An audience warning. This episode contains some mention of violence and some other topics that may not be suitable for all audiences.
Natalia Estrada: I met Liladhar years ago while working in the UC Berkeley libraries. And there are a couple of things anyone that knows Liladhar will say about him. One, did you know Liladhar knows more than 15 languages? Two, and that he’s fluent in about eight of them? Three, he is incredibly passionate about librarianship, especially Area Studies librarianship. He shares that passion with any new library worker, including me. I sat down and talked to him about Area Studies, how he got into librarianship, some of the projects that he’s been working on.
What does a day-to-day look like for you?
Liladhar Pendse: So, every day is unpredictable. You have worked at UC Berkeley, so our priorities can shift sometimes, but the basic goal for any librarian is to serve our end user. So who are our end users? Students, faculty, adjunct, doctoral students, visiting scholars, et cetera, et cetera. So whenever the day changes suddenly without any previous warning, I still try to focus on things that might take care of our primary, what do they call it, clientele. I don’t like to use that word, they’re not our clients. They’re not our patrons, but they are someone we are interested to deliver appropriate, verifiable, correct information that perhaps suits their information needs. Because we try and sometimes, we try to tell them, okay, this might work for you, but they are not completely happy. Sometimes information does not exist or it existed in disparate languages.
Natalia Estrada: I know your background because we worked together for quite some time, but I think the way that you got into librarianship helps frame your approach with our patrons and our researchers and whatnot. Can you talk about how you got into librarianship?
Liladhar Pendse: Yes. Yes, of course. I would like to recall my days at UCLA when I was a student and my first job as an immigrant was washing dishes. And most of the colleagues who worked with me around me spoke Spanish and I could not communicate with them. And it was like “Que hora son?” so I knew a few key words, then I realized that there’s much to Spanish language. It’s beautiful. It’s complicated. It’s nuanced like any of the languages. And I decided to say, okay, I want to know more about the world I don’t know about, because I came from the old world from a traditional family in India and it was important for me to realize that everybody in the world, people live differently, but our humanity combines us. So that’s what brought me to the librarianship, what will be the one way to get there?
So I was looking for jobs and there was a job in the parking, like other jobs. So my boss said to me, she was from Texas and she was so supportive. I was very impressed with the level of support she gave me. I always had a good relationship with Texans and she was like, “No, no, no, you’re a good man. You should work study. Why don’t you do librarianship?” And I said, “Are you trying to program my brains?” Like, “No, because you’re a mature student and you’ll be very good at helping other students.”
Okay. So I started picking classes and then I came to UCLA and applied like everybody else, and American community colleges for me are the blessing. You know, sometimes people laugh at it. Oh, this is a community college student. Who cares? But no, they allowed me to transfer my credits because I could not afford. So I was lucky. And then I worked at Home Depot and the people were very supportive. At Home Depot, they always insisted upon continuing education from their associates. So I had an overall good experience in my immigrant life.
Natalia Estrada: A lot of people don’t go into librarianship the way that you did where it’s usually like they love books or they had a good experience in their libraries and they wanted to do that as well. You had encouragement and you had people who supported you, which is super important.
Liladhar Pendse: Also the reference librarians, the first line of defense. And I’ll tell you why. When I was washing dishes, I used to feel too depressed because I knew more than that, but that doesn’t mean that the job was below me, but I got a job which paid my bills, covered my insurance expenses. So to escape the seemingly boring nature. Cause no job is boring. You make it boring sometimes. I used to go to UCLA’s library, and since I started in the Soviet Union where they were still using card catalog, I did not know how to use computers. And the first person who helped me was a Chinese American librarian who was responsible for Latin American studies, and her name was Dora Loh. She was so gentle. She was so patient. I said, oh my God, I don’t know how to use the computer and I used to do that typing with two hands. So she said, learn typing for your success. So these are the people who motivated me, and she guided me and she said, why don’t you work at the job in the library? Because you spoke Russian, you spoke Hindi. I said, “Okay”. That’s why I got into the library. So the credit goes to the librarians also on the reference desk. They matter to me, at least, as a mature student, they matter to me.
Natalia Estrada: And also, not only did they see that they also recognized that you take a lot of humanity to everyone around you. Like, you yourself as a person. Washing dishes is not an unskilled job. No job is an unskilled labor, but at the same time, you were taking all these things from washing dishes and trying to communicate with your coworkers and things like that, and trying to get skills to apply to that and be able to have a better relationship. And I feel like that works very well for you in librarianship.
Liladhar Pendse: Yes. And the co-workers were the best for me because words play an integral role in expressing meaning. Now if should take them out of context, then they become a horrible scratch on your ears. But there are certain ways to say, and especially most of the colleagues who worked with me were either from Central America or from Mexico. So they were very generous to me. And I didn’t take it like an offense, but it got me in the trouble sometimes. So it’s a lifelong preparation. It’s a vocation for me and colleagues like you who make me feel welcomed. Many Americans really, I will tell you, of course, like every university you have some funny colleagues will never accept you, that happens in every university, but 99.9% of colleagues were forthcoming, welcoming, and very warm. I cannot say anything bad about those experiences. Thank God. Or I don’t know. Yeah. Thank the Providence.
Natalia Estrada: I think we should talk about the specific type of librarianship that you specialize in, which is Area Studies, international librarianship or whatnot. And it’s a very important, but little understood in some senses. Like, I don’t think everybody has an actual image of what Area Studies librarianship looks like. What is Area Studies librarianship?
Liladhar Pendse: So to be put in the simple words, Area Studies focuses on a particular region of the globe and tries to understand it from the perspectives of print culture in that particular area, what kind of books are getting published? Not necessarily just to collect books for the collection’s sake, but to meet the information needs of our end users. So somebody asked me, “How much of tequila is produced in Mexico? I need to know because tequila is like a denomination of a certain region. If it’s produced somewhere else, it becomes something different. I’m not going to talk about alcohol as a vice. There’s a simple question, economic trade. And somebody comes to me, “How many bottles of tequila gets exported?” You need to know where it’s made. What is it? I don’t drink, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t know what it is.
So, Area Studies is the invention of our foreign policy. For example, when I was in Latin America, I asked a Brazilian colleague, are you a Latin American Studies major? And they laughed at me. They said, what do you mean by Latin American Studies major? I’m a Brazilian Studies major, Brazilian literature, Brazilian aspects of sociology. For example, I was in India and I didn’t know that I was a South Asian until I got to America because I was taught I’m Indian. That’s what’s my nation state, right? So Area Studies transcends slightly that model and makes it broader to understand regional specificities.
And after the Second World War United States realized that we need to redefine our space in this world and in order to define our space first, we need to understand with whom we are dealing. So for example, after 9/11, everybody started studying Arabic because that was a hot topic. Now that Ukraine is going on, there’s a lot of money coming into Ukrainian Studies. So you need to have long-term vision. Our mission is a very young mission, as compared to many other missions. So we don’t hold necessarily grudges, but we try to understand how the world works.
Natalia Estrada: But I don’t want just this to be a look at, like, Area Studies is important, getting these resources because we want to know essentially the people who we’re in conflict with. I think there’s more to it. I imagine that you see that there’s more of an importance of Area Studies besides that.
Liladhar Pendse: For me, because I was a dislocated person from my own childhood, so Area Studies acquired a special meaning. When you leave your country and go to another country, you have to adapt to the ways those people live: languages they speak, food they eat. But for me, it is not just defined by the political drives of the United States.
It’s also an integrated discipline. So why would you consider Brazilian modernism and compare it to, let’s say, Iranian modernism. If somebody comes and asks me, oh, do you know The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat? And if you don’t know who Sadegh Hedayat was, then you’re lost, and how it’s spelled, or sometimes in the catalog, we see the mistakes, like the Righteous Caliphs of Islam, one of them is Abu Bakr, but the person who doesn’t know that who’s doing the cataloging Romanizes it as “baker”, B-A-K-E-R, then you get the results for “bakery” and then you go crazy. So this also means having knowledge of regional specificities. ” How Americans live?” somebody asks me, “Oh, do they eat all McDonald’s?” I say, “Are you crazy?” Or, “All of them, do they watch soap operas like Santa Barbara?” You cannot generalize about our country. The devil is in the details, and Area Studies empowers you to understand those details to the best of your abilities. And if you don’t know, you ask.
Natalia Estrada: Whenever people find out that I’m Colombian, usually the first thing they think of is like, “oh, so, did you benefit from Pablo Escobar, things like that?” Or things related to the drug trade. While in fact, there’s so much more to Colombia.
Liladhar Pendse: You cannot just dismiss Colombia from those types of understanding. Colombia has a long history. Its history is complicated and nuanced like every other country. They have multiple ethnicities, like Afro Colombians, the First Nations of Colombia. Colombia is huge, huge. It looks small on the map. So Colombia is not simple.
Natalia Estrada: That’s important because it’s selectors like you that help flesh out these images of these regions of the world. If you’re doing it based without any knowledge of these regions of the world, you’re going to have a very limited and quite frankly, a very bigoted, dismissive collection to focus on these areas. It’s selectors and librarians like you who do Area Studies that help give a fuller image, even for those who can’t go to these regions.
During our conversation Liladhar mentioned some of the items in the collection that contains racism, violence, abuse, trauma, and while for him, these are tough materials to deal with, he explains his approach in this way.
Liladhar Pendse: So for example, there was a law in Russia, which allows men, if they strike a woman a couple of times they don’t get arrested or something like that, I’m not a legal expert, but then I started collecting materials on female abuse, gender biases, this macho nature of being a man, supposedly with a lot of power and abusing women. So it is reprehensible material sometimes and there are different views to it. But as a librarian, you keep your emotions when you leave your home and come to work, doesn’t mean you don’t feel them, doesn’t mean you don’t have your personal opinions, but you need to still collect the materials. I think this American Code of Ethics, librarian code of ethics, you have to follow it and I tried to be as neutral as I can. I try to fight my own implicit biases because all of us have them, but I believe strongly that we as librarians have a unique role in implementing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. But besides that decolonizing our cultures. That’s a loaded word, right? Because somebody who’s a conservative in the United States might think me very wrong. There’s no offense to anybody, but what I mean is that you have to represent all sides of human thought.
Natalia Estrada: I think, though, I wouldn’t call that a neutral stance. You’re taking the side of showing the humanity of different regions of the world and being active and reflecting that in your collection practices. Like if you were being neutral, you would just let the collection build on its own and not say anything. But you are being deliberate in saying like, I want more representation in Afro- Latino authors in my collection. I want more representation of unheard voices in Eastern Europe. That is a deliberate choice that I think only you can make.
Liladhar Pendse: Yeah. Because at UC Berkeley, one thing I like is our administrators trust us. They know that we are the specialists in our field. So we have a colleague in Middle Eastern Studies. He specializes in Middle-Eastern Studies, but since I do Armenian studies, we work together because Armenia resides also in the Middle East and Turkey. Anatolia, a whole part of it was a home of historical Armenia, for example, so there are a lot of Armenians living even after the genocide.
Same with my colleague in Romance languages. Spain is like the mother country for the Latin America in the colonial sense, which I don’t agree with that description, but they publish a lot on Latin America, critical librarianship. So I collect it, deliberately I collected because many civil war participants fled to Mexico, fled to Argentina, fled to Colombia to be there, to survive Franco’s regime. So they published it. So are they Spaniards or are they Latino? Those questions I don’t entertain. I let those big questions to be entertained by my faculty and students.
This is why I buy books and not just buying books, evaluating them for the degrees of scholarship for which we have the criteria. Secondly, people laugh at me and they say, why do you look at the prices? I never look at the prices from the Colombian perspective, but if one vendor is offering a book, which is, let’s say, in Colombian currency is 20 US dollars. If that vendor is selling that book for, let’s say, a hundred dollars, look at the market, right? Vendors have to leave. Libreros have to leave, but with the same other vendor is giving you it $120. Then you have to have that competitive intelligence. Because I’m a public university employee, I don’t have unlimited budget and no university in the world has an unlimited budget. Howard doesn’t have, Princeton doesn’t have, they have limitations. They have a lot of resources, much more than us perhaps as a public university compared to private, but still we have accountable for how we spend our moneys, where to stretch it.
Natalia Estrada: I don’t know if you mind me asking, I hope it’s okay to ask, but you mentioned earlier that you were a displaced person. Would you mind talking about your backstory and how that influences?
Liladhar Pendse: It’s not that important because they’re all displaced in certain ways, all human beings in a certain way are displaced in a sense. Sometimes people are displaced by war, sometimes by their poverty, sometimes by the choices people around them may make, which we try to understand it as a fate, the choices other people make for you on which you don’t have any control. But you realize afterwards, “oh, that was a good choice. I ended up in the United States or I went to Russia or I went to Middle East,” or, “it was a terrible choice. I shouldn’t have been here.”
When I was a child, I wanted to study Arabic, but I couldn’t study because of the religious sensitivities that existed in the society. There was no such program in the school where I studied. But behind my house where I lived, there was a big Islamic community, and there were teachers and I thought all languages are written with Arabic script as a kid. Then I realized it’s not true because Iranians use the same type of scripted modification. Urdu is written with the script, and I started to study secretly, only my mother and me. When my father found out, he said, “oh no, he is starting again. He’s going to be an extremist!” He was joking, but as a kid you take it personally.
So, “okay, what should I study?” So I started studying Russian, because I was not allowed to study Arabic or Urdu. I started studying Russian because that was one language which was accessible to me. Soviet Union, despite being called an evil empire, it had certain advantages because they have the foreign propaganda presence in third world countries, just like American information bureau or whatever they called it. English classes were very expensive, so I couldn’t afford.
As a loser, I went to where I can go. Russian, they only charged like 50 cents for the whole year. Of course, they have their own agendas and sub-agendas to win the minds over for the Soviet type of thinking. I was kind of adopted, encouraged by one Russian teacher, she said, “you have to go to Soviet Union to study and for a kid who is young, 12- 13 years old, and you tell him, you come from a lower economic, socio-economic background where resources are limited, when you have like eight people living in one room, the water comes only for 14 minutes a day, and you don’t have TV in the home. So you have to watch TV, the country did not have TV until 74, I believe. So we used to watch TV from shops outside, so I said, okay, that’s a good chance to let me go to Russia. They take it’s a worker’s paradise. They let me go and experience it.
Now I think that I should have first come to America. It would have been better for me career-wise. But, you know, I cannot change the past. So I ended up in the Soviet Union and I realized they didn’t have toilet paper, they didn’t have sugar, and I said, “how it can be worker’s paradise?” Outside, we were all quite zipped mouth, following the rules and norms, but there was a rebellion going on.
So librarianship for me coming to America was reconnecting to that past, because I could read Indian materials here in Berkeley library, I could read Russian materials. The Spanish people who surrounded me came from Mexico, from Guatemala, from El Salvador, and they adopted me in the communidad.
Natalia Estrada: I don’t want to force you into displaying your trauma before.
Liladhar Pendse: No, no, there is no, it’s just experience. Traumas happened all the time, and there are people who are in worse situation, like Ukrainian refugees, displaced by aggression or special military operation of Russia, as they call it. They don’t have homes. Look at Afghans displaced by our own activities overseas, the pragmatism and idealism about globalization gets decoupled with the political realities of a particular nation state. When our boys go to fight over there, lose their hands, trying to build Afghanistan, trying to do good things, but bad things come out of it. And those veterans who come back home, it’s not their fault. They’re following orders, but then you wonder.
Our country is so divided ideologically, it makes me really sad that this nation has given so much hope to many, many people overseas. Really, when I was growing up, when I was in the Soviet Union, we used to listen to Radio Free Europe. Why? Because they used to give accurate information about what’s happening in the Soviet Union. So when Chernobyl happened, we heard it first, so I was surprised. I think the authorities were like, “oh, it’s a minor accident.” but in reality, it was a big cloud all the way to Sweden and Norway, I believe. And we found that out.
So information is power. And as a librarian, we are the clearing house of information in a certain sense. We are the heart of the university and we are here to serve.
Natalia Estrada: I mean like your own mission statement, like your own reason why you were there, the way you phrased it, where it’s like, you want to be able to give the information that is out there.
So speaking of information, let’s talk about the at-risk Afghanistan web archive.
In early 2021, the U S government announced that it was withdrawing from Afghanistan on August 31st, earlier than the initial set date of September 11th and President Joe Biden declared that the 20-year occupation there was over. The declaration led to a power vacuum that was then filled by the Taliban. It also led to a chaotic, desperate, and at times deadly attempt by people to evacuate the country.
Liladhar Pendse: So that was a big moment for me. Without going into the merit s of our exiting Afghanistan, we know the SIGAR reports, you can Google them. They talked about levels of inefficiencies, levels of corruption, lack of accountability. I was wondering so much of taxpayers’ money went into that operation and there was corruption, obviously, somehow Taliban was able to overwhelm local authorities. Why? Because they had a big civil war when the Soviet Union left and they realized no point, because we are going to be all killed if you start a fight against Taliban, so they said the United States will leave, and that’s what happened. We left, we disengaged. I’m sure there’s a lot of engagement going on behind the scenes. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.
However, when I saw the Taliban leaders were sitting in the presidential palace, I said that means there will be a new reality. The poor and downtrodden cannot leave their country because they don’t have resources. Intellectuals, including female intellectuals might get into trouble because of the conservative interpretation of particular religion. Islam is not a monolith as we see it. Islam has lot of undercurrents, a lot of different sects, a lot of different way of thinking. There’s a lot of freedom in how you interpret Islamic law to a certain extent.
Now, I think the government information, the information created by civil society, such as tweets, such as blogs, such as some radio station websites, will eventually change. There is no doubt that it will not change. The only thing is when it will change.
And you know the first things when government comes over, they try to take out everything. But first government data that has happened in our politics, for example. To this day, we have a lot of different inquiries going on. So I thought I should save that information, at least in the United States, that information is safe to a certain extent, but in Afghanistan, I don’t know.
I had one project going on the Belarus protests and at the same time, I said, okay, I should start the project. When I first started crawling like six websites. But then I said that if I don’t have informed, let’s say a participant. Cause I don’t know Pashtu. I was studying Farsi at the time, so I could read Dari and I could figure it out in English, but I still need to have one local specialist. So I started looking and started contacting a couple of professors. They got interested. And at the same day I wrote at my boss, Susan Edwards, and both of them were copied, that I’m sorry, when I originally started this project, I thought I’m going to be in big trouble. And Susan said, Oh, good, that is started! Sometimes you have to go in a bureaucratic organization and I’m not saying Berkeley’s bureaucratic, but you know how libraries work, they have their own levels of forms to fill out for all sorts of right reasons, intellectual property, clearance, whatever they call it, informed consent, but sometimes you don’t have time, I just took that decision on me and I’m to be blamed if something goes wrong, but I let them know that I’m doing this.
Natalia Estrada: So Susan and Beth understood that this was an urgent thing.
Liladhar Pendse: Sunday morning. Yeah, I talked to them Sunday morning. Sunday afternoon, I got the reply. “Do you have enough space?” Because it’s expensive. Somebody has to pay for it. And then we decided to have, I think about 65, 69 sites, we crawled and saved a lot of PDF files, but it’s still a peanut, you know, but at least we have some access to what the government was about, even if it was corrupt, some people call it.
There was a civil society in Kabul in certain urban centers where female police officers were there, female judges were there, female students would go to school and get education. There was some progress made despite the fact that the promise made to Afghan girls was broken by Taliban, right? They were all sent home. So just imagine the amount of social pressure because of gender. And we are not living in the stone age. Even in the Prophet’s time this never happened. In the Prophet’s time, it never happened that women were treated the way sometimes they get treated now in some parts of the world. So I’m looking at it from an American perspective because I’m living here 30 years might, be the people in Afghanistan might be feeling differently, I don’t know. I have not been there.
Natalia Estrada: So, one thing I noticed is that there’s been also this history of projects trying to archive government websites after a government political head that people have concerns about. Like, I remember there was this attempt to web archive sites after Bolsonaro in Brazil, I think there might’ve been a separate one in Hungary after Viktor Orban. How do you feel about this need of a group of independent library workers and academics having to do the archiving of websites after this kind of event happens?
Liladhar Pendse: So the Library of Congress at one time, I think announced that we will get your every day’s tweets. Wow. What a lofty goal, right? After all this is the Library of Congress, numero uno, there’s no other library par excellence for many of us who think like it’s like reaching heaven, maybe it’s heaven, I don’t know. So I captured Bolsonaro tweets, and I was told that there is no space, budget was limited. So sometimes resources matter.
So you need to be thinking of a few questions here. One question is if you are going to do such a project, why your institution? Second, is it a unique enough project? Now you see Ukraine is happening, all of us are covering Ukrainian websites. When Iraq War was happening, how many of us were looking at Iraqi websites? Think about this. So there are certain dynamics, and let’s say a minority person, which I am always told that I’m a minority. Sometimes you get reminded because of your accent, because of your last name, nobody overtly does it, but covertly, you feel it, like questions that you get sometimes like, why are you involved with this project?
Natalia Estrada: I thought about that too, with the announcement of SUCHO, the Ukrainian archiving project, the big one that has hundreds of people, almost a thousand people working on it at the same time. The Cameroonian websites, the governing government websites, like there is a conflict going on that not many people know about until recently with the announcement of Cameroonians who live in the US getting TPS. But even then, people still don’t know that there is a separatists conflict that has caused many people to be displaced, especially in Northern Cameroon in the Anglophone region. People have lost access to electricity and the internet and whatnot. People have died, but not many people know about it. And there’s really no effort that I’ve seen on this kind of scale.
Liladhar Pendse: This is the parochial nature. This is what kind of makes me very sad. Once again, nobody’s equating the loss of life in Ukraine. Ukraine is important. I’m not saying it’s not important that every nation state should have the right to choose their future, but in a peaceful way, they can join whatever they join. But with the same token, we are the people who lead the world. We considered ourselves so called nation builders because United States have experienced building nations in Europe after the Marshall Plan. We started trying to rebuild Iraq, but Iraq didn’t have a lot of choices in the beginning.
So as an America, I’m speaking, and I’m not representing any particular party or ideology. When we talk about equity, talk is cheap. How many times African-Americans have been shot at, killed, put in the jail. Every time the United States gun violence happens, and I don’t represent NRA or I don’t represent Democrats here, all I’m saying is have a rational talk. Every time we get together, oh, poor kids died, oh my God, or we cried. And these things repeat over and over and over. And then you start wondering what is going on here. What is your role? We are sometimes really hypocritical. And that’s the name of the game foreign policy. There are no sinners, just the policy.
Natalia Estrada: I will say one thing to give benefit to all this though, is that having so many people work on web archiving, it’s giving more of a human face to the creation of the information that we get on the internet. People are realizing for the Ukrainian website that there are people behind it that maintain, not just the Ukrainian website, but like any infrastructure or open source resource that a lot of know Americans use. In Afghanistan, a lot of the information that comes out, there is a person behind that. I was even just thinking about that with a guide on using a certain software for podcasting, he’s a Ukrainian.
Liladhar Pendse: I’m doing the same project here. I have about 2 terabytes of data archived on Ukraine, but with the same token when I archive Ukrainian websites, I’m archiving some of the opposition Russian websites because Russia is not a monolithic country. I don’t believe in the collective punishment, although the goal of the collective punishment or the 4,000 plus sanctions on Russia seems to be bringing down Putin regime rather than helping Russians. But Russians are stolen their own country on certain level, nobody talks about it.
We know one size does not fit all. The gestalt is different. So there’s Memorial, it’s a Russian NGO, which was declared a foreign agent by current Russian government. And they’re all Russians. There is a NGO which is called, I think, Mothers of Soldiers or something like that, and I’m not covering their websites because their kids are going to Ukraine to fight. Some of them were transported there against their wish by forcing them to sign this contract, and they’re dying in numbers.
Since the Russian government’s data is not verifiable or they have their own restrictions because of the special nature of the military operation, everything is classified. So Ukrainians, when they find a dead Russian soldier, they photograph it, and then they use artificial intelligence and do reverse image search to find him on the social media, that person, once they find and verify information, they call the family using mobile phones in Russia to tell their mothers your son was in Ukraine, this is his ID, so parents know that his or her child has either perished or is in Ukrainian captivity.
Natalia Estrada: And you’re archiving that.
Liladhar Pendse: I’m archiving some of those pictures, some of them are quite graphic so they are not public yet because that’s very traumatic. Not everybody can appreciate it. It’s a bad sight, right?
Natalia Estrada: How do you balance being able to do the work like that without causing more, for lack of a better term, traumatic experience for you?
Liladhar Pendse: Well, there’s a personal grief we all feel. There would have been a better solution using diplomatic means. I’m not trying to justify Putin’s war, but to understand what happened, when the globalized world, where there’s one leader, not everybody perceived that particular nation state as a leader, but to perceive them as either a threat to their way of life, their way of thinking, justified or not justified, that’s a different story, but not everybody wants to follow American model, that’s what it’s telling us.
So it’s very strange for me, it takes a lot of toll on me, emotional toll, but somebody has to do the job. Somebody has to preserve those snippets of soldiers who perhaps didn’t have idea day before yesterday that they were going to fight in Ukraine, but ended up in Ukraine, got caught, got killed. See how the Ukrainians are finding where the Russian troops are. They don’t have their satellites, so somebody is giving them that information, somebody is providing plans to them to fight that war and the lives are being lost.
Natalia Estrada: How’s the results of the ARAWA project look, and what do you expect to see from the archiving of the Ukrainian and Russian websites that you’re working on now? Do you see any relation between the two?
Liladhar Pendse: Well, you can always find correlation between different entities, but that’s not the point. These projects are slightly different. The realities are different. The Ukrainian war is still going on, despite the fact that people say, well, they’re not progressing, they’re not doing this. There are certain gains and certain losses. So at the end of the day, this repository is a testimony of what was happening from Russian side, as well as on the Ukrainian side. In this war, I don’t think there are winners or losers.
To be fair, Russia was the aggressor in this war. They crossed the border unethically. Until 2014 when they took the Crimea, I had met many Ukrainians who spoke Russian, who sang Russian songs, they realized their sense of commonality, of the cultural experiences of the Soviet times or Eastern Slavic, well, however you define it. Now? I believe that Putin is doing everything to build a nation which he thought he was going to conquer. He has helped more to create a nation state to be more stronger than it was before, but that’s just my naive interpretation of a librarian’s way of looking at life.
So what I’m saying is that I wish human beings could be colorblind. I wish human beings could have looked at the tragedy that affects everybody, like COVID has affected all over the world. What is happening in the Cameroon should have the same priority, but I cannot speak for the rest of the countries, not my place, but I’d rather have archives preserve certain sites than not to have it.
Natalia Estrada: So imagine that a new library worker is listening to this who’s interested in Area Studies and has heard of all your work and has heard of all the efforts that you’re putting in and also the toll that it takes. What would you say to that library worker or student who wants to go into Area Studies after hearing this? What advice, what suggestions, what would you say to them?
Liladhar Pendse: Be flexible, be open, allow experiences to enrich you that are going to be sometimes positive experiences, sometimes going to be negative experiences in life when you work in the libraries. Remember that every library has four P’s. There are policies, there are procedures, there are people, and the last one, which is very less important for me, is politics. So every organization in the world, whether it’s White House or Kremlin will have this mix of these type of metrics. So, what is important for you is like sometimes when I joined this profession, there were some librarians who said, “oh, you’re a loser. You’re joining this profession!” And they’re librarians and they’re making six figure salaries and they were telling me. And I was like, I’m a library student. And I was making $8 an hour, $8.25 in those times, and why they’re so complaining when they’re like $700,000 in salaries in some cases. So try to do it, have independent, critical thinking, and don’t put people on pedestals.
Natalia Estrada: So I know you had a lot there, but I want to point out that you said that there were librarians at six figure incomes.
Liladhar Pendse: Well, go and look up the salary databases of…
Natalia Estrada: I want to talk to these people!
Liladhar Pendse: That was in 2001, 2002, those times. I think that there are city administrators who make six figures in income, and then there are workers in food service work for $5.50 living wage. So I’m not trying to be socialist here. I’m just a librarian politically not affiliated with any party, no ideology here. I’m just saying that look at the data.
Natalia Estrada: No, I think that’s fair. I think it’s fair that, you know, I wish for another discussion that we talk about the disparities.
Liladhar Pendse: Yeah, library assistants helped me who make our libraries possible, student workers, cheap labor fodder, but the universities don’t want to pay the benefits to them. We appreciate them, we give them awards. Why don’t you give the proper living wages?
Natalia Estrada: Yeah. Give them wages, give them benefits.
Liladhar Pendse: No, no, you cannot go there, man. You are flying at 2000 feet and those people are flying at 20,000 feet. They will crush you. They’ll be B-2 bombers and we are just old Cessna. So these types of conversations happen within libraries, that happened to me. And what I said to young students or future librarians is it’s worth it. No matter if it’s how bad it might get for me, it was worth the job, otherwise I don’t know if I will be working in the Home Depot with a broken back if I listened to people’s advice and stayed there.
So just do what your mind pleases and live your day without hurting anybody in life. As much as you don’t want, get up every morning and say, whatever it is, may the force be with you or whatever they call it in American Star Wars. I don’t know. Live long and prosper or something? Commander Sisko finding Cardassians, I cannot do that. Mr. Spock, without emotions. So all I’m saying is the diversity and strength of America is its diversity. It’s allowing us to be critical of self-mockery. This is what I like about our country. United States is the place for me, despite all the funny ideas I have said before. I don’t want to be anywhere else but in this country, and I’m proud to be an American librarian now.
Somebody back home in India told me. “It’s a women’s job!” He told my father and my father was holding his head. He said, “is it true, Liladhar?” I said, “no, you don’t know anything about my job? Why are you saying it’s a woman’s job?” Those gender biases and gender stereotypes that were the traditional society are no longer true.
Natalia Estrada: Liladhar, thank you so much!
Liladhar Pendse: Take it easy.