NYPL Researcher Spotlight: Kathleen “Kat” Cruz Gutierrez

By Nikki Lopez, Librarian II
May 24, 2022
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

This profile is part of a series of interviews chronicling the experiences of researchers who use The New York Public Library's collections for the development of their work.

Kathleen “Kat” Cruz Gutierrez is an assistant professor of Southeast Asian and Philippine history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She completed her Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and her dissertation on the international consolidation of botany in the Philippines was shortlisted for Best Dissertation in the Humanities by the International Convention of Asia Scholars in 2021. 

For 2021-2022, she is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow with the Humanities Institute of the New York Botanical Garden, where she is completing her first book manuscript tentatively titled Sovereign Vernaculars in the Philippines at the Dawn of New Imperial Botany. In her faculty role at UC Santa Cruz, she also serves as co-PI on a public history initiative to preserve memories of the first generation of Filipino migrants to arrive in California’s Pajaro Valley.

What brought you to the Library?

This year, I’ve been given a real opportunity to work on my book manuscript at the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden. The Mertz Library has the largest collection on botany in the United States. But since I work on the Philippines—and so much of my project examines unexpected locations where botanical knowledge may emerge—I’ve needed to look to NYPL and its extensive source material on the islands. In between long research blocks at the garden, I return to some important empirical information on the Philippines here at NYPL.

When did you first get the idea for your research project?

The foundational concept of my book started with my interest in the sampaguita, which is currently the national flower of the Philippines. I wondered: how did this species of jasmine become the political emblem it is today? What scientific, social, and cultural histories does it have in the Philippines?

As a specialist of colonial botany, I started to place cultural production on the sampaguita in conversation with Spanish and U.S. colonial botanists studying the archipelago. The Philippine islands were colonized successively by Spain and the United States., and both empires relied on botany to better understand the commercial and scientific potential of the Pacific territory. Botanists’ rather clinical language contrasted significantly with the local intellectuals, artists, and poets, who imbued the flower with plenty of significance. I began to think about the notion of the "sovereign vernacular," that is, a way of knowing plants that did not completely align with the ideals of classificatory botany and in fact, remained rather sovereign to it. 

Since then, I’ve been writing a book that looks at the contention—and even synergy—between colonial botany and locally-held plant knowledge in the Philippines. I believe that vernaculars appear in many forms—and not just in the local names of plants, as has long been understood in the historiography of science but also in the science itself. It’s by expanding how we might reconceptualize the vernacular that motivates me through this project.

What's your favorite spot in the Library?

I’m loving my little corner in the Wertheim Study room! I can get work done quietly and can conveniently read through NYPL holdings. The room is well-lit, quiet, and conveniently located by other meeting and exhibition spaces in the Library.

How do you maintain your research momentum?

I like to fill my research days with activities that spur different sorts of thinking. This means that in addition to archival or library research, I remember to schedule conversations with local specialists, to visit important sites, and to take in other media. I might, for instance, reserve Fridays for these sorts of interactions and excursions. These remind me that "primary sources"—and really, inspiration—can be found in varied places.

Over the long-term, I try to remember why I got into this work in the first place. I recall how as a young student of Southeast Asian studies, I was wowed by the histories of the region and by the excellent instructors who brought those histories to a little Los Angeles kid like me. I tap back into that young mind to remember that if I want to be a solid mentor and instructor for a new generation of students, I have to keep my momentum going and at a sustainable pace, at that.

What research tools could you not live without?

I’m a fan of DevonThink. I’ve been using it since I started graduate school, and it allows me to organize my notes based on every archival or library collection I’ve visited. The program allows you to annotate, and sometimes I’ll write notes to myself about my preliminary thoughts on certain material. I’ve read through some of my oldest notes and have been stunned (and even embarrassed) by how much my thinking has changed. I use the program to also carefully log call or accession numbers so that if I need to request reproductions of material, I could point reference librarians and archivists to the exact page I need. 

In addition to DevonThink, I would say my other go-to’s are a good notebook and .38 black ink pen–specific, I know. I’ve filled up at least nine notebooks since starting field research on my current project, and they’ve been reliable for jotting down my ideas, recording meeting notes, preserving calling cards and slips of paper from the field, and scribbling writing reflections. I also try to avoid screen-time at certain hours of the day, and my notebook’s a good place to keep my nose away from the computer.

What's your guilty pleasure distraction?

Without a doubt, I love trashy reality TV. I have watched more Married at First Sight than I would like to admit, completed every Anglophone Netflix-produced program, and even rewatched some series so that my partner and I could analyze the show together.