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Jenny Le Awarded ALA Spectrum Scholarship

By Joanie Harmon

MLIS student works to build diversity in the field; assists first-generation students in the UCLA Arts Library.

Jenny Le, a second-year MLIS student in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, has been honored with a Spectrum Scholarship by the American Library Association. Through the award, the ALA seeks to broaden the participation of new generations of racially and ethnically diverse librarians in order to provide leadership and the transformation of libraries and library services.

The $5,000 award provides financial support, including funds to attend the ALA’s annual conference in 2023, as well as networking opportunities among the community of previous Spectrum Scholars. Pamela Rodriguez Cervantes, also a MLIS student at UCLA IS, has also received the Spectrum Scholarship.

Le, who immigrated to the United States at age five and grew up in a Vietnamese community in Garden Grove, California. After achieving her undergraduate degree in art history from UC Riverside, she began to work at a public library in nearby Huntington Beach. 

“I was eager to work for a library and explore what that would be like,” says Le. “The community there was very supportive of me. I told them I wanted to pursue librarianship and the librarians would give me advice on grad school and what it would be like to be a public librarian.”

Le’s work including circulations duties and engaging with the community in the library’s programs. But when the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, her branch closed temporarily.

“Luckily, I had six months of working before the pandemic, and once the pandemic was here, I came really worried [that] I was going to lose my job,” recalls Le. “But I think that's where I realized the library is the place to be because I felt protected by the public library. Even though my position was entry level they still ensured that we were somehow getting paid and finding other venues for us to work.”

While the branch was closed, Le and her colleagues established a call center to answer COVID-related questions for the local community. Eventually after five months, the branch reopened to provide curbside pickup for patrons who had held their materials online. Le realized the difference between the Huntington Beach branch, which is funded by the city, and her own branch in Garden Grove, which was part of the Orange County library system. 

“The Garden Grove library – which is part of the Orange County Public Library – implemented curbside service much later than Huntington Beach,” says Le. “They are actually two different library systems. Huntington Beach is very well funded.”

Le, who grew up using her local library extensively, notes the importance of the institution, particularly for immigrant populations.

“I come from a working-class family and my parents don't speak English,” says Le. “Reading was somewhere I could escape but also, expand my imagination and understand what's going on in the world.

“Access to books was [only] from libraries, so I did use them, and I’m very grateful for them. But as I grew older, I also recognized that the libraries that I had access to were also limited.”

Le now works at the Arts Library, a branch of the UCLA Library as a student research assistant. She hopes to bring her awareness of the importance of public libraries to diverse populations to her current experience in an academic library.

“The trajectory of where I am in terms of the type of libraries I’m working at, has shifted…  but I’m still focused on bridging that inequity, even within the academic library,” says Le. “I realized that as an academic librarian I can reach out to first-generation students or non-traditional students. I have co-led teaching sessions for transfer students. Even in this shift from public libraries to academic libraries, I still have these values that I want to adhere to and bring into practice.”

This summer, Le served an internship at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, working under the guidance of library director and UCLA alumna Lisa Lepore. 

“I’ve been [learning] a lot of invaluable things like learning how to assess youth programs for reading and writing, and engaging with youth who are low-vision or blind; engaging with people with disabilities, which I haven't experienced before,” says Le of the online internship. “The youth are everywhere in Southern California, so all of the program has been online through Microsoft Teams, which is similar to Zoom. It’s been such a fruitful experience.”

In the upcoming fall and winter quarters, Le will serve an internship at LACMA, cataloging the museum’s art books. She has proposed the creation of a bibliography for the docents to support their educational needs in presenting the museum’s collections to the public. 

“Within LACMA, it’s not just curators and assistant curators,” Le says. “There are other folks who are much more public-facing, and they need the library’s support as well.” 

Le highlights the guidance of Professor Michelle Caswell, whose Community Archives Lab has been influential in her time in UCLA IS, and of Diana King, librarian at the UCLA Arts Library. She also highlights the role of mentorship in her IS experience and thanks UCLA alumna Patricia Ledesma Villon, who encouraged her to apply for the ALA Spectrum Scholarship.

“A lot of professors encourage us to join these professional groups so that guidance is readily available,” says Le. “But one thing I do want to emphasize is that I was able to receive the [ALA] scholarship through the guidance of my mentor, Patricia, who helped me with [the application]. She recently graduated from the program this summer. 

“We have this amazing cohort, these colleagues who support us. It’s helped me so much to navigate grad school and to be able to do the things I want to do. That’s another thing I want to do in the future, [with] mentorships for folks who are coming into this profession just like me, [to give] my support and making connections, to answer anything or help them in any way.”

Le says that a MLIS degree is an ideal way for UCLA students from a variety of disciplines to explore a fulfilling career that utilizes their particular expertise.

“I recommend a MLIS if they realize with their specialized knowledge that they want to bring it to the library or an archive [and] that it’s something that should be more [widely] known,” Le says. “As a librarian, it's not just about books,” she says. “It’s much more encompassing widely encompassing than that.”

The Spectrum Scholarship Program actively recruits and provides scholarships to American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern and North African, and/or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students to assist them with obtaining a graduate degree and leadership positions within the profession and ALA.

To learn more about the Spectrum Scholarship, visit the ALA website.

Photo by Bangtam Tran