Using Teamwork to Make It Happen:

Interview with Spanish Subject Department Librarian Mary Torres, Cleveland Public Library

A “new American” and a new librarian, Marianita (Mary) Torres has much to share about honoring past experience and embracing present opportunity. Torres, a Puerto Rican–American, is able to use her knowledge of Latin culture in her role as Spanish Subject Department Librarian at the Cleveland Public Library in Ohio. As a former paraprofessional, Torres draws on her experiences as support staff, online student and librarian to serve her community. Library Worklife is honored to spotlight the rich cultural, educational and professional experience of this library employee.

Library Worklife: Thank you for speaking with us, Mary! Would you mind giving us a little background on yourself?
Mary Torres: I am the Spanish Subject Department Librarian in the Foreign Literature Department of the Cleveland Public Library. I enjoy my job because I am able to serve diverse populations with books and research. I also help with locating materials for patrons in their native languages. In addition, the profession has enhanced my skills, expanded my knowledge and enriched my life. I can vividly picture my first experience with libraries, a classroom visit with my second grade teacher. We all sat cross-legged on the floor while the librarian read us a story. Later we were allowed to browse the shelves and were permitted to take out two books. After that, I often visited the library after school and have continued to do so throughout my career. Prior to my undergraduate studies, I was not very familiar with computers, the use of a mouse and emerging electronic resources. Determined to progress and become computer literate, I borrowed materials from the library and with the guidance and instruction from my two nieces, I became computer savvy. Being exposed to computers, new technologies and my library has made a significantly profound and positive change in my life.

LW: What did you do before becoming a staff person at CPL?
MT: Before becoming a librarian, I worked at one of the local hospitals as a technician in the Central Sterile Processing Distribution Dept (CSPD). My duties consisted of inputting data into the computer, preparation of surgical instruments, kits and trays used in surgical procedures as well as sterilizing, storing and distributing medical supplies and equipment used in patient care.

LW: What or who inspired you to get your MLS?
MT: The sense of personal satisfaction I felt while sharing knowledge and information with library users inspired me to get my MLS. In addition, the most influential person has been my mother, Herminia Torres, who has always been supportive and encouraging. Not only did she encourage me to attain a bachelor’s degree, she also encouraged me to continue with my studies towards an MLS.

LW: Where and how did you go to library school?
MT: I accomplished my graduate studies through an online distance program at Texas Woman’s University. And if I had to do it over again, I would choose distance education. Distance education allowed me to continue working full-time and to take classes at my own pace. Without this resource it would have been inconvenient or even impossible for me to further my education.

LW: What was it like to take library school courses while working in a library?
MT: When I shared my experiences with my co-workers and family regarding some of my classes, they were amazed at the quality of education that is offered online. The integrated curriculum was awesome. I was able to relate to the hands-on experience which professors shared and I also interacted with professors and students about my own experiences. Some professors challenged us to think about the topics by playing devil’s advocate or forcing us to look at things from a different perspective. The classes also balanced the book theory with practical applications through projects, which enabled students to explore library environments in different types of libraries (i.e. Academic, Public and Special) and gain valuable experience.

LW: How were you able to balance your work, family and school?
MT: Taking distance course work requires self-discipline and dedication. I managed to continue working full-time, spend a little time with my family and worked out a time schedule to balance my reading assignments, projects, discussion boards, emails and exams. Sometimes classes were conducted live; the class met in an online chat discussion and reviewed chapters and assignments. At times, those synchronous sessions were a little stressful since students were expected to respond to instructor questions and interact without much time to prepare responses. However, this method challenged us to think quickly and critically.

LW: What are your biggest takeaways from the experience?
MT: The most significant takeaway for me has been the experience of online interaction with professors and students from diverse cultural and geographical backgrounds. It was just fascinating gaining valuable knowledge about the librarian profession and sharing experiences globally.

LW: What is your work like now?
MT: The Department of Foreign Literature has an extensive updated collection of popular foreign language materials in various formats, which also includes language learning CD-ROMs, DVDs, audiocassettes and video recordings. In addition, there are circulating foreign magazines which enhance the collection. In terms of public libraries, we maintain one of the largest Russian and Chinese collections in the country. I enjoy helping multilingual patrons on a daily basis and find it very rewarding. The Cleveland Public Library provides a welcoming environment through the Foreign Literature Department for “new Americans” and other interested patrons.

LW: Please describe any feelings on being a librarian now instead of a support staff member.
MT: I have been fortunate to be working at one of the best research libraries in the nation alongside reference librarians and other staff, each having their own strengths and areas of interest both in the traditional library setting and virtual environment. As a support staff employee, I was involved with daily tasks of desk and phone reference, computer assistance, processing incoming periodicals and indexes, weeding and monthly statistics. As a librarian some duties are basically the same, but I am now involved with reviewing materials, collection development, library and computer instruction as well as the planning, implementation and decision-making functions of the department. I feel that my education has enhanced my skills and knowledge in new information storage, retrieval and distribution.

LW: Please describe you feeling on union involvement, if any.
MT: While there is a union at my place of work, I like to remain neutral.

LW: What do you think about our worth as a profession and in the marketplace?
MT: In the marketplace with constant innovations making information more accessible, I feel that librarians and libraries have built value on the various approaches to knowledge and accessibility. By focusing on our goals of providing access to information in a variety of formats, promoting library services within the communities and providing a welcoming environment for “new Americans,” we not only enhance our services but also the importance of libraries. At the Cleveland Public Library we are successful because we use teamwork to make it happen!