By Maddy Vericker, DLIS Student & eNewsletter Editor
Remember back in 2008, when budgets were slashed to oblivion, and the media was reporting that libraries were dead? Anyone working in or entering the field will tell you that while things are looking much better than they were even five years ago, presumptions about librarians and the future of libraries that entered the public consciousness during the Great Recession still linger. Any current MLIS student will tell you that he or she has had to defend the “point” of their degree to family, friends, and even chatty strangers, though usually the interaction results in a little enlightenment. Even within the LIS community, there can sometimes be tension between newer librarians and their more experienced colleagues. Fortunately, there are new librarians who are working their hardest to not only transform their own information organizations, but what it means to be a librarian in the 21st century. The American Library Association’s Emerging Leaders program unites these new librarians and groups them into collaborative teams that tackle issues essential to the future of librarianship, while introducing the LIS community at large to the next generation of leadership in the field. When I learned that DLIS alumna Katrina Ortega, MLIS ‘13, had been selected as a 2016 Emerging Leader, I had to know how her time at St. John’s DLIS and in New York City contributed to her success.
Like many librarians, Katrina Ortega was introduced to the profession by a caring advisor who inspired an “aha!” moment. While working on her Master’s degree in English Literature, Ortega felt that the grind associated with becoming an academic and literary critic detracted from all of the things she loves about reading and discussing literature. When her advisor suggested that Ortega take a look at library school and the MLIS, she found a profession that combined her favorite aspects of scholarship and literature with a working environment that supported her personal goals. Excited by the new possibilities, Ortega and her husband indulged a dream of theirs while accomplishing the first big step to entering her new career — moving to New York City! While location is key, Ortega ultimately decided to go to St. John’s for her MLIS because the Division offers outstanding academic and financial support to its students, and faculty are always willing to take the time to guide students toward their goals.
During her time with DLIS, in addition to working as a Graduate Assistant, Ortega took advantage of opportunities to intern at organizations around the city to explore the profession and narrow her interests. As a new DLIS student, Ortega planned to stay on an academic track and work in college and research libraries, but after completing an internship with a prestigious college library that went differently than expected, she began working at the Queens Library with the New Americans Program. Coming from El Paso, Texas, Ortega grew up in a diverse border city, and working with Queens Library users who are recent immigrants proved to be the second “aha!” moment in her LIS career, and she changed tracks from academic librarianship to public librarianship. Today, Ortega is Senior Librarian at the New York Public Library’s Hamilton Grange Branch on West 145th Street in Harlem, which is — fun fact — one of the original Carnegie-funded NYPL branches and a historic landmark.
One of the biggest motivations for applying to the ALA Emerging Leaders program, according to Ortega, was the opportunity for collaboration and networking with other service-oriented public librarians from across the country while becoming involved with ALA, our profession’s largest organization and advocate. The first meeting of the Emerging Leaders program was a day-long session at the ALA Midwinter Conference, which Ortega attended with the support of the Public Library Association, who selected Ortega one of two sponsored Emerging Leaders for the 2016 cycle. At this session, Ortega met with her teammates, public librarians from Dallas, Missouri, and Northern Virginia, and began collaborating on their signature EL research project, a poster that examines how prepared MLIS students actually are to enter public librarianship. The goal of this project, which is also sponsored by the PLA, is to make recommendations on how to improve LIS education for future public librarians. Ortega explained to me that collaborating with her EL peers from diverse library systems has enabled her to conceptualize how her group’s recommendations for LIS education will have real-world application in ALA-Accredited schools across the US and Canada. Today’s public librarian needs to be comfortable working with diverse populations in diverse cultural environments, and Ortega’s group hopes to reflect that reality in their research project, which will be presented at a reception this June at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando.
Ortega’s passion for creating change and serving her community is reflected in her selection as an ALA Emerging Leader, and her work as a public librarian follows the Vincentian Mission of service that is at the heart of DLIS and the University. Ortega agreed that what she loves most about working in public libraries is the ability to focus her energy on service to the diverse community of users who use library resources — something I suspect she may like even more than reading.