A Librarian's Temple
Al Vara, Temple Librarian
Al Vara is about to complete his fourth decade as a reference librarian at Temple, where his focus is on area studies such as African American, Asian American, Latin American, and Women’s Studies.
He is a tall, gentle bibliophile with a wonderful sense of humor and deeply rooted devotion to the university. Lewis Gordon, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Judaic Studies, recalls being greeted by Vara with a gift of some “local history”: The three volumes of Celeste Morello’s Before Bruno: The History of the Philadelphia Mafia.
Vara wanted to convey the complex layers of Philadelphia’s history and, by implication, Temple’s history as well. Often portrayed in misrepresenting ways, we should all remember that Temple also has diamonds.
Before coming to Temple, Vara worked at St. Joseph’s College (now St. Joseph University) from 1961–1969. His main achievement there was the creation of the first Food Marketing Library in the country.
Vara earned his undergraduate degree there and achieved his Masters in Library Science at Villanova University and a Masters in Liberal Arts at Temple University. In the tumultuous year of 1968, he helped create a food-marketing library in Rafael Lanbivar University at Guatemala City. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in spring of that year, Robert F. Kennedy in early summer, and by the end of that summer, on August 28th, the American Chief of State, John Gordon Mien, was assassinated in Guatemala City.
The greeting Vara received when he returned to the states was his dismissal from St. Joseph’s, which, as he reflects upon it, was a good thing. It brought him to Temple. When asked about the obvious pride and love he has for the institution, he gently smiles and asks, “Is it that obvious?”
Vara arrived at Temple with a wealth of experience from his graduate training and work in Guatemala. The technological tool of the library in those days was the typewriter, and the task was the organization of two million catalog cards. The nation was in the midst of the Vietnam War. Students and faculty were protesting everywhere at Temple. Even the Director of the Libraries, former Naval Officer Arthur Hamlin, who served in World War II, read anti-war poetry.
“Yet in spite of all that,” reflects Vara, “the campus was generally quiet. Protests often went off campus down Broad Street to the City Hall.”
Vara has witnessed and participated in the many changes that led to the current high-tech library facilities at Temple. He had to learn how to use and program computers, and organizing reference materials now requires knowledge of video technology.
These and other additions have brought the intellectual role of the libraries to the fore at Temple. Vara commends Larry Alford, the Director and Dean of Temple’s Libraries, for his many innovations, which include:
- colloquia with authors presenting readings of their work in the lecture halls
- a book recognition program
- restructuring furniture to facilitate better use of the library
developing library liaisons and special workshops to encourage more faculty use of the libraries
A restructured library to facilitate better use
The growth in the number of students (now approximately 33,000) has also had an impact on the library. The buildings had to be expanded and archival storage continues to be a challenge.
Temple has gone through additional changes over the years. When Vara was a senior in high school, his guidance counselor asked him, “Are you going to college or to Temple?”
Vara is pleased that times and the university’s reputation have changed. “The farther away you go from Temple,” he declares, “the better its reputation.”
Vara participates in many national conferences, and the departments and programs he hears good things about include African American Studies, Latin American Studies, Spanish and Portuguese Studies, Philosophy, and The School of Tourism and Hospitality Management.
Colleagues at those gatherings speak of influential faculty in those programs, departments, and schools, and they highlight the achievements of Temple alumni in their area.
Recent developments in the Temple Libraries offer a golden opportunity to enhance the research environment of the institution. Vara encourages the faculty to work with their library liaisons. They are dedicated to making the research dimensions of the library work. “We’re there for you,” he insists. “It’s our primary reason for existence, I would say.”
Go to Temple University Libraries.