Faculty Feature: CFA San Marcos Librarian: “The Library is a Lifeline”
“The library, through its materials – as well as the validating conversations we have with our students about their educational pursuits – is a lifeline, particularly for those who have felt marginalized, oppressed, or simply unseen,” said Lalitha Nataraj.
Nataraj, who is a CFA San Marcos member and social sciences librarian at CSU San Marcos, values the social justice orientation to her work. Knowing her values comes through listening.
As a lifelong learner, Nataraj is “interested in exploring and applying relational approaches to my work, particularly if it helps me enhance students’ college experiences.”
“Library faculty and staff at CSU San Marcos are fully invested in fostering a culture of care,” said Nataraj, who said she wants the “campus community — and beyond – to feel fully seen and welcomed when they walk through our doors.”
‘Care for Students’
Nataraj views higher education and librarianship through an anti-racist, anti-colonialist social justice, and feminist lens, and hopes the library will continue its growth toward a more inclusive system for students, faculty, and staff who identify as Black, Indigenous, Chicanx/Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander Desi American, people with disabilities, and/or LGBTQIA+.
Her scholarly research agenda focuses on critical information literacy as a lens to break down systemic barriers for a more just and inclusive library.
“Information literacy isn’t about learning how to effectively search a database,” says Nataraj, “it’s about cultivating and refining the ways we think about and use information around us in ways that are meaningful. And that’s not just an academic skill, it’s also a lifelong one.”
Nataraj critiques the bureaucratic structure of libraries as well as the transactional nature of a one-shot instructional model for informational literacy, scholarly research she has collaborated on with librarian colleagues like Torie Quiñonez, an arts and humanities librarian at CSU San Marcos.
“Her intellect, humor, compassion, and dedication to her students constantly inspire me. As the CSUSM Library’s social sciences librarian, her research help is always in demand and she tirelessly steps up to coach students through the most demanding of research projects,” said Quiñonez. “Lali is a dynamic collaborator, and the projects she has taken on with her colleagues have gone on to have tremendous impact on our workplace and our profession.”
And not just an impact on her workplace, but on students.
Jason Magabo Perez, Ph.D, associate professor and director of Ethnic Studies at CSU San Marcos said that, “Lalitha’s feminist commitment to pedagogies of care and meaningful student learning is super inspiring.”
“She meets students at their level and shares about her own life and family to ensure that they feel confident and comfortable with her,” said Mary Roche, CFA member and sociology professor at CSU San Marcos. “With each lesson, she has a way of humanizing academic research so that students see it as something for them, not as a scary, confusing process.”
Talitha Matlin, a STEM librarian at San Marcos and CFA Equity Conference tri-chair, lifts up Nataraj’s “strong and caring relationships with everyone around her.”
“In her work as a social sciences librarian at CSUSM, you can see this come through when she works one-on-one with students, often multiple times over a single semester,” said Matlin. “Students will often come into her office anxious and stressed out about their research, and Lali works with them to discover what it is that they are most interested in about the topic and then guides them to resources that support their interests. The CSU is lucky to have a librarian like Lali.
“Lali also extends this care to her work with the university, always seeking to forward social and racial justice from the small one-on-one interactions she has to the larger, campus-wide initiatives she’s involved in.”
“I always share with students that the most important aspect of the research process is uncovering your own interest passion for a topic, because that curiosity drives critical inquiry,” said Nataraj. “I try to foster lifelong learning by encouraging students to think about real world applications of their scholarly ideas – once we move away from theory into practice, there’s a palpable shift in energy and you can see students getting excited about the work.”
Amplifying Voices and Stories
The excitement for students is furthered through intentionality and the pursuits of informing and educating students and the broader community by librarians like Nataraj. But that work has always conflicted with white supremacist ideological practices, including historical misrepresentation, and stifling social change that would uplift underrepresented and underserved communities.
Over the past year, there has been a historic uptick in book bans by conservative politicians and activists. Book bans, which intend to keep the public uniformed through fear, have targeted the writings, lived experiences, and histories written by authors who identify as Black, Indigenous, Chicanx/Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander Desi American, people with disabilities, and/or LGBTQIA+. Book bans do real harm, perpetuating harassment and violence in an attempt to silence voices by denying and erasing experiences of other races, cultures, genders and gender expressions, and sexual identities.
Nataraj called this movement shocking, “particularly in a day and age where information freely proliferates across various media platforms.”
“We are fortunate in higher education to have academic freedom, which not only allows for the unimpeded flow of ideas, but also provides justification for purchasing the materials to support critical inquiry,” said Nataraj, “but this sometimes ends up being the stuff people want to ban.”
For this year’s CSU San Marcos Campus Common Read theme, the library addressed the resurgence in censorship and book banning by selecting fiction and nonfiction reads that center African American, Latinx, Asian American, American Indian, LGBTQIA+, and other diverse groups and distributing these titles for free to first year students. The library also planned and hosted several events to facilitate discussions on the current social climate and its impact on book banning.
The threat still looms. Greater coalition building between disciplinary and library faculty, whether in the classroom or via co-created campus-wide policies or programs, must occur to find ways to push back against the national trend of state government leaders trying to restrain academic freedom and perpetuate white supremacy, says Nataraj.
“Our library is intentional about adopting an anti-racist praxis by co-developing socially conscious programming such as the CSUSM Common Read and also building collections that make it possible for researchers to amplify the voices and stories of those who have been historically relegated to the margins of society,” said Nataraj.