Librarianship Outside the United States: Interview with Cristian Chisaba

By Elaine Tornés Blanco (Follow us on LinkedIn)

Last July 14, 2023, we had the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) in Boston, Massachusetts. What a great satisfaction to see in person so many information professionals, with or without a Juris Doctor, giving talks, sharing knowledge and passion for the profession in a pleasant and human way. At the same time, I also wondered how librarianship is experienced outside of the United States. 

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to interview Cristian Chisaba-Pereira, director of the Library System at the Universidad Distrital, Francisco José de Caldas in Bogotá, Colombia, and a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, who kindly answered the questions below.

What is your personal background?

I have lived in Bogotá, Colombia for 10 years. I was born in Villavicencio, a city in the Eastern plains, neighboring Venezuela. It is like a kind of big savannah, where livestock is one of the most important things. In 2010, I moved to Bogotá. Interestingly, the good universities —or big educational centers— are in Bogota and then in Medellin. When I left my hometown, my school, I started a new personal project. It has been 13 years since I made that big bet and well, today, after 13 years, I continue to serve librarianship in Colombia.

What is your academic and professional background and what attracted you to becoming a librarian?

At 16 years old, I was wondering what to do with my professional life. It was clear to me that it was between health sciences or something to do with books, because I liked them, and I was also looking at the practical side. Medicine in Colombia is the most expensive degree we have. Then, I found at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, and at a very good cost and functional, the option of librarianship. When I finished high school —in the United States it corresponds to university study, but in Colombia we call high school to study until 11th grade—, in that 11th grade I graduated as a technical technician in administrative management. In the 11th grade, we had to do an internship, and I was in a municipality 124 miles from Bogota, in San Martin de los Llanos. The internship I had to do was in the archival area. So, that’s where I started working in law, supporting the document management and records management of a local municipal archive. That’s how I started, and I enjoyed the experience. Then I had two alternatives. One of them was health sciences; I wanted to be a doctor, or something related to books. I did not see myself as a student of literature because practicing literature in a country like Colombia is very complex. However, the subject of librarianship and information sciences caught my attention because it had good job prospects. I studied at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, the best in the country to study library science. I currently have a professional degree in information science, which is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in the United States. After finishing that degree in 2016, I started my master’s degree in information technologies for business in 2017-18 at the Universidad de los Andes. The subject of technology fascinates me, and I have tried all these years to link it to my librarianship career path. When I finished my master’s degree in information technology for business, I started an online master’s degree in information science at the University of Puerto Rico, because one of my aspirations is to be able to practice in the United States. Along the way I have done many courses, diploma courses, continuing education on issues of administrative management, project management, methodologies, analytics, Big Data, digital marketing, and even a course on blockchain and libraries from the San Jose State University in California. In short, I am a professional in Information Science with a master’s degree in information technology for business from the Universidad de los Andes, and another master’s degree in information science from the University of Puerto Rico.

Where do you work?

I work at the Universidad Distrital, Francisco José de Caldas, in Bogotá, Colombia, as director of the library system. There are 10 libraries and 2 documentation centers. I work in a working group of 70 people covering 12 information units.

What are your main responsibilities or how would you describe your job to others?

My position is equivalent to a “Head of Library” in the United States. It is a managerial position, and I am responsible for planning and management of the library system. At the University where I am, we work on 12 years of planning (Institutional Strategic Plan 2018-2030). So, I came in at a time when 5 years had already passed. I still must continue planning this entire decade, train in new librarians, plan new spaces, infrastructure, manage 70 people and a budget of approximately one million US dollars. We manage the payroll, databases, journals, books, technology, projects, and automation. In short, it is a managerial job that involves planning and stimulating people’s growth. One of the things I like the most is that all these 70 people love this profession and are part of a new generation of librarians. Financially, in addition to managing personnel and other resources, we project the future growth of a library system, not only for the benefit of the University but also for the country. I recognize that at 29 years old, I am perhaps one of the youngest library directors in Colombia. I know this because we have annual meetings, where we have over 60 or 100 library directors. Colombia has no more than 350 universities, but of those, there is only a group of 100 that are more solid than the others. So, in these meetings, of course, the library directors are represented, and I know I am one of the youngest. This is important because each person gives a different coloring to what leadership means. My ambition is to consolidate our library system and make it a reference in the country, but also to make it internationally known for various reasons: because we are developing an important project, because we are helping to solve a sustainable development objective, because we have heritage collections of great importance for the world, because we publish, because we have invented a service, because we innovate, etc. I believe that a director should stimulate all this innovation and continue to strengthen the library profession.

What are your research interests?

I have published in non-scientific academic journals on the topic of data, data management, and the relationship between technology and librarianship. That’s something that always crosses over with what I do, but especially data management as it relates to library decision-making processes. In 2018, for example, when I was at the Javeriana University working on collection development, I proposed a data driving management model to manage all collection development processes. That is, from selection, acquisition, evaluation, management of electronic resources, and to data-based preservation, they go through a huge data environment. In addition, I have written on specific technologies, blockchain, the Internet of Things and telecommunications. I am also a university professor and for more than 2 years I have been teaching a class on image and sound archives. The most recent topic I am working on involves a research group at the Universidad Distrital. I had never researched archival art before, but I have become interested in image and sound in general. In short, I am passionate about all the topics of technologies, especially the topic of Big Data, blockchain, collection development and the topics of image and sound archives.

Could you explain how this experience has impacted librarianship according to the practices in Colombia?

North American librarianship is admirable, how they group together and work to create results. In fact, many Latin American countries follow North American library practices. When I was a student, I felt that something was missing, and now that I practice and have my studies, I try to share all that I read, what I learn in the countries I travel to, with the colleagues I work with, and communicate them to the students so that they begin to discover and love the profession as much as I do. This role of love and passion is fundamental to me. I have been giving classes at the Universidad Javeriana and at the Universidad Distrital for 2 years now, on different topics. But beyond the classes that I often give as a professor, my message is always the same —that these future colleagues work, research, and really ignite a new paradigm of librarianship for the country and the world. Sometimes I feel that we are missing a lot, but we must keep working as a country and with every type of library, archive, and museum. I think we have a lot of work to do, and that is the underlying message I give to my students; beyond all the information or readings we do in my courses.

Have you ever had a reference question or situation with a research problem related to foreign, comparative and international law —or do you know a person who has told you about it?

The universities where I have worked have always offered undergraduate degrees in International Relations. That is where those needs usually come from. There are very strong universities in law in Colombia, the Javeriana itself, the Universidad Externa de Colombia, the Universidad de los Andes, all have great law schools. I am also remembering that at the Javeriana, we had an Ibero-American Insurance Library and of course, the focus was on insurance law, but much of the research on the collections they had there, revolved around that relationship of what insurance management means and how it works in different countries. We have a vast collection of Spanish insurance law resources, for example, which influences or has influenced in a certain way everything that is done here in Colombia with a specialization in insurance law.

What does a typical day look like for you at work?

Sleeping well is important because in Bogota you have to get up very early. Our traffic is one of the most difficult in the world. I leave home at five in the morning. The libraries of the District University, where I work are distributed throughout the city. Three months ago, I was notified that I am going to have a new library, a new building assigned to me, which is located in a neighborhood 24 miles away from where I live. At my arrival, there were meetings where we discussed the use of the budget, documents that are returned to us, budget adjustments, equipment management, etc. Managing so many people, 70 people, also means that any number of issues can happen: one person gets sick, cannot be there, etc. However, library leaders need to address these issues and provide answers. Generally, there may always be a meeting with another peer, with another director to look at specific points of curriculum, how the library is integrated, how the library is integrating new training, new projects, collection development or anything else that we can address. We manage the collection inventory and every day I review how we are doing with projects. This year, we started with 42 new projects to develop, implement, execute, and finish before 2030. There are also operational issues that cannot be solved by the team, but depend much more on one person’s decision, for example, fines, user damaging equipment, losing a book, and users not agreeing with the conditions of replacement. This is no longer solved by the librarians. It is up to me to enforce, let’s say, in a certain way, compliance with library regulations. There are days when we only review projects and there are others when we specifically meet with professors, with other universities or there are days when I go to faculties to talk with professors, to look at library collections. Something very important that I do daily is to strengthen the relationship between the library and the University because I received a library system very much isolated from the University. I enjoy being in a constantly changing position because it is very interesting and new every day.

What are you most excited about working on right now?

I already have the beautiful challenge of managing the library system. Besides that work, I have also been assigned other roles such as leading the editorial policy of the entire University, the entire open science policy of the University and the entry into operation of new libraries, which are very new, even in construction. I have set myself the challenge of telling Colombia: “Look, here you have a very powerful academic library, with excellent collections, come to do research, come to study here”. I love it, I am very passionate about my profession. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is also a theme that I have followed closely in recent years. We have been talking to private foundations to start providing and implementing green services, for example, training in waste management in the library, obviously, with the technical advice of foundations that are dedicated to these issues. I hope that all of this begins to materialize soon so that we can become the first environmentally-conscious academic library in the country.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Talking to people. It allows us to see people, to understand what a university library is all about. In the conversations you stimulate, you create that companionship, that teamwork, that passion. I think that this is the most valuable thing at the end of the day: communication; that touch we have with people. I think in our Latin culture, this might seem redundant, but we do it and I think it is fundamental. This is the most important thing because it is the people that make this happen. Certainly, I can be in charge, I have the baton, but they are the ones who, if they are not convinced, we can’t do anything at all; if I don’t have other bosses backing me up, or if the professors are not convinced, then I can’t do much. So, I think that’s what I enjoy the most, when I get home again, or I get to my desk, and I know that we have managed to convince someone else to support us and the role of the library within the University system.

What would you do if you were not a librarian and what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I think I would be a soccer player, because I am a soccer fan. I would be a soccer player, yes, without hesitation. In my free time I play sports, soccer, volleyball, listen to music, play instruments and I also make time for reading and writing. I used to have much more spare time, but the time I have left, I spend it doing all of the above and looking for good food in Bogotá, good hamburgers (I like hamburgers very much!).

Who would be your librarian hero or favorite authors?

I think of librarian Shiyali Ranganathan, because I have been reflecting on the 5 laws of Information Science for months now and I think they are foundational. I always think about them and say, “yeah, you’re so right”. It has even made me think about writing an essay on each of the 5 laws. I don’t think there is an essay type article, which discusses how those 5 laws have morphed over so many decades. Prince Marshall and Peggy Johnson, whom I have followed in all four editions they have published for the ALA editorial collection development fundamentals, are my rockstars in librarianship.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not those of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.