At Home in the World: an online conversation series bringing Area Studies librarians together

At Home in the World is an online conversation series that has brought together librarians from across various area studies groups to discuss topics of common interest. The organizers of the series programmed four events in the 2020-2021 school year that focused on the value of Area Studies Organizations, Open Access Initiatives, Ephemera Collections, and Advocacy. This is a grassroots effort with the goal to build an area studies community and network that can exchange ideas and experiences, opening the door for possible collaborations. While each event dedicates time to presentations, breakout sessions during the events allow participants to have conversations in smaller groups. In its first year the organizers of the series were Anna Arays (Yale University); Mireille Djenno (Indiana University); Karen Stoll Farrell (Indiana University); Lisa Gardinier (University of Iowa); Loyd Mbabu (University of Michigan); Mary Rader (University of Texas at Austin) Chiaki Sakai (Columbia University); Sócrates Silva (Columbia/Cornell University) and Ayako Yoshimura (University of Chicago). In our second year we are joined by Jade Alburo (University of California, Los Angeles); Heather Hughes (University of Pennsylvania) and Brian Vetruba (University of Minnesota). At Home in the World thanks Mireille, Loyd and Chiaki for being part of the group in its first year. 

Our  first event in 2022 is March 8, 1:00-2:30pm EST and will focus on Open Access and Equity issues, specifically in relation to publishing outside of the United States. Register in advance for the meeting.

The following is an interview with several of the organizing members of the series  

How did the At Home in the World series get started?

Lisa: I had talked to Karen Farrell in maybe early April, as I had just taken responsibility for South Asian Studies at Iowa in January. I had met her when I presented a project to IASC-21 at Indiana, and we talked about how it would be great to do some sort of all-area studies conference. Later in April, Sócrates Silva moderated a SALALM webinar on online teaching and mentioned online events and reaching across area studies were goals for his year as SALALM president (2020-2021). I suggested the three of us should talk, and Karen invited Mary Rader to that conversation. We finished that first conversation with an idea of an online series and a brainstormed list of other area studies librarians we wanted to work with.

There were a few emerging online library events this year that attempted to bring the Area Studies community together for various purposes. What was different about the At Home in the World series?

Ayako: The fact that our series was a grassroots effort made it very invigorating for me. We were a group of area studies librarians who wanted to know what we could do during the challenging time of the pandemic. Although this happened because of the pandemic, we learned that there were many ongoing concerns and challenges that many area studies librarians had been dealing with well before the pandemic. I learned that we had a lot in common. It was such a great opportunity for me to learn what other area studies librarians were doing and thinking. 

Lisa: We’ve had a very intentional focus on conversation. Webinars tend to be very one-way events, even with Q&A. We wanted to get our colleagues across area studies talking to each other. We have so many of the same conversations in our specialized organizations, often without realizing it. We have the same objectives, our work is so similar, but yet it’s oddly rare for area studies librarians of different specializations to talk, let alone collaborate. We wanted to make a space for that to happen. We’ve averaged over 100 people logged in for each event, so I think we’ve created something for which there is some demand.

Weirdly, I feel like our decision to not​ record the events is unique. It’s felt like almost every library Zoom event this year has been recorded, but we felt that with a focus on conversation (indeed, the panelists are largely intended to provoke conversation), recording wasn’t to the benefit of that purpose.

What approaches did you use to determine topics for discussion and invited speakers?

Lisa: We came up with a list of topics and a loose rule that speakers had to be from different area studies specializations. As we were planning the first event, on area studies librarianship organizations, we chose the topics for the next two events and divided our group of nine organizers into planning groups of three for each of the first three events. The smaller groups planning the events made decisions on who to invite and how to frame the event.

What other topics would you like to explore in this space that you didn’t get to and why?

Anna: I would like to see an event in this space dedicated to issues of diversity and decolonization. I think that area studies librarians are integral to the discourse surrounding these topics and there are important connections to be made with colleagues that work on diaspora, migration, and indigeneity. I’m hopeful that such an event will still occur, with enough time to plan. Time was

What were some moments that stood out for you throughout the series?

Anna: While breakout discussions aren’t for everyone, I was heartened to see that after every session, someone would report back on something revelatory or interesting they had heard in their group. I really think that the best thing about this series was that it enabled practitioners from all over the world to gather and discuss the field and make connections in ways they hadn’t previously considered. The moments that were really about the outcome of putting all these people together in the same room were the ones that resonated the most with me. 

Lisa: I was so relieved that it had worked, and worked well. I celebrated with a drink at my favorite bar’s make-shift patio (it’s a couple spaces fenced off in their parking lot) and that was my first drink outside my house in the pandemic. 

What were some of the challenges you encountered in putting these events together?

Anna: The logistics of running large Zoom meetings are very daunting, as are the limitations you encounter when it comes to keeping participants engaged and involved. There were times when a need for greater security necessitated deactivating Zoom features that might otherwise be useful, but despite those limitations we tried (and I think largely succeeded) to give people a variety of ways to engage with what people were saying and to feel welcome to share their thoughts and opinions. I think an in-person version of these events would ultimately be more satisfying, but it was great to see that convening these meetings at scale really is possible in a virtual environment, and that it can be done successfully by a relatively small team.

Lisa: E-mail? Good lord, it’s a lot of email. The third panelist always seems to be a tough one to pin down. There’s always one spot on the panel that has false starts and delayed responses. I’m not saying that to be judgmental — we’re all working in a pandemic! — just that it’s the reality of putting together an event.

This was a DIY grassroots effort. What are the advantages and disadvantages of keeping this series that way?

Ayako: It is great because it relies on people who care, but when that vigor and commitment are gone, our series might fade away.

Lisa: I would almost call it feral. We’re working outside of any organization, but in close observation of our organizations and networks. The event isn’t under the purview of any of our organizations or institutions, beyond announcements on listservs and the librarian hosting the Zoom event. We talked about, could it be better served by an institution (CRL?) or a group (IASC-21? the organization chair/presidents?), but ultimately the work would come right back to us, so it wouldn’t lighten that load. There is so much work to be done to connect across area studies librarianship, we’re just one piece of that.

What kinds of support would you need to keep the series going? Will there be future At Home in the World events?

Lisa: We’re planning on another year of events. The next year will help answer the question if this was just filling a need during a pandemic environment, or will the format continue to be useful?

For questions about this post you may contact Sócrates Silva, Latin American and Iberian Studies Librarian at ss5000@columbia.edu

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