International and Area Studies Library -Interview : Mara Thacker,South Asian Studies Librarian


By Vinita Jain

I met Mara Thacker in her library and discussed about her work briefly. She gave me detail description of her work and personal profile of her career.

Recently Mara got  Movers and Shakers Award 2017    which is published in Library Journal.

Vinita Jain (VJ): Tell me something about yourself and career?

Mara Thacker (MT) : When I was a small child every morning when I got to school I would spend a few minutes in the library. I loved reading and talking to our school librarian. My fifth grade teacher actually asked me to be the class librarian that year which meant I was to keep track of the books in our small lending library and check them out to students and keep them in order. It felt like quite the honor! Fast forward to undergrad. I had chosen to create a degree program that enabled me to study Bollywood film. Officially my degree was in Literary and Cultural Studies with a minor in Religious Studies focusing on Hinduism. This didn’t really leave a practical career path. As I considered what my next step might be, I happened upon a job ad for a librarian and it kind of sparked an idea. I decided to shadow some local librarians and interviewed them about their jobs. They all seemed to love their work and I liked the idea of getting to be in a library every day and working with people to help them find needed information. So I applied to two schools and decided if I got into the University of North Carolina I would go. I did get accepted and I began my program in 2007. When I arrived to the area I came to find out that there was such a thing as a South Asian Studies Librarian. I arranged to meet him and decided that was the perfect job for me because it would let me to continue to engage with South Asian Studies and popular media from India. He kindly allowed me to do practicums and various hourly jobs for him. In the meantime, I also applied for the Foreign Language and Area Studies scholarships which allowed me to take graduate level courses about South Asia and study Hindi while I was in graduate school. When I completed my program there weren’t many openings for South Asian Librarians so my first job out of graduate school was as the Public Services Librarian at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York. But in 2012 I was lucky enough to land a visiting position as South Asian Studies Librarian at the University of Illinois. I’ve been here ever since and in 2013 I was converted to tenure-track.

VJ: What ways do you see yourself as a diverse professional?

MT : I have a lot of different philosophies I guess. One is that the library of today isn’t just a storage facility for books—the library is a vibrant center for learning, exploring, and engagement. An academic library has the opportunity to not just support research, teaching, and learning on campus but to enrich the curriculum and allow students to discover new ideas and ways of thinking. Of course I also think that in order to get students and faculty to take advantage of all the library’s resources we need to be proactive in doing marketing, outreach, and engagement activities. We need to build compelling collections and useful services that patrons will become excited about using. We need to put user needs at the center of our libraries. In terms of a philosophy for how I approach my work I try to devote say 75-80% of my time doing routine activities that keep the South Asian collection going—ordering materials to support the core collection, working with faculty to do library instruction sessions, supervising students, developing online guides, etc. But I do like to reserve a little bit of time for ambitious and riskier projects that are a bit more cutting edge. This innovation time has resulted in some wonderful initiatives like the South Asian comic collection. But sometimes the projects may be a flop such as my idea to build a digital archive of materials related to the JNU controversy. I had just bitten off more than I can chew. But I learned a lot in the process. So it’s in these projects that I tend to make the most visible impact, learn a lot, but occasionally fail too.

VJ: Please describe an instance in which diversity played a beneficial role in your library work.

MT : When I start a new initiative I usually ask myself a few things: How much time/attention will this project take? What will it cost me to do this project and can I afford it? If I have to explain it to library leadership and my faculty constituency, how would they react to this choice? How will students benefit from this? What’s the worst thing that can happen if it fails? What will success look like?  The answers to these questions determine the extent to which I’ll pursue a particular project. After a few weeks I take some time to reflect and see if the answers have changed and to check in how it’s going. If it seems like it’s going to take more time than the potential impact warrants I may decide to scale back or refocus my attention elsewhere.

VJ : How does diversity influence your work ethic?

MT: Diversity is part and parcel of my job because I view it as my responsibility to make sure South Asian scholarship is represented in the collection across disciplines. I want to make it easy for students and faculty to discover South Asian research, literature, media and more so that they are getting a diversity of perspectives as they shape their ideas. Within South Asia Studies itself I also make an effort to collect from outside of India to include works from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. Also while English language materials are most accessible to our patron group, I try to also collect in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Sanskrit, and Tamil to ensure that at least a few vernacular languages of India are well represented in the collection.

VJ: What attributes do you look for in future leaders?

MT: I think developing good communication skills is paramount. Know how to effectively advocate for your interests with library and campus leadership as well as how to communicate with faculty and with students. It requires finesse to work effectively with these different constituencies. I also think developing project management skills is helpful—how does one prioritize tasks, estimate a reasonable timeline for a given project, create a budget and stick to it? These are two skill areas I would recommend developing. Of course tech skills are also valuable like web design and editing, graphic design, and the ability to work with large data sets. But I think that these latter skills are perhaps a bit more straightforward to develop. If you want to go into area studies librarianship, work on acquiring fluency in another language or two. For example for South Asian Studies knowing Hindi/Urdu is important.

VJ:  What advice would you give to young professionals when they choose library profession?

MT: Get as much practical experience as possible while in library school. Classes are great for learning theory and the critical foundations of librarianship, but they are no substitute for hands on learning. Though I will say taking a cataloging class is really helpful even if you don’t intend to become a cataloger. Understanding how a catalog record is made will help you as a reference librarian in understanding how a collection is arranged. So do practicums, apply for internships, graduate hourly, and graduate assistant ship positions. Take classes on topics that interest you. And don’t be afraid to approach working librarians and see if you can ask them questions about their work. If you want to be an academic librarian, join ALA or ACRL and apply to try to present at conferences—it’s a great way to network!

I must Thank to Mara Thacker to gave her valuable time for interview and send more details via mail.


To connect with Mara

Mara L. Thacker

Assistant Professor | South Asian Studies Librarian

International and Area Studies Library

 University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

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