Ruben Aragón, director of the Donnelly Library at Highlands University, received the 2021 New Mexico Leadership Award from the New Mexico Library Association, or NMLA.
Aragón has served as the director of Donnelly Library for 30 years and has worked at the library for 37 years. This is the first time he has received the NMLA Leadership Award—a fact that Valerie Nye, president of the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries, and the person who nominated Aragón for the award, said she was surprised by.
“I saw the call for the New Mexico Library Association awards, and I wondered if Ruben had ever won the Leadership Award—I thought he definitely had many years ago,” said Nye. “I did a search for his name, and then I looked again, and then I checked again because I couldn’t believe he’d never won it.”
Nye said she’s known Aragón since 2002 and has been working with him since 2009. She said she nominated him for many reasons, including his work on the General Obligation, or GO, Bond—which involves ongoing efforts to secure funding for libraries around the state.
“It’s a year-round prospect for him, and I wanted to make sure he was recognized because the work he does really benefits all the libraries in New Mexico,” said Nye. “He’s been doing it for a long time and because of the work Ruben does we usually pass the GO Bond with 60 or 70 percent approval.”
Aragón attended Highlands University for his undergraduate degree in education and went on to receive his master’s degree in library science from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D. C. He said he lived in the Washington, D.C. metro area for eight years and worked at the National Agricultural Library before returning to Las Vegas to work at Donnelly Library in the early 1980s.
In his time as director of Donnelly, Aragón has overseen some big changes.
“By 1987, we went fully automated with a system called Data Research Associates,” said Aragón. “And we converted from Dewey Decimal to the Library of Congress classification system. We had to change all the spine labels and move all the books. We closed the library for about three weeks during the winter break and finally we were able to get them on the shelf—we had them all over the floor.”
Aragón said replacing the card catalog with an online system made it easier for users to find what they needed, and the Library of Congress classification made it easier for patrons to browse and find similar items. He said he also works to ensure that the collection remains the same size.
Aragón said between 1996 and 1998 he worked on the addition and renovation of Donnelly Library project. This addition doubled the size of the library and better supported the library’s mission of serving the campus community and the surrounding community.
“One of the major things we work on all the time is weeding and trying to maintain a collection that is current,” said Aragón. “We are maintaining a collection that will keep the most current material available, unless it’s historical. We constantly buy books, but we try to keep up with the weeding.”
According to Aragón, new books are added to the Donnelly Library collection as the result of recommendations made by faculty, students, and community members. He said they make every effort to ensure that the library has the books and authors patrons are interested in.
“I appreciate the enjoyment of getting up in the morning to go to work knowing that I work with really, really, excellent staff,” said Aragón. “Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, it’s a library. There’s nothing that happens in a library.’ For the majority of my time in the library, it’s a matter of meeting people and just constant change.”
Aragón describes himself as a people person and said he would not be well-suited for cataloging or archival work. He said because Donnelly Library is relatively small, he is able to work closely with faculty and students, in addition to his staff members, to ensure that the library has all of the resources the campus and community need.
“The thing I tell all our staff is, if you don’t know the answer, say ‘I’ll get somebody that can help’” said Aragón. “We never send somebody out the door without trying to make some headway as to where they can find materials they need.”
Aragón grew up on a farm in La Loma, New Mexico, a town he jokingly calls a suburb of Anton Chico.
“For a while, my mom was my principal, and my dad was my teacher,” said Aragón. “I couldn’t really get away with not doing my homework or keeping up with my grades.
Although there were no libraries nearby, Aragón said he enjoyed the monthly appearance of the bookmobile and especially liked books about farm animals.
Nye said bookmobiles still visit rural areas in the state, but they aren’t supported by GO Bond funds.
“The thing about libraries is that they’re really community centers,” said Nye. “As great as bookmobiles are, I feel when a community doesn’t have a library, they don’t always have a community center or place to gather. Or, they do gather around the bookmobile and then the bookmobile leaves, and you have to wait for it to come back.”
Aragón said it’s the Las Vegas community that has kept him going in his job for so many years.
“It’s just knowing people face-to-face,” said Aragón. “It’s a small little environment that then makes you feel like you’re special here.”
Aragón said he also enjoys the legislative work he does with NMCAL to help libraries across New Mexico secure funding for books and equipment.
“It’s an exciting position that I have working with state legislators,” said Aragón. “Every two years we’re pushing for the library GO Bond which is for school, public, academic and tribal libraries in the state. We’ve been successful since 2002.”
According to Nye, Aragón is skilled at maintaining relationships with legislators and is adept at tracking and building relationships with new legislators entering the legislative process.
“Not everybody that has the skills to do that kind of work,” said Nye. “I think the thing that younger librarians can learn from him is his political savvy, and that things happen over years, not over days. That he has that long view and doesn’t ever seem to get frustrated. He always knows the next step.”
In 2018, Aragón served as the chair of the AMIGOS Library Services, and he served as president of NMCAL in 2008, 2013, and 2018. Aragón previously received the Academic Librarian of the Year award from NMCAL in 2013 and remembered being told then that he was the glue that kept the consortium together.
“‘I find that there are so many new library directors coming in and I appreciate the fact that they call me to ask, ‘what can you tell me about this?’” said Aragón. “I like that; I like helping other people.”
Aragón said that he’s noticed a decline in younger readers who read just for pleasure, but he said his staff has implemented several programs recently that he hopes will help spark more interest in reading.
“At the beginning of COVID, one of our staff members conducted a reading program for kids on a certain night and that helped,” said Aragón. “And there’s a lot of support on campus for book clubs. We have a reading club where not only students, but also the community and faculty, will attend and then upon the completion of that program, they get to keep the book.”
Nye said the pandemic helped highlight the inequities so many people face, particularly in terms of access to electronic resources, but she said libraries like Highlands were also uniquely equipped to meet some of the needs that arose due to the pandemic.
“Highlands librarians and just about every academic library in the state moved online with surprising ease in the first weeks of the pandemic,” said Nye. “We were ready to move online because of our commitment to technology and electronic resources.”
According to Nye, Aragón is a quiet, humble leader who gets things done.
“He brings people along with him. One of the things that has impressed me most is that he’s preparing for a day when he won’t be the library director,” said Nye. “I think that speaks to his humility—that he knows it’s important work and he’s willing to share his knowledge with people so the work can continue.”