field of Latin American librarianship (in terms of archival collection development and outreach)?

Whenever I work on the Latinos en Oregón oral history project, I am reminded of how much more there is to document, analyze, and to celebrate. Listening to the interviewees’ stories of migration and settlement, their childhood experiences and thoughts on a variety of topics and family traditions, as well as their hopes and dreams for their futures and those of their children, is truly inspiring. The oral history collection is available for the communities themselves as well as to the public so others can learn this rich history. The field of Latin American librarianship plays such a powerful role in fostering understanding that enables people to consider the positive impact Latinx community members have had in their local towns, how people have adapted, and how communities have changed as a result of their presence. Due to our current political and social climate, now more than ever it is essential that we document, share, learn from, and celebrate the stories of Latinx communities, as well as other traditionally underrepresented groups. In this way, I hope that these stories encourage people to speak with empathy in their conversations, and perhaps have a broader and better understanding of what it means to be an Oregonian, and to be an American.

Finally, what has been the most rewarding part of your career as a multicultural librarian?

Along with the value of archival collections, especially oral histories, for scholarly purposes and the edification of the public, creating an opportunity for a community to tell its story can offer benefits to the community members themselves. A common response I receive when I ask an individual or family to share their stories is that they feel they have no story to tell. They may say that they consider their lives too ordinary for anyone to want to hear or that their kind of life’s story is one that is not typically told. As an archivist, it is incredibly rewarding to speak with community members about how much their stories matter, and about the positive impact that their stories could potentially have to those who listen to them. For communities who have been traditionally marginalized in both the historical record and in historiography, oral histories can be a form of empowerment, a way in which they can literally add their voice to the narrative. In addition, the process of sharing their story can be a personal opportunity for self-reflection and appreciation for the struggles they have endured and their life’s accomplishments thus far.

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One thought on “Archivist Spotlight: Natalia Fernández, Multicultural Librarian, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon

  1. Pingback: The OMA Featured in Memoria | Oregon Multicultural Archives Blog

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