March 20, 2018

Isabel Espinal | Movers & Shakers 2003

Returning the Favor

Isabel Espinal developed an early interest in libraries while growing up poor in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. “Libraries were always free,” she says. “We had no toys, no bicycles, but, thank God, we had the New York Public Library.” As a librarian at the University of Massachusetts, Espinal is more than returning the favor.

In addition to her work as a subject librarian, Espinal takes a special interest in raising awareness of the library profession to students of color. Through presentations, videos, dinners, and icebreaking activities, she introduces students to librarians from REFORMA – she is a past president of the Northeast chapter – the American Library Association’s Black Caucus, ALANA, and other groups.

Espinal feels that the academic library is an ideal environment for recruiting. “In a public library, you get a lot of people who may be interested in working in a library but who are not in a position to go to graduate school,” she says. “On a four-year college campus, you have a population who are asking, ‘What am I going to do once I get my degree?'”

But there are still barriers. She finds that students don’t know a reference librarian from a subject specialist. Part of the problem is that “students of color seem as a whole to have more of a fear of institutions.” Despite this, she’s had a great response so far. “The students have a new view of librarians. Many of them have never seen any professional of color.”

Her best recruiting pitch may be her own story. As the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who owned a bodega, she had an early interest in business. As a student of Spanish literature at Princeton, she developed an interest in academia. Her other passions include writing and translating poetry, and for a time she considered a career in social work. Ultimately, she needed a way to bridge her many enthusiasms. “Being a librarian put a lot of things together for me,” she says. “You can really be yourself in this profession.”


Current Position: Humanities & Anthropology Librarian, University of Massachusetts Libraries, Amherst

Degree: MA, School of Library and Information Science, University of California – Berkeley, 1991