UCLA IS alumnus appointed assistant professor and director of California Rare Book School.
Robert Montoya (’03, B.A. American Literature and Culture; ’15, MLIS; ’17 Ph.D.) joins the faculty of the UCLA Department of Information Studies this fall as an assistant professor in the Masters of Library Science program and as the new director of the California Rare Book School, which is housed at UCLA. In addition, he is the founding director of the new Library, Ethics, and Justice Lab at UCLA.
Montoya’s research is focused on information representation and positionality; critical, ethical, and justice-oriented LIS work, and domestic and international library development. In the last three years, he has actively been thinking about ways to preserve democracy through the institution of libraries as, “as spaces for the enactment and the production of justice and ethical social principles.”
“Libraries in general are spaces of representation,” says Professor Montoya, who says he looks forward to helping to give back to libraries in his native Los Angeles. “At the beginning stages of building a country, libraries are really essential in promoting democratic ideals such as public participation, equal representation, and governmental accountability to community needs, in addition to all the things we normally associate with libraries like supporting literacy education, reading skills, and working with public schools.
“Funding is continually cut from library budgets. What we see is that when people have less access to libraries … they participate less in democratic processes like voting and community development and they also lose access to professional training that allows them to enter into various sectors of the job market. This is a huge social problem that has long-term consequences. And we are seeing this happening in our society right now. Libraries are vital institutions, so to underfund them is to damage our democratic foundation. My work now is very much looking at how libraries – and that can be through classification, it can be through programming, it can be through partnerships with schools – are central to all these activities and I look forward to bringing this ethic into my teaching in the department.”
In recent years, Montoya has had the opportunity to observe the impact of the loss of libraries upon a democracy. A Fulbright Specialist since 2017, he was invited by the United States Embassy in Kosovo to discuss and ultimately, help establish a national library training program.
“Kosovo was ravaged in 1998 to 1999 by war and as an effect of this conflict, many of the libraries were … destroyed, library and archival collections were deaccessioned or burned and most all of the professional librarians in the country were expelled from their positions,” says Montoya. “Kosovo is in this position now where they’re trying to do their best to recreate a strong library system in the country but they have no professional training opportunities and they have no library degree program in their main university, the University of Prishtina. I went as the United States representative on behalf of the U.S. State Department and toured the country. It sparked this larger project and an interest to try to learn about how library professionals and faculty could think about making more direct impact in community spaces.”
For last three years, Montoya has worked with the University of Prishtina to create the first bachelor’s degree program in library science in the country, preparing for the project by interviewing librarians all over Kosovo, in all sectors of librarianship from school libraries, public libraries, and academic libraries.
“To train the nation’s librarians, I needed to make sure I wasn’t just importing an American model, which history has told us is bound to fail,” Montoya says. “I really wanted to get a sense of what communities needed. But I also needed a sense of how [Kosovo’s] libraries were connected to the broader notions of political engagement and democratic activity, as well as local and international governmental arenas.”
The bachelor’s degree program in librarianship will be launched this fall at the University of Prishtina. In addition, Montoya was chosen to serve as principal investigator on another U.S. State Department grant project to create Kosovo’s first training program for librarians to promote the nation’s cultural institutions and heritage. Pending COVID-19 travel limitations, he is scheduled to return to Kosovo in February 2021 to begin this work.
“The difference between these two [State Department projects] is that the bachelor’s program is going to establish a long line of qualified future librarians,” notes Montoya, who was assisted in the second grant by UCLA Professor of Information Studies Gregory Leazer and CSUN Lecturer of English Sean Pessin. “But currently, in Kosovo’s libraries, there are many individuals who … care about their work but they don’t have the professional training they need to grow and flourish. [The second project] gives an opportunity for me to make a direct impact to professionals in libraries now.
“We can also think about my intervention more broadly. Kosovo is also in need of better labor practices, coordinated national library assessment mechanisms, and they need to professionalize the field of librarianship. It’s a big task but I’m excited to be doing this. I see it as one of the most important things as I can do as a scholar.”
Professor Montoya looks forward to bringing his examinations of libraries as outposts for societal advancement and justice to his work at UCLA and its local community, with his creation of the new Library, Ethics, and Social Justice Lab, which includes among its aims learning how to better serve specific populations of color in the local Los Angeles community.
Montoya says that one of the main questions that the lab will explore is the role of libraries as agents of individual and community advancement and a supporter of democracy, and how to convince policy and decisionmakers that libraries are essential for all aspects of society.
“I see my role as faculty in the MLIS program to also be an advocate for libraries, to engage with, if possible, governmental agencies, to help them understand that libraries are central to all these things I’ve been talking about,” he says. “As I was in Kosovo, I realized … how much libraries are playing a role in disseminating Kosovo values and cultural beliefs, but also how much libraries are doing to support in-need and underrepresented communities. They stand for the needs of citizens.
“If you think about it, society has very few institutions that think in this way and libraries are one of them. The Kosovo government is interested in libraries – they’re investing in them,” he says. “As with many things, [American libraries] are better funded in affluent areas and poorly funded in economically disadvantaged areas. We need to change this disparity.
“For example, it’s the defunding of school libraries, and the decoupling of libraries from the process of education, that painfully illustrates how we have devalued the importance of public schools. In the long run, we’re the poorer – economically, educationally, epistemically, and technologically, in all of these sectors – if we don’t invest in libraries in general.”
On campus, Montoya also hopes to help create partnerships among his colleagues in the UCLA Department of Education and the UCLA Library.
“I think a lot of times we think of the UCLA Library as only an academic library, but it’s a public library, too,” he says. “Its primary constituency may be academics, but we have to deal with the public and at the end of the day, UCLA is accountable to that same public. How then do we think about an elite space like the UCLA Library in relation to how we typically imagine a public library – what are the possibilities there?”
Montoya plans to use his directorship of California Rare Book School in a similar vein.
“CalRBS is one of the country’s finest continuing education programs for librarians and rare book specialists,” he says. “I want to work to expand the program into new areas and to think about how it can take the lead in providing a critical and justice-oriented framework in some of its courses.
“In the last many years, the library, special collections, and rare book professions have made great progress in the areas of diversity, equity, and justice. But we are a long way from where we need to be and I think CalRBS can be an important driving force in making change happen. Making these changes locally at an institution like UCLA has the capacity to make our global community more just. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to do this.”
Professor Montoya returns to his alma mater from his recent tenure as an assistant professor of information and library science at Indiana University Bloomington. His research also includes examines classification theory, philosophy of information, documentation studies, biodiversity informatics, Science and Technology Studies (STS), infrastructure studies, and data studies. His other fields of scholarly interest include the history of the book and print culture, library studies/management, special collections, and digital scholarship. Montoya’s research has been funded by UCLA, Indiana University, the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Litwin Books, as well Beta Phi Mu, the International Library and Information Studies Honor Society.
Montoya’s forthcoming book, “Power of Position: Knowledge Organization and the Biodiversity Sciences,” to be published by The MIT Press, deals with knowledge organization and its intersections with politics, biodiversity studies and science, technology, and society studies.
“Libraries and other information institutions have very clear responsibilities in the pursuit of environmental and biodiversity justice issues,” says Montoya.
The book is based on his dissertation, “Contingent Consensus: Documentary Control in Biodiversity Classifications.” His dissertation research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Beta-Phi-Mu International Library & Information Studies Honor Society, and the Litwin Books Award for Ongoing Dissertation Research in the Philosophy of Information.
Professor Montoya has held professional positions in special collections and archives since 2007, including his service as Head of Public Services for Library Special Collections (LSC) at UCLA, where he led LSC’s reference, reader services, instruction, outreach, duplication services, and scholarly communication and publishing.
Photo by Maxwell Poth