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Around the World in Research Guides: The Origins of the Hispanic Division Country Guides

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(The following is a guest post by Maria Thurber, reference librarian in the Hispanic Division.)

The Library of Congress has published many research guides and finding aids over the years, both in physical and electronic formats. The current research guides aim to provide online access to materials that engage, inspire and inform Congress and the American people. In the Hispanic Division, we are responsible for managing reference services and recommending acquisitions related to the Caribbean, the Iberian Peninsula, Latin America, as well as Spanish and Portuguese heritage communities in other areas like the U.S., the Spanish Philippines, the Marianas Islands, Portuguese Asia, and Spanish and Portuguese Africa – a big slice of the world. With these new online research guides, we saw an opportunity to focus attention on the regions we serve by developing country-specific guides.

Figure 1 – America. 1813. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. The Luso-Hispanic world is vast, stretching from Europe, parts of Africa, including North, Central, and South America, the Caribbean, and even reaching parts of Asia.

The production of country-specific guides has a historical precedence at the Library of Congress. In the late 1980s, the Federal Research Division began publishing the Country Studies Series, a group of books covering the history and society, as well as the economic, political, and national security systems of select countries throughout the world. The series includes several countries covered by the Hispanic Division. To complement these existing country studies and to help researchers navigate the Library’s vast collections today, the Hispanic Division set out to create a series of Hispanic Division Country Guides. With these guides, we aim to provide a snapshot of the materials that the Library offers for each country within our sphere of responsibility.

While pulling materials from both physical and digital shelves, and compiling references to be part of our new and fully digital country guides, my colleagues and I quickly realized we needed to review our organizational strategy for the guides. At one point, a few of us were working on different guides at the same time and, naturally, they all looked very different. We were new to creating research guides and we wanted to make sure we were developing user-friendly, accessible resources. We also understood that while the Library’s collections are vast, many items are not digitized and, therefore, cannot be linked within an online environment. After several staff meetings and much welcomed support from the Research Guides Review Team, we decided to complete one country guide for Mexico and use it as a template for subsequent guides. We ultimately developed a stand-alone template to provide the same basic structure for all country guides, while also permitting some flexibility and customization, depending on available resources for other countries.

Figure 2 – The Mexico: Hispanic Division Country Guide became the pilot, subjected to much experimentation and going through many iterations before publication.

One of our goals with the country guides was the creation of another digital pathway to the Hispanic Division’s unique tools and services, primarily the Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS) and the PALABRA Archive. Each country guide provides a curated list of books, articles, and other scholarly sources found in HLAS. We also highlight authors and poets recorded from each country for the PALABRA Archive.

The Hispanic Division is a non-custodial division, meaning that items recommended for the Library’s collections are under the care of other divisions based on the format of the materials. For example, photographs are housed in the Prints & Photographs Division, maps in the Geography & Map Division, some archival materials in the Manuscript Division, and so forth. Representing the location of items proved to be an interesting challenge as we wanted to link to electronic resources in all formats, while also indicating where the original, physical items could be found. We ultimately decided to dedicate a section to Digital Collections and Services for each country, organizing collection items by format in a tabbed box. Each tab includes information about the custodial division, canned search links, relevant collections, and helpful tips where applicable.

Figure 3 – Example of the Manuscript and Archival Materials tab on the Digital Collections and Services page, Mexico: Hispanic Division Country Guide.

Developing the template was a compelling process of trial and error as we tested organization and usability. We settled on the following organization: a Quick Facts section introduces each Hispanic Division Country Guide with a brief teaser of the information explored further within the guide. Following the Digital Collections and Services page, we offer a page on Print Materials, highlighting books, magazines, periodicals, and newspapers; as well as a Databases page linking to both free and subscription databases for easy access to scholarly articles and journals. The Hispanic Reading Room page links to resources from the Hispanic Division, such as HLAS, the PALABRA Archive, La Biblioteca podcast, as well as news and upcoming events. The last page covers Tips for Searching, where users can read about best practices when browsing the Library’s collections, along with tips for using the LC Online Catalog and the digital collections repository, illustrated with links and examples.

Despite having a slow, calculated start, we have been able to rely on the template to produce Hispanic Division Country Guides more quickly. A relatively rapid turnout was especially important in 2020—and continues to be important—as the global pandemic led to a greater need for sharing access to electronic resources. The guides have been particularly beneficial as ready reference tools that enable us to share our resources with both beginning and advanced researchers anywhere in the world. An unexpected but welcomed surprise has been the wonderful response and reaction from colleagues at other libraries. The country guide template has also received attention within the Library of Congress, where other divisions have created similar serialized research guides following our template example. It is important to note that we were able to produce these guides thanks to collaborative efforts within the Hispanic Division and in partnership with the Library’s Research Guides Review Team. So far, we have published guides for 15 countries, and expect to publish more in the weeks and months ahead.

We hope you’ll explore and share all of the Hispanic Division’s Research Guides, including the Country Guides!

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