A pair of on-campus jobs as an undergraduate led James Cheng to a career combining his interests in librarianship and data analysis. Now at the UNLV Libraries, he is using data not only to improve the college experience for students but also to champion a more inclusive and equitable library profession for people of color.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Austin, Texas. However, I was born in New York City after my parents immigrated from Taiwan. They moved around quite a bit before settling in Austin.
How do you describe your position at the Libraries?
My goal as library data analyst is to assist in data-informed evaluation and decision-making to demonstrate the value of the Libraries and improve library services and resources. This involves developing an infrastructure of data collection using tools like surveys, interviews, and focus groups and the subsequent analysis. If you have made a comment on one of our surveys, I am likely the person who has read every single one of them.
How is the data you collect used in the Libraries?
Typically, the data is used in the evaluation of library services for improvement. For example, the Lied Library offered an overnight study space during study and finals week in previous semesters. We had surveys which asked students who came to the space why they found the space useful and what could be improved. Over the semesters, this information was used to improve the overnight study space, such as adding white boards, laptops, snacks, and refreshments.
You’ve been a strong advocate for inclusion and equity in the Libraries and in the library profession. How did you first become interested in this topic?
Unfortunately, I believe that if you are a person of color in the United States, you are forced to be interested in issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. One of my earliest memories was of elementary school where I was pulled out of class to help translate for a new student who did not speak English very well. However, I did not speak their language; my teachers had assumed that since we looked alike, we would know the same language. Even as a kid, I knew that was racist. To put it simply, I am an advocate for inclusion and equity because I exist as an Asian American, but also as a child of immigrants, as a first-generation college student, as a gay man, and as the many other identities I am.
This extends to my professional life as well. I have been the fortunate recipient of several diversity-related library scholarships such as from the American Library Association’s Spectrum Scholarship Program and the Association of Research Libraries’ Kaleidoscope Program. Both of these national programs seek to increase the diversity of librarianship which remains overwhelmingly white; various surveys going back to the late ’90s show the percentage of white librarians holding around 85-90 percent over time. Diversifying the profession seems to be an intractable problem.
When I first arrived at the UNLV Libraries in December of 2016, I noticed that it had a lot of catching up to do in order to even begin addressing the lack of diversity in the profession. The Libraries lacked a diversity committee, which I helped establish with other colleagues, and with this committee led an investigation into what the Libraries could do, and might be willing to do, to improve our practices with recruitment and hiring, which led to the Recommendations for Diverse Recruitment Report, largely modeled after a similar effort at Duke University Libraries. This report gathered information from the existing research, current best practices on and off campus, and internal feedback on what potential actions the Libraries could implement to increase representation and retention of people of color.
I see these as necessary but not sufficient steps in entering the conversation of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The report is merely a recommendation, and while some actions and policy have been implemented, more needs to be accomplished. But the Libraries have come a long way since I started and much of it could not be done without the willingness and support of my colleagues and especially from Dean Maggie Farrell and my supervisor, Starr Hoffman.
What are some of the inclusion and equity projects you are working on?
With my colleagues Brittani Sterling and Brittany Paloma Fiedler, I am working on an ALA Diversity Research Grant-funded project investigating the retention of mid-career academic librarians of color. We were interested in this topic because most research, programs, and interventions focused on the pipeline/early-career librarians, but an equally important aspect of diversifying the profession is whether we stay and why we stay. We hope to interview mid-career academic librarians of color who have stayed in the profession to understand why they persisted — and also those who have left when they were mid-career to understand why the profession failed them.
How did you come to UNLV?
I started in libraries as an undergraduate at Colorado College’s Tutt Library where I worked all four years as a student assistant at the circulation desk. At the same time, I worked another student job at the office of institutional planning and effectiveness where I largely performed data entry. My supervisor then, Marianne Aldrich, was very supportive and encouraged me to explore librarianship as a career path. To combine these two interests, I pursued a master's degree in information studies at the University of Texas at Austin where their curriculum was beginning to move away from traditional librarianship toward data science.
I joined UNLV as my two-year fellowship at North Carolina State University Libraries was ending. At that time, I was generally looking for positions related to library assessment. What drew me to this position was the University Libraries’ strong assessment program, which was commended multiple times by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and emphasized by former Dean of Libraries Patty Iannuzzi and my supervisor, Starr Hoffman. The culture of assessment they developed at the Libraries and the projects at the time (such as the Ithaka S+R Survey) were exciting to me and made me want to join the Libraries.
What are you currently reading or watching?
I have found during the pandemic that I do not enjoy being still too long, so a lot of my media consumption involves listening to audiobooks and podcasts while doing something else around the apartment. A recently finished podcast that I entirely binged on a weekend is WBUR’s Anything for Selena, which is a show about Selena and the influence she had on the host, Maria Garcia.
One of the places my family lived in was Harlingen, Texas, which is near the U.S.-Mexico border and Tejano music was always in the background there and in the neighborhood we lived in Austin. I deeply related to how Maria Garcia explored her identity through Selena — my hands shook with rage at Howard Stern’s gleeful mocking of Selena’s murder and the people mourning her; I felt the embarrassment and shame of not knowing the language of your parents; I connected to the confusion of being from two cultures but also rejected by both; and I even recognized the delirium that can come with research that consumes your life. This podcast brought up a lot of memories in me and I cannot recommend it enough for someone interested in understanding belonging.
Pastimes or hobbies?
Since the pandemic began, I have tried to develop as many hobbies as possible to keep occupied such as cooking and baking, building a PC, or practicing Russian. My current favorite interest is house plants, which I have taken to collecting. I also have fallen back on some bad hobbies like playing World of Warcraft.
What is the most Vegas thing you’ve done since moving here?
I went to the New Year’s Eve show of Lady Gaga’s residency, Enigma. It was a wild night to see her singing on a metal robot with fire shooting everywhere onstage, then spill out onto the Strip with explosions in the sky.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
In the past year, something that really surprised even myself was that I enjoy hockey a lot. I have never been interested in sports in the past, but I started watching the Vegas Golden Knights every time they play, bought some books to understand the rules, and of course, watched The Mighty Ducks films.
What do you miss about working on campus?
I miss having coffee or lunch with my colleagues and the passing conversations in the hallways.
What makes UNLV a unique place to you?
The students. Although my position does not have much direct interaction with students, previously I supervised two student assistants and I was always in awe at how smart, fun, and driven they are.