As a student at the University of Illinois, John Vincler had the opportunity to work as a Librarian-Activist on Paseo Boricua for over a year. During that time, John spearheaded a collaboration between the Pedro Albizu Campos High School and the famed Newberry Library. For the first time in its history, youth were allowed to go beyond a visit to the Newberry… way beyond. The PACHS students curated the Newberry’s very first exhibit on Puerto Rico, called “500 Years of Puerto Rican History through the Eyes of Others.” The students learned to think critically about how their history was represented in treasured cultural institutions. Moreover, they learned that their voices could be heard in such places. And they caught a glimpse–through John–of passion and power inherent in librarianship today and a taste of what a career in libraries could mean. The Newberry, on the other hand, learned about the intelligence and potential of Puerto Rican youth in Chicago. In the following interview, part of the “Bright Young Librarians” series, John discusses the impact of Paseo Boricua on his education and gives further insights into the idea of community as intellectual space. By Dr. Ann P. Bishop, PRCC Board of Directors.
How did you get started in rare books?
I owe my career to the Newberry Library in Chicago and in particular to mentor librarians and curators there, especially Paul Gehl, Mary Wyly (long-retired and probably completely unaware of her influence), and Jo Ellen McKillop Dickie. I wandered into the profession from a rather counter-intuitive route. After receiving an undergraduate degree in English literature with a minor in philosophy, I found myself in Chicago working on a long-running independent literary magazine and working at what was then a start-up non-profit called the Electronic Literature Organization, which sought–in the heady days of the dot-com boom before the inevitable bust–to chart and promote how literature was migrating into new media with special attention to emerging forms like hypertext fiction and kinetic poetry. We had funding from dot-com CEOs and a literary board with literary heavyweights like Barney Rosset, George Plimpton, and Robert Coover. When the bubble burst, I was out of a job (the organization was taken in by UCLA) and I found my way into a fundraising job at the Newberry. My experience working at the ELO sparked an interest in the role of form, materiality, and technology in literature. I became interested in the experiments of the OULIPO in France (the acronym in English translates roughly to “the workshop of potential literature”) and then began a gradual slide into history culminating in an ongoing interest in the incunable period. I ended up working at the Newberry Library for about five years on and off, eventually working in a paraprofessional position in Special Collections. During this time I earned two master’s degrees one in the History of the Book through the University of London and a library degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I don’t know if there is a better place to begin a career than at the Newberry Library, a fantastic collection, overseen by knowledgeable, lovely, and generous people, and in a livable yet cosmopolitan city where you can financially survive as a culture-worker in training.
Could you say a bit more about where you earned your MLS degree?
While I officially graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the “where” is a bit more complicated. My work at the Newberry was more important to my training than anything I did in the classroom at UIUC, but I really do think that the University of Illinois is regularly ranked as the best library program for a reason. It’s rigorous, practical, research-focused, and innovative. Thanks to a visionary professor, Dr. Ann Bishop, who was then at Illinois, I did the most significant work of my library degree at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. In library school, my focus was on rare books and special collections librarianship and also “community informatics,” which is essentially how information can be used to create knowledge and to empower communities to action. The Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) was an intensely intellectual place at the center of a very well organized and activist community. The PRCC has its own library (with some interesting rare books and maps), publishes its own newspaper, and has a youth-operated internet radio station and theater space. It also organizes public health efforts ranging from an HIV AIDS center to a farmers’ market. I took classes online, intensive summer classes at Urbana-Champaign, and then also with Dr. Bishop in a classroom at the PRCC.