Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Heidi Johnson, Social Sciences Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Photograph of gamblers at a craps table in the El Rancho Vegas (Las Vegas), 1950s, courtesy of UNLV Libraries Digital Collections.
When I first accepted my position as Social Sciences Librarian at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I thought to myself, “How cool is this. I will be living in the ‘entertainment capital of the world,’ which also happens to be a beautiful desert surrounded by mountains.” I looked forward to living somewhere, well, really ‘interesting,’ to put it in the most generic yet suitable of terms.
Other than imagining potential weekend excursions hiking or camping, or taking advantage of some of the many cheap buffets in the city, (which aren’t so cheap anymore, by the way) and, ok, maybe trying a slot machine so I could say I’ve gambled once in my life, I didn’t really think much about how the physical location might affect me in my new situation. To me, considerations about the community were for community engagement and outreach librarians or public librarians, and maybe – at least in Vegas – special collections librarians.
Rather than thinking of the community, I was focused on academics. To me, academic environments were sheltered environments. I imagined the students that I would work with would be defined primarily by the nature and content of their studies rather than their backgrounds. Their backgrounds – which, in my mind, meant their upbringings and culture experienced within nuclear families – I assumed, would be of little concern to me, as my job was to support their academic work.
Once I started my job, I quickly discovered that these views and assumptions were wrong. To understand the academics at UNLV, it is also necessary to understand the community. UNLV is a microcosm that reflects the geography, economy, culture, and politics of the larger locale of Vegas. In fact, one cannot understand the academic environment at UNLV without having at least a basic understanding of the community.
So how does ‘Sin City’ impact, infuse, and invigorate UNLV? There are so many ways… For one, the student body is largely made-up of first generation students from underrepresented populations. Recently ranked 2nd most diverse campus in the nation by US News & World Report, UNLV is a designated Minority Serving Institution (MSI), with over half of the student population reporting being part of a racial or ethnic minority. Hispanic students make up the largest minority group, and UNLV also has a designation as an Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI). Different groups from neighboring states, the Midwest, and Asia and Latin America have migrated to Nevada for the cheap housing and job and business opportunities. In fact, between 2000 and 2007, the state of Nevada grew by 28.4 percent – making Nevada the fastest growing state.[i] Religious groups also have a presence in Sin City; 77 percent of Las Vegas residents say they are religious. And of course, yes, there is also plenty of secularism in Vegas. Fact: In 2010, the United Church of Bacon (UBC) was founded here. (UBC would be the least of Sin City’s concerns about secularism, I suppose, although this atheist group with legal standing as a church has demanded to be taken seriously.)
The Las Vegas community has needs that UNLV is oftentimes able to meet. For instance, there is a shortage of doctors in the Las Vegas valley and in Nevada, and now UNLV is building a medical school. Professors and students also use their expertise to address issues that arise within the community. For example, UNLV Engineering professors and students 3D-printed a prosthetic hand for a 4-year-old child in the community who was born with a rare birth defect.
The academic programs and research interests of faculty and students also reflect this cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as many other aspects that characterize this urban environment and the wider region/state. I have worked with the class of a Sociology professor who studies legal prostitution in Nevada. This work is significant and fills a gap in societal knowledge and values; the book that she co-authored, The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex, and Sin in the New American Heartland, might even have the effect of restoring dignity to sex work and fighting stigma, while at the same time examining problems within the system. While not solely about Las Vegas – prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas itself – the book demonstrates how place impacts the social phenomena that scholars study. The brothels have been in Nevada since the mid to late 1800s,[ii] but it is likely the political and cultural climate in the state that has guaranteed their legality and longevity until today. After all, “Nevada built a tourist industry on turning deviance into leisure.”[iii]
Tourism isn’t just a topic of study in Sociology. People come here to learn how to work in the tourist industry, too. UNLV has a hotel college – the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration – and a hospitality liaison librarian. Yes, people do come here to study gaming; there is even a Center for Gaming Research with a collection of historic books about gaming. We even have an antique slot machine up in Special Collections.
In all of my many experiences as a student at five different academic institutions (it’s been a long journey), I have never encountered a situation where the school has had such close ties to the community. It makes sense, given that it is, after all, Vegas we’re talking about here. Yet, my time here so far has allowed me to reflect on these experiences, and on the backgrounds of the students at my former institutions, more carefully. As an undergraduate at North Park University in Chicago – which is the only school affiliated with the Swedish-American Evangelical Covenant Church – I, by and large, was surrounded by people who looked a lot like me – blue eyes, blondish hair – with Swedish or Scandinavian ancestry, who had similar religious upbringings in middle class families. The school offered a major in Scandinavian studies and a study-abroad experience in Sweden, and the library’s holdings and archives also reflected this heritage. As for the religious heritage, all full time professors were required to sign a statement of faith and incorporate their Christian beliefs into their teaching in some way. But being in the city, in one of the most diverse neighborhoods at that, there were many commuter students from various other ethnic and religious backgrounds. Their perspectives certainly mixed things up a bit at this predominantly white, evangelical Christian university that also took pride in its urban setting.
Another of my alma maters, University of Illinois, is defined by its student population, with many students from Chicago and many international students. And students I met at the European Graduate School were from all over the world – many different continents – which was definitely reflected in their unique perspectives. Finally, the academics at Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit school where I studied philosophy, were also impacted by the type of community that it was. Social justice was emphasized at the school in general, and Continental (European, as opposed to Anglo-American) philosophy was a major focus of the philosophy program, in large part, I think, because it was a Catholic school. At all of these institutions, my academic trajectory (and personal journey) was largely determined by the history, geography, beliefs and values, and politics and culture of the schools.
Now as I move forward in my new job, I can be more aware of the differences among students, and why they think certain ways or have certain beliefs, values, or skill sets. I can be more aware of the reasons why professors and students choose certain topics to research and not others. Not only that – not only does this knowledge help me understand difference – it can also help be a more sensitive and empathetic librarian and teacher knowing that all of my students, and professors with whom I liaise, come from a place – a rich, complex background that has informed and, ultimately, shaped them to be who they are today.
Place matters. Vegas matters. To this job, to me, to the UNLV community.
[i] See p. 3 and Note 8, p. 245. Brents, B. G., Jackson, C. A., & Hausbeck, K. (2010). The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex, and Sin in the New American Heartland. New York, NY: Routledge.
[ii] See p. 6, Brents, Jackson, and Hausbeck.
[iii] Ibid, p. 2.