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Interview with Cynthia Tobar from Bronx Community College

Assistant Professor Librarian Cynthia Tobar, Head of Archives Bronx Community College.
Assistant Professor Librarian Cynthia Tobar, Head of Archives Bronx Community College

Byline: Staff writer, OLS.

Cynthia Tobar is an artist, activist-scholar, archivist, and oral historian at Bronx Community College, who is passionate about creating interactive, participatory stories documenting social change. She has led projects including performances, presentations and talks in public spaces and academic spaces to tell stories of people excluded from issues that pertain to them and people denied recognition in history. She sees the ability of the arts to impact individuals, to galvanize them to make their own changes in their communities. She emphasizes the importance of having a space that serves both as a creative outlet for marginalized communities and a medium for social change. We spoke with her about her numerous projects. The interview is edited for conciseness. 

Question: You record narratives to give a crucial window into the history of communities left out of mainstream archives. What drew you to this work? 

Tobar’s Answer: The non-hierarchical nature of documentary work is what intrigued me. There’s an inclusivity in community-based archiving as a form of history-making. The work I do is to promote social change, person to person, on a community level in academic spaces and in public spaces for people excluded from issues that pertain to them—education, housing, and the viability of making it in the city. My hope is to activate those spaces, where people can engage with one another, express themselves, and advocate for themselves.  

Question: How did you get involved in community-based archiving? 

Tobar’s Answer: What I want to do is to foster this idea of increasing people’s sense of agency and empowerment to implement social change around us and, for me, obviously, having been a first-generation Ecuadorian American, a student and mother who’s been on welfare, I had a lot of stigmas placed upon me. It wasn’t until someone had taken the time to inform me on what my rights were and that I could speak out—that I should speak out—that I was able to activate myself and do something through legislative advocacy groups I was involved with as an undergraduate. Getting involved sparked my interest in public service and as a librarian that’s what appeals to me the most. 

Question: Tell us about your Hall of Fame project at BCC and why it is important.   

Tobar’s Answer: The areas that I focus on directly have to do with documenting student activism, which has a rich legacy at CUNY, and providing a space for counter-narratives of historical exclusion in public art and debates in monument culture. This is a very big issue at Bronx Community College. On our campus we have the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a public monument that centers on who gets to determine what is great and what gets to be included or left out, which mimics what we encounter in the archival field. A lot of my work amplifies stories of community care and power by centering the stories of those who get left out of mainstream history. These are mostly people of color, immigrant communities, the working-class communities that help the city run, and underserved communities. When I think about memory work, I think about incorporating narratives of Americans who live in the shadows of national myths and monuments. When you validate their narratives, you’re presenting a dynamic view of history-making and correcting disparities in mainstream representations of American history.   

Question: Your memory work incorporates art in socially engaging ways.

Tobar’s Answer: I’m open to working with all forms of art that will get the message of inclusive memory work out. The best way to achieve that is to build a sense of empathy, to listen to one another, and so, how do we reach across all these divides currently in our society, in our city, and in our country? By creating moments where we can create shared joy, we can create community where social reckoning is also possible, for us to realize we need to be mindful of who’s being affected by our decisions. 

Question: Tell us about some of the new directions your work at BCC has taken. 

Tobar’s Answer: At BCC, I’ve been interested in documenting responses to the Hall of Fame and creating a space for students and Bronx residents to share their experiences among monuments that fail to reflect the diversity of their local community. This was the inspiration for “American Icons,” my latest project which I got funding for through a 2021 Social Practice CUNY Faculty Fellowship program. This program, housed at the Graduate Center, funded American Icons which explores counter-narratives of historical exclusion in monument culture and public art. I will be creating a new form of commemorative art by interweaving oral histories of a BCC student and a local Bronx resident with music that reflect on the lack of diversity in the Hall of Fame. I’m partnering with Julliard musicians who will set these stories to a score. We’re hoping to have the piece ready by this May for a public performance. 

Question: How did you begin documenting student activism with community-based archival projects?   

Tobar’s Answer: At BCC I first got started with “Raising Ourselves Up” which documented first-generation college students at BCC by and for first-generation college students. We trained six BCC students in oral history methods and came up with some wonderful interviews. When students have agency, there’s an authenticity to the project. When people feel listened to and heard it has a significant impact. It starts with us making space for one another. 

I am also working to build collaborations with other groups to find new ways to enhance community engagement with stories that reflect instances of resilience and community building. Along those lines, amidst the height of the pandemic in 2020, I partnered with Mutual Aid NYC to create “Community Care during COVID”: Oral Histories of Mutual Aid in the Bronx.” This project, which was funded by the Metro Library Council, developed a digital library and archive of mutual aid organizing tools and oral histories-created for, by, and in collaboration with mutual aid organizers in the Bronx.  So, it went from, we’re taking a self-reflective moment as a campus and documenting our experiences, to how are the neighboring communities in the Bronx dealing with Covid?   

Question: What are some other projects you’d like us to know about? 

Tobar’s Answer: My latest project ¿Dónde puedo ir? Searching for Home is a collaborative musical project created around recorded oral history that captures the immediacy of displacement facing Latinx residents in Bushwick where I live. From the summer until November, I collected eight oral history interviews, and I worked alongside my musical collaborator Luis D’Elias, a Venezuelan musical composer and guitarist. The primary funder was Brooklyn Arts Council. We’re going to just keep on releasing the products of that collaboration, but our hope is to bring awareness and collective healing to our communities. I can’t wait to share the music with the public.

Latest project updates will be posted at ¿Dónde puedo ir? Searching for Home at
URL: https://www.cynthiatobar.net/projects/donde-puedo-ir

William Gibbons: Archivist for All Seasons 

William Gibbons in a suit coat standing in front of a wood paneled wall.
CCNY Librarian William Gibbons “I Love My Librarian” award recipient.

Byline: Irene Gashurov/staff writer, OLS.

As a man of faith, William Gibbons believes things happen for a reason. So, there’s an irony that he nearly missed the phone call from the ALA President about getting the ALA “I Love My Librarian Award” or knew that such an award existed.  

This year in January, Gibbons, who is associate professor and curator of archives and special collections at City College of New York, was recognized with the American Library Association’s prestigious national public service prize, “I Love My Librarian Award,” for the care he brings to his local and campus communities, and for helping forge paths for CUNY students to become future educators through the Black Male Initiative. Gibbons was one of the ten honorees selected from more than 1,300 nominations from library users across the country. (watch ALA award presentation)

“It’s really humbling to be recognized for your hard work,” Gibbons said. “I’ve done amazing things that I haven’t really thought about as I do them. Mostly what I do every day and all day is helping people. I don’t have time to pat myself on the back for that.”  

Community has been central to Gibbons. Growing up in Detroit, where most people were of African descent, Gibbons was nurtured by an African American community that sustained and contained him. As a child, he thought that African Americans “ruled the world” because the politicians, business people, and clergy were all people of color. At the same time, he lived with the instability of a troubled home life in a city that in the 1980s was known as a murder capital of America. His excellent academics transformed into his ticket out. He won a scholarship to the University of Michigan determined to return and fix Detroit.   

After graduating from Michigan, he headed to New York to study urban policy and live in Harlem. “Harlem was where I wanted to be,” he said. “I wanted to walk the streets where the most famous writers, artists, activists, and politicians have walked the same streets”. He found work as a youth counselor at Saint John the Divine. On his lunch breaks, he’d visit the local branch library and talk to the librarian. When Gibbons told him he wanted to write, the librarian encouraged him to pursue a library career, a fitting métier for an aspiring writer. Gibbons took his advice and earned his degree at the Pratt Institute while working as children’s librarian at NYPL, exercising his storytelling gifts and getting children excited about books. 

Gibbons is a rare thing, a storyteller. “If people ask me today who I am, sometimes if I want to be cool and smooth, I’ll tell them I’m an archivist,” he said, “but I’m really a children’s librarian at heart. I’m a professional storyteller. I’ve learned the art.”   

At CCNY he is archivist, curating private book collections of prominent African American scholars, such as the historians William Loren Katz and John Henrik Clarke, who have shaped our society, but history has overlooked. Gibbons trained in documenting the African American experience when he worked at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture before coming to CCNY. Uncovering things that were deemed unimportant and ignored inspired him to teach a course at CCNY he called “The Evidence of Things Unseen: Art, Archives and Harlem,” which examines the Harlem Renaissance. It is conducted in part at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as a research workshop that gives students hands-on experience with archival collections and digital publishing.    

Besides his archival and professorial work, Gibbons spends time teaching students the foundational skill of finding a book on the shelf. “Finding a book is one of the most powerful and uplifting things. When you have millions of books in a space, but you can find exactly your book on the shelf on your own, that’s a skill set for life.”  

Looking forward, his plans for CUNY are not surprisingly based in community. He sees a need for CUNY libraries to collaborate and reimagine themselves for a post-COVID world, because institutions, like people, can achieve more working together than they can alone. “We need to think together collectively, diversify our collections, and really, you know, begin to think as one with our own unique spaces and connect our collections.” 

LaGuardia Archivist and Linguist Find New Perspective for COVID-19 Asian Oral History Project 

Byline: Irene Gashurov/staff writer, OLS.

Thomas Cleary.
CUNY Professor Archivist Thomas Cleary

A successful collaboration between assistant professor archivist Thomas Cleary and linguistics professor Tomonori Nagano at LaGuardia Community College will ensure the pandemic stories of the college’s Southeast Asian and South Asian students will be preserved while, at the same time, providing a wider lens onto this Asian community that is often known only by stereotype.

Tomonori Nagano.
CUNY Linguistics Professor Tomonori Nagano

The co-operation between these two academics-turned-oral historians is through LaGuardia Library’s “COVID-19 Asian Oral History Project” project in which they worked together to incorporate students’ stories into the library’s archives during this momentous period. 

LaGuardia’s involvement began in the early days of the lockdown with Nagano checking in on his bilingualism class students to see how they were managing. Like most people during the lockdown, the students talked about the isolation and uncertainty commonly felt at the time. In other ways the reactions of the Asian students to the crisis were different. The Asian students at LaGuardia, who were from mostly from South and Southeast Asia, talked about the disruption of contact with their families abroad and the dearth of public health information for their communities in their native languages—Bengali, Nepali, Tagalog, Tibetan, and Urdu. Nagano began recording their stories on video. “The purpose was not to solve a problem,” he said, “I wanted to listen to them and see what issues they had.” 

Poster of Asian woman with blue lipstick and colorful earrings. The words I still Believe in Our City written on bottom.
“I Still Believe in Our City” by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

When Cleary learned of Nagano’s work, he saw a chance to document an Asian population that had largely been missing from LaGuardia’s archives. “I wanted to give them representation so that our archives fully reflect our students,” said Cleary. In Fall 2021, thanks to a PSC-CUNY Grant, the team began work on the “COVID-19 Asian Oral History Project,” a video and multimedia archive of pandemic stories. Two research assistants, Mariana Lopez de Castilla and Joyce Ma, with backgrounds in oral history and community organizing, conducted the video interviews.  

Like discoveries that come about when someone finds something they were not looking for, the Asian Oral History Project revealed something essential about the lens of race. When separated from class, religion, education, and immigration status, race alone was too narrow to understand the students’ experiences and their basic humanity. Starting out, the team had assumed that because the pandemic hit people of color harder, the students would want to talk about race. Some had experienced Asian hate, others did not. Mostly they talked about shock, coping, along with their hope and aspirations, what they had done to help their community, and what was important to them.  

“We need to consider more than just race,” said Nagano of the project that defied expectations. “It’s always some interaction with something else.” He said the team will pursue their future oral history work through the lens of intersectionality, a concept referring to the complex way that different forms of discrimination crisscross and affect people. 

The Asian Oral History Project has completed 30 oral history videos thus far. “We still see the need to provide Asian students the space to speak about their experiences, especially with the increase of attacks we are seeing. At the same time, we are widening the focus of the project to students from all backgrounds and identities,” said Cleary. They are working with different community organizations, like the Queens Memory Project, a community archiving program at Queens Public Library and Queens College, and involving more people and communities in creating their own public record. They are opening the project to all CUNY students and hope to combine the online exhibit of video recordings, images, and essays with public programming.  

“We enjoy building bridges between isolated components,” said Nagano of their work. “We like doing interviews and discovering missing links.” 

Scholarly Communications Fellows Share Their Experiences

Byline: Irene Gashurov (staff writer, OLS)

Libraries are leading a movement to reform scholarly publishing. They’re challenging the commercial model for scholarly publishing to make research open, freely accessible without barrier or restriction. These changes impact scholarly communications, both in the way that knowledge is communicated and the services that libraries provide. Libraries are testing open access options, novel publishing approaches, and managing institutional repositories to safeguard the quality and discoverability of research. Understanding this new post-digital scholarly publishing landscape that libraries are leading is complex. The need to do so is great as the momentum for change in the field is growing.

Recognizing scholarly communications as a core competency for librarians, CUNY Office of Library Services (OLS) launched the Scholarly Communications Fellowship. The fellowship provides experience in the hands-on management of an institutional repository and opportunities to investigate the scholarly communications landscape.

Here to talk to us about their experience are inaugural fellows Ellis Ging and Eric Silberberg, recent graduates of CUNY Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, and Megan Wacha, University Scholarly Communications Librarian, at OLS.

Ellis Ging
Ellis Ging, Scholarly Communications Fellow at OLS.
Eric Silberberg
Eric Silberberg, Scholarly Communications Fellow at OLS.

Question: What appealed to you about the fellowship and what experience did you bring to it?

Eric Silberberg: I had some background in open access repositories for academic publishing as an instructor. The opportunity to work with Meg was appealing. First, I wanted to understand that ecosystem and the legal, instructional, publishing, and librarianship aspects that go into making open resources available. And second, I wanted to know how priorities about open access are made within higher education. What does that look like at CUNY? How are these resources developed and shared across teaching faculty and students?

Ellis Ging: My interest in the fellowship came from my experience as a researcher. Before graduate school I was doing independent research and getting stymied by paywalls, which made me aware of the need for open access resources. My background is in translation and literary and cultural criticism. The fellowship was a chance to learn about scholarly communications in a hands-on way.

Question: What did you learn during your fellowship?

Ellis: The work of the fellowship has given me an appreciation of communications and administrative structure at academic institutions and learning to pay greater attention to logistics. We worked on uploading articles into the repository. We looked at what open access publications CUNY faculty have published with. I was grateful to attend webinars on copyright and licensing.

Eric: It’s given me a better understanding of the world of academic publishing, which was to me always opaque and hard to understand, so actually that alone, to understand what the different models are in academic publishing has enabled me to think about what some solutions can be. We looked at what other research universities have been doing, at trends in faculty publishing, and what information you need as a librarian to speak intelligently about the benefits of open scholarship.

Question: Can you elaborate on what that conversation with faculty would be like?

Eric: So, by pursuing an open access publishing model, one thing that you can discuss with a faculty member is that their materials would be available not only to subscribers of perhaps an obscure journal, but right across their field and across disciplines. The best thing for writers is to be read. Second, I would discuss with them any fears that they have with respect to the copyright of those materials.

Megan Wacha: One of the key elements here is that people write to be read, and the concerns from each faculty member are going to be different. Eric’s starting with that understanding. You have a conversation with someone to understand what their concerns are before going and addressing them.

Ellis: I would agree with Eric that the fellowship has given us skills that are broadly applicable to academic librarianship. Meg expected us to do many things and wear a lot of hats. We’re aware of how things work both at the repository level and more broadly in academic publishing. We’re aware of resources so we can help faculty with their research and make it available in ways that benefits the output of the institution. Knowing how to get that research and being able to evaluate copyright law well are useful skills.

Question: How do you see the Scholarly Communications Fellowship evolving?

Meg: It’s one of those areas where the work is shaped in response to the needs of the university. And right now, so much is in flux. The OLS is in midst of a strategic planning process and looking to developing an open press. CUNY is also in the midst of a larger strategic planning process. We’re at a moment of constantly reshaping and reforming the role that libraries play within higher education. I anticipate that some of the work will remain the same, but the projects will depend on the needs of our community and the interest of future fellows.

Question: How do you feel about this first fellowship year now that it has concluded?

Meg: I hope that I’ve imparted something that is widely recognized among scholarly communications librarians as an area that is deeply tied to the future of librarianship. It offers employable skills that can be applied broadly, whether you are a librarian focused on scholarly communications or a reference librarian who supports your disciplinary faculty in their publication endeavors. In library schools writ large, open access, open research, open education, and scholarly communications are areas that are covered in about a week. But these are areas that require deep knowledge and broad expertise.

I’m so proud of our fellows! Both the OER and Scholarly Communications Fellows will be presenting at LACUNY (Library Association of CUNY), this May, and so it’s been great to see everyone’s growth over the fellowship.

OER Fellows Share Their Experiences of the OER Initiative  

In 2021, CUNY Office of Library Services launched a fellowship competition in two of its vital areas: Open Educational Resources and Scholarly Communications. The inaugural cohort, comprising four fellows from the CUNY Graduate School of Library and Information Studies (GSLIS), began their fellowship in September of last year. The focus of the OER Fellowship was to support open education at CUNY. The Scholarly Communications Fellowship was aimed at individuals looking for an opportunity to support open research at CUNY. As the nine-month fellowship nears its end, the participants discussed their work and how the experience kick started their careers. 

The two figures behind the OER fellowship programs are Ann Fiddler, University Open Education Librarian, and Andrew McKinney, OER Coordinator at the Office of Library Services. They work to propel CUNY-wide expansion of Open Education Resources (OER), free and low-cost openly licensed alternatives to costly textbooks. Since the initiative’s founding in 2017, OER have been implemented in 80,000 course sections across CUNY, resulting in $154 million in savings to students.  

OER Fellows 

Rachael Nevins.
Rachael Nevins, OER Fellow at the Office of Library Services.

Talking about the idea behind the fellowship, OER Fellow Rachael Nevins said the primary goal was to launch a new Web-based, open-source publishing platform at CUNY called Pressbooks, which makes digital textbooks and course content accessible. A publishing tool to create OER, Pressbooks can be used to create books from scratch or clone books found in the Pressbooks directory, where they can be edited, embedded with interactive content, and adapted to reflect the experience of students. “The great thing about Pressbooks is that faculty can build books that are grounded in their knowledge of their students,” said Nevins. 

The innovative aspect of Pressbooks isn’t necessarily the obvious one. Like other platforms, Pressbooks content can be integrated with a learning management system, like Blackboard. Like other platforms, Pressbooks provides online formatting and design tools for professional publishing. But unlike other open publishing platforms, Pressbooks has the unique capability of authoring and editing, which lets instructors create a portion of a course or an entire textbook online without using code.  Pressbooks works for different kinds of learners, and instructors can pull open multimedia materials from different sources, substitute or blend them with their own content, add supplements like audio and video, including automatically graded quizzes, simulations, and modules that let students proceed at their own pace.  

“What’s lovely about Pressbooks is that it’s a platform with a global reach,” said Nevins. “If you make something with your students, you can make it available via the Pressbook directory, and the students’ writing will be discoverable around the world.”  

Elizabeth Arestyl.
Elizabeth Arestyl, OER Fellow at the Office of Library Services.

OER Fellow Elizabeth Arestyl believes that Pressbooks are forcing us to rethink how we engage CUNY students as knowledge creators. “Giving students the agency and the information that they need is the most important thing you can do,” she said. “If we can build materials that reflect our students, we would create a better learning experience for them.”  

Reflecting on how representation affects the way students see themselves, Arestyl told the story of the Bangladeshi woman in a pre-college writing class she teaches at Queens College. When Arestyl asked the woman what she wanted to learn that summer, the woman said, “I’m ready to not read about white people.” One of the articles Arestyl assigned to the class was on the post-birth process in Bangladesh and how it compares with practices in the West. The woman wrote Arestyl a letter to thank her. She said she never read about someone who was just like her.  

Pressbooks has been called a “living document” because it allows for continuous revisions. In the guidebook to Pressbooks the fellows are writing, titled the CUNY Pressbooks Guide, they distill everything they have learned from immersing themselves in the world of open pedagogy, open source, open content, and the intersection of books and the web. “The guide reflects our own learning curve,” Nevins said, of the manual that is available on the Pressbooks directory or from a simple Google search. The first part covers the building blocks of open publishing. The second part explains the benefits of publishing your work with Pressbooks.  

In May the fellowship ends. Sharing her thoughts on what the fellowship has accomplished, Arestyl said, “The great thing about OER is making learning free again. The same way we’re trying to fund education with the New Deal for CUNY, OER is part of that, and we must walk in step to achieve these goals.” 

As for their own goals, the fellows said their experience confirmed the trajectory they were already on. “I laugh at myself because I turned to library school after being exhausted with educational publishing,” said Nevins, “and here I am working in publishing. But it’s totally different because it’s driven by what teachers and students need, not what some salesperson says that a superintendent needs. I would love to stay with it, working in OER at CUNY.” Adds Arestyl, “Where I see myself in the future has not changed at all. I see myself as an instructional design librarian. So, building with Pressbooks is essential to what I want to be. And this experience has been amazing!” 

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