(This is a guest post by the Hispanic Reading Room with Paul Losch, Field Director, Overseas Operations Office, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.)
How did you get interested in studying Latin America/Brazil?
In the 5th grade, I started learning Spanish for three hours a day as part of an immersion program, and my eyes were opened to the cultural richness of the Spanish-speaking world. I was fascinated, and after college, I became a Spanish teacher. This was in Massachusetts, where there are many Portuguese-speakers, including Brazilians, and I became curious about this other language that was similar to, but different from, Spanish. I met someone who was willing to help me learn, and that young Brazilian woman has now been my wife for nearly 25 years. I traveled with her to Brazil to become an English teacher in an American school, and lived there for three years before we came back to the US so that I could attend graduate school.
What led you to a career in librarianship? Tell us about your career path.
I had a federal work study job in the Clark University Map Library all through college, and when I began in the MA program in Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, I looked for part-time work again in the library. I found that working with international library collections was, like language teaching, a way to promote understanding across cultural and linguistic boundaries, and offered a satisfying career path. During more than two decades in Gainesville, I had the opportunity to expand my responsibilities from shelving books to running the Latin American and Caribbean Collection. Much of this was due to the mentoring I received from colleagues in SALALM, the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials.
Tell us about the Rio Office. What are some of the projects?
The Rio Office acquires and catalogs materials not only from Brazil, but also from Uruguay, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. It is the smallest of the six LC Overseas Offices, and also the one with the least time difference from Washington DC, which facilitates real-time communication with colleagues in the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate (ABA), the General and International Collections Directorate (GICD), and other parts of the Library. Under normal circumstances, the Office’s acquisitions staff travels to visit book fairs, government offices, and cultural institutions all over the region. These collecting methods result in LC often having the only copy of a given work in the US, so it requires original cataloging, of course, and that frequently calls for authority work related to Brazilian names, all done by our locally employed staff. Through the Cooperative Acquisitions Program (CAP), the Overseas Offices use their infrastructure to help other libraries develop their collections. Most of the 40 participants in Rio’s CAP program are libraries at US universities with Brazilian Studies programs.
The work of acquiring information and making it accessible is always changing, and what was once done through microfilming of pamphlets may today be done by preserving PDFs or other digital resources. We are currently participating in a pilot project related to Foreign Government Documents Web Archiving, and our catalogers are scheduled to receive training in Bibframe description later this year, which will make their work more widely accessible online. Some of the other projects are related to the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of running an overseas office: keeping our computer systems compatible with those in Washington, and improving the ways in which we manage funds across different currencies.
How many staff work at the Rio Office?
We are currently 16 people, and all of our meetings have been virtual, so far. I didn’t expect that I would continue working from the States as long as I have been, but I am amazed at how well we are all able to communicate and how productive we can be despite the current environment. My predecessor, Pamela Howard-Reguindin, quickly shifted to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, and the Rio de Janeiro staff has shown great professionalism and resilience, despite the very difficult conditions in the city and the limited access to the consular building where the office is located.
I am very eager to travel there, when conditions allow, to meet new faces in person and to see the ones that are already familiar. Back in 2003, I carried out a one-month internship in the Rio Office as a kind of final project for library school. Some of the same people who kindly received me at that time are once again helping me to get up to speed on operations, now in a different context.
For those interested in traveling to Brazil when it’s safe to do so, what would you recommend?
Plan a trip with contrasts. Brazil’s size is about that of the US, and so it is not a country that can easily be seen in one trip, but try to appreciate the variety of landscapes and local traditions. For example, there are the old colonial ports, like Rio de Janeiro and also Salvador, which is nearly 500 years old, and there’s the “new” capital, Brasília, which not long ago turned 60. Tourism is also reaching new areas of natural beauty far away from the urban centers. Try to learn some Portuguese before you go. Knowing a few phrases will help break the ice everywhere, and it will be very important in those places that are further off the beaten path.
Naturally, I think that reading enhances travel, both before and after a trip. If you have the time, “Brazil: A Biography” offers a thoughtful discussion of history and how it affects the country today, with parallels to conversations we are having in the US. It’s available in English, and LC also has the original Portuguese version, acquired and cataloged by the Rio Office, of course!
And for those dreaming of a taste of Brazil, is there a favorite dish that you look forward to eating?
Some of what makes Brazilian food terrific is that there is abundant fresh produce year round. The bananas, mangoes, pineapples and papayas there are much fresher than what we get in the US and there are other Brazilian fruits that we don’t even get. I really look forward to a Saturday afternoon of feijoada carioca in Rio de Janeiro. Even when they are in a hurry, most Brazilians would not think of eating beans from a can, and Rio has a way of making the simple bean into a special event. The beans are slowly stewed with smoked meats, and served with a specific list of side dishes, all of which are prepared with great attention to detail.
The Rio Office has acquired a collection of “literatura de cordel” (literature on a string) for the Library of Congress.
See images of the Library’s cordel collection and watch a webcast of a symposium on cordel.
The Rio Office also has acquired materials related to social and political grassroots organizations which are part of the Brazil’s Popular Groups collection.
Find books and articles about the history, literature, politics, geography, and culture of Brazil by searching in the Handbook of Latin American Studies.
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