Faculty Profile: Mónica Colón-Aguirre

March 17, 2014

"I tell my students to strive for and expect excellence, but not perfection. Perfection is fragile and transient. Excellence as a goal provides enduring encouragement to push yourself forward."

Working as a jack of all trades in libraries in Puerto Rico in 2003, Assistant Professor Mónica Cólon-Aguirre began her career managing budgets, negotiating prices, and cataloging books. Eventually, she was told to work at the reference desk, "which was feared by everyone." That didn't stop Cólon-Aguirre, who loved providing reference service directly to the public.

"When people think of a library, they think of books. People are the main components of libraries. Librarians are the guides to knowledge. "Neil Gaiman says Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one," said Colón-Aguirre.

On a Science Links Scholarship, which provides tuition funding for minority students pursing degrees in the sciences, Colón-Aguirre moved from San Juan, Puerto Rico to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to purse master's and doctoral degrees in library and information science. Although she was fluent in conversational English, she had not written an academic paper before in the language. Colón-Aguirre would handwrite all her notes and then re-type her papers, which "gave her time to edit and reflect." She successfully completed the doctoral program thanks to supportive friends and colleagues and her "insane work ethic."

"I became obsessed with doing my best. Now I tell my students to strive for and expect excellence, but not perfection. Perfection is fragile and transient. Excellence as a goal provides enduring encouragement to push yourself forward," says Colón-Aguirre. "Change is to be faced, not feared."

Today Colón-Aguirre has completed many studies, book chapters, and conference papers. In addition to her library and information science credentials, she holds a master's in business administration, which she applies to her research. Her interests include library administration, knowledge management, human resource management, professional development, and organizational narratives in the academic library context.

Colón-Aguirre became interested in storytelling as an informal way to encourage learning after reading how different companies used stories instead of technical manuals to teach syrup machinists to fix error codes. Her research has explored how storytelling can be applied to reference services. "Stories trigger memories that can be applied to how we make sense of our environment. Storytelling helps patrons understand the terms to use and the information they receive," says Colón-Aguirre.

In "Stories Gone Cold: An Analysis of the Un-telling of Organizational Stories Among Reference Librarians," which she presented last year at the United Kingdom's Untold Stories? A Storytelling Conference, Colón-Aguirre's research examined the factors behind the silencing of stories, which included misunderstanding of information, embarrassment, and an authority figure's desire to keep the information quiet. Her study about the information behavior responses of those affected by the Tennessee Valley Authority ash spill in 2009 also showed that the people directly affected by the environmental hazard tended to avoid information instead of seeking it. The study has helped Colón-Aguirre shape future information behavior projects.

One of her current projects is publishing a paper derived from the presentation "Social Media: Potential Contributions to the Creation of Communities of Practice among Librarians," which was featured at the 2012 ALISE annual conference. Colón-Aguirre believes opportunities exist to allow people to use social media to connect with others, yet these tools are not being used to their full potential. Additional content analysis is needed to improve engagement and create communities. She is also working on a project with Professor Mary Wilkins Jordan and Director of External Engagement Kris Liberman to analyze continuing education enrollment data.

When she is not conducting research, Colón-Aguirre is teaching LIS 407 Reference/Information Services and LIS 404 Principles of Management in the Spring 2014 semester. She also is the Simmons GSLIS faculty secretary and is a member of the curriculum committee.

Students benefit from Colón-Aguirre's outside interests, including her baking and her desire to motivate others to reach their full potential. She also plans to learn German in the near future.

"I am the first in my family to earn a doctoral degree," says Colón-Aguirre. "I'm hoping that the rest of them catch up."

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer