Recollecting APALA’s Past: An Interview with Gary Colmenar, APALA 35th Anniversary Conference Steering Committee Co-Chair
by Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow and Alyssa Jocson
In late March 2014, APALA Web Content Sub-committee members Melissa Cardenas-Dow and Alyssa Jocson conducted a long-distance, asynchronous e-mail-based discussion with Gary Colmenar, prominent APALA member, current ALA Council candidate, and SRRT Action Council member (Social Responsibilities Round Table). We focused on APALA’s upcoming 35th Anniversary Conference, of which Gary is one of the three program chairs. The APALA 35th Anniversary Conference will be a conglomeration of events intended to showcase the bridge that is the past, present, and future of APALA, both as an organizational entity and as a social group of diverse librarians intent on supporting each other and the Asian/Pacific Islander (API) communities in North America. The following article is the first of a three-part mini-series marking APALA’s 35th Anniversary. It also offers an edited version of our conversation.
Melissa Cardenas-Dow (MICD): Thanks, Gary, for agreeing to do this interview with us. Please briefly tell us about yourself and your position(s) in APALA, especially your role in planning APALA’s 35th Anniversary celebration.
Gary Colmenar (GC): Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about APALA’s 35th Anniversary. The Anniversary Steering Committee has met several times now, since the call for volunteers was sent last fall. We received a high number of responses from the initial call. Since then, we have met via phone conferences and collaborated over email and the APALA wiki. We also had a meeting at Midwinter in Philadelphia [ALA Midwinter 2014]. Currently, the committees are engaged in the initial stages of planning.
I am one of the co-chairs for the APALA 35th Anniversary Steering Committee. The other co-chairs are Jade Alburo and Florante Peter Ibañez. I am also involved in the Program Planning Sub-committee. I was APALA President in 2002-2003 and Executive Director from 2006-2012. Currently, I am the Editor of the APALA Newsletter. I am a Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
MICD: What do you think is the most important function(s) of APALA?
GC: I’d like to answer this question by going back to the history of APALA and looking at the original goals set by the founders. This history is well-chronicled by Ken Yamashita in his article entitled, “Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association: A History of APALA and Its Founders.” Ken mentioned several critical issues affecting librarians of Asian Pacific American heritage, which the founders wanted to address through a formal body. They wanted to address the lack of visibility and recognition of librarians of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) descent in ALA, to provide a forum through which API librarians could voice and share their successes and concerns related to their work and profession. The founders wanted to establish an organization that will open lines of communication with ALA, its units, and the public in general. Furthermore, they wanted to create an organization that welcomed all Asian ethnicities, a place to discuss issues shared by Asian Pacific Americans. In 1975, the Asian American Librarians Caucus (AALC) was formed. Five years later, APALA was created.
MICD: How do you think these goals and functions evolved over the years? Do you think they did (or didn’t) change?
GC: Yes, I most definitely think these have changed! It seems that evolution or change is a natural trait of a dynamic and working organization. The functions have evolved also with increase in membership, changes in the composition of the Executive Board, and with more resources. As a result, the organization has expanded in what it does. For example, APALA has been engaged in giving scholarships and other types of awards. APALA has become more involved in philanthropic work, making donations to API organizations, communities and libraries. APALA has made donations to the Asian American Federation WTC in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. APALA has made donations to groups in other countries. APALA also has made great strides in developing professional relationships with other library organizations, especially the various ethnic library affiliates and ALA units. Most recently, the Executive Board, with input from membership, voted to endorse the joint statement of ALA and BCALA regarding Florida as the site of the 2016 ALA Annual Conference.
I would also emphasize that while the functions have expanded and changed, the original principles established by APALA’s founders still remain at the core of APALA’s activities. This is evinced from the activities and initiatives APALA officers have engaged in over the years, such as the creation of an Executive Director position to improve workflow within the Board, the development of a strategic plan to capture APALA’s vision, mission and goals. These changes allow APALA’s Executive Board and committees to continue to grow and develop the organization, to focus on achieving our original goals through programs and new projects.
MICD: What role(s) has APALA played within the larger organization of ALA during its 35 years of existence? How has this changed over the years?
GC: As an ALA member for over a decade, I have seen the number of APALA members elected or appointed in various ALA units and committees increase during the last ten years. Our members have been elected to the ALA Executive Committee, ALA Council, ALA Divisions, Round Tables, and Task Forces. These are important committees where policies, programs, and standards of practices related to library services, information access, and many other issues important to the library profession are discussed, developed, and decided. Moreover, APALA members on these committees engage with members from other ethnic affiliates and Round Tables to address common concerns.
As an ALA affiliate, APALA has received tremendous assistance from the ALA Office for Diversity (ALA OFD) and the ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (ALA OLOS).
“History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories–triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally–has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.” — Grace Lee Boggs, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For the Twenty-First Century,” 2011, p. 79.
MICD: In considering the past 35 years of APALA’s work, what would you consider its highlights?
GC: Since I joined APALA in 1998, a lot of memorable and important events have happened. The first National Conference on Asian Pacific American Librarians in 2001 was a major event for both APALA and CALA. Ken Yamashita from APALA and Ling Hwey Jeng from CALA were conference co-chairs. With their leadership and hard work, the conference was a major success. Literary awards were presented at the conference, which APALA now presents each year. The APALA 30th Anniversary celebration held in Washington, D.C. was a memorable event, which included tours of the White House and Library of Congress.
MICD: What about in terms of specifically promoting and advocating for API information professionals and patrons?
GC: I think many of APALA’s activities promote and advocate for our colleagues. The APALA scholarship and travel awards first come to mind. We have supported the ALA Emerging Leaders program since its inception. The mentoring program provides a formal structure that connects new librarians with more seasoned members. Outside of the formal structure, I would like to think that mentoring happens everyday in APALA, within committees and in the Executive Board. It happens informally and serendipitously at social gatherings. APALA has sponsored several programs on leadership and management.
But, I also think that we could do more, especially in the area of advocacy for colleagues related to finding employment and other work-related issues. We also need to be vigilant and conscious regarding representations of API people in literature and advocate against stereotypes. The presentations from our guest speakers at the APALA social dinner in Philadelphia addressed this issue very well.
MICD: With regards to building bridges with other ALA groups, especially those that focus on cultural and ethnic diversity, could you describe for us the collaborative projects APALA has engaged with?
GC: There are many.
- The collaboration with CALA, which was the first national conference on Asian Pacific American Librarianship.
- The Joint Conference of Librarians of Color (JCLC) held in 2006 and 2012 were huge undertakings and I am pleased to say that many APALA members volunteered to collaborate with AILA, BCALA, CALA and REFORMA to make these events successful, informative and entertaining.
- The Talk Story joint project with the American Indian Library Association (AILA) is one of the projects our organization is engaged with currently. It is also a funded project.
- On a smaller scale, APALA has co-sponsored programs at ALA Conferences numerous times, with other ethnic affiliates and ALA units such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (LGBTRT) and the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT).
- It is important to mention that APALA, through the initiatives of some of its members, has been engaged in social justice issues in recent years. I am happy to see this trend, especially given the intentions of APALA’s founders.
Our organization has also been successful in collaborating with Asian Pacific American organizations, cultural institutions and communities through the tours we hold at ALA Conferences. The tours of the Newberry Library (Chicago), Versailles Vietnamese community (New Orleans), Chinatowns (Boston Chicago, and Philadelphia), Tri-state Denver Buddhist, Little Saigon (Orange County, CA), South Asian American Digital Archives and Asian Arts Initiative (Philadelphia), and the International District and Wing Luke Museum (Seattle) were all successful events.
MICD: What do you think were the biggest challenges APALA tackled during its 35 years of existence?
GC: In my opinion, some of the biggest challenges APALA has tackled since its establishment were related to membership participation, financial stability, and leadership transitions. Given the smaller size of APALA’s membership, calling on volunteers for elected positions and committee work was especially difficult. I am pleasantly amazed that APALA has accomplished a lot with few resources every year. This demonstrates the quality and dedication of APALA’s membership, which I hope will continue into the future.
Losing the historical memory of our organization is another major challenge for us as an organization. This is an important source of the organization’s collective identity and inspiration.
One of APALA’s unique traits, and its strength, as many have already pointed out, is the diversity of its members. This engenders a climate, a sensibility and an awareness of differences in people’s perspectives and experiences. At the same time, these differences–in race and ethnicity (I include mixed races here), gender and class, just to name the most visible forms of differences–that APALA members embody presents a significant challenge for the organization.
MICD: How will the APALA 35th Anniversary Conference highlight APALA’s history to new members and non-members?
GC: The Steering Committee and the Sub-committees have been brainstorming ideas for a while now. Here are a few that I can mention at this time:
- We plan to involve several individuals to take part in the events to talk about APALA’s history.
- There is a plan to include a plenary speaker to address the theme of the symposium, which is on building bridges, the past, present and future.
The Steering Committee will consider other ideas as we plan for this event scheduled in June 2015. More importantly, we will seek participation from APALA members as we plan for the symposium.
I greatly appreciate the fantastic work of the members of the Web Content Sub-committee [a sub-committee of the APALA Newsletter & Publications Committee], who have been engaged in conducting interviews with and doing historical research on the founders and original members of APALA. These articles will be posted on the APALA website.
MICD: Thanks, Gary, for the shout-out! What message do you hope attendees will get out of the APALA 35th Anniversary Conference?
GC: The overarching theme of the symposium/anniversary is building bridges and making connections. We intend to capture the spirit of this theme through programs and workshops that identify the connections between librarianship and community, as well as the links between APALA’s past, present, and future. I hope that the symposium would provide a space for attendees to articulate and develop these linkages in as broad a manner that will be useful to them.
MICD: Any last words for our readers? What message would you like to leave them with, regarding APALA’s past and history?
GC: I hope to have shared some of APALA’s rich past related to service, advocacy, and support for API librarians, API communities and the library profession, beginning with the initial intentions of its founders. But, like any organization, APALA has encountered its shares of struggles and internal strife as well. All these combined throw into sharp relief the commitment and passion of its members, especially its officers and committee members who volunteer their time and effort in the service of APALA’s mission and goals.
I have shared with the readers my perspective and thoughts on APALA. I am certain that each member has a story to share and all of these individual stories, good and bad, combine to present a more-complete version of APALA. I am also hopeful that more stories will be told because APALA has a mission to uphold.
I end by sharing a quote from a lifelong activist, scholar, and Asian American feminist Grace Lee Boggs. She is the subject of a film documentary entitled, “American Revolutionary: the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs”:
“History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories–triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally–has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.”
Questions created and interview conducted by Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow. Editing and writing support provided by Alyssa Jocson.