by Rachel Wightman, Assistant Editor, INALJ Washington
previously published on 5/4/13
4 things I Learned About Library Service by Leaving the Country
At the end of 2009, when I received my MLIS, the economy wasn’t great. But I started looking for and applying to jobs and was fairly optimistic. I had worked as a paraprofessional before grad school and had two assistantships while working toward my masters. I thought I had a lot of great skills and that, while it might take some time, I would find a job.
Five months after graduating, with 40+ applications, a handful of interviews, and no professional librarian job on the horizon, I decided to completely switch gears, think outside the box, and send my job search in a new direction: I took a solo librarian position at a small college in Kampala, Uganda. My primary task for a year and half was to computerize the library, which included installing and networking computers, installing an ILS, cataloging the small collection, and teaching computer and research skills to students. Basically, a little bit of everything. And I loved living in Uganda for many reasons, both personal and professional. I washed red dust off my feet daily, rode motorcycle taxis, ate fresh pineapples, and soaked up lots of sunshine. But more importantly, I learned a lot about myself, my African friends, other cultures, libraries, and librarianship.
And now I am back in the US, hoping to apply some of the things I learned in Uganda to a professional librarian position here. And, I discovered, as I’m sure we all do, that every job, volunteer opportunity, or internship we have teaches us something to take with us. Although, I’m not in Uganda anymore, I hope I can remember principles I learned there and apply them to my library work here.
Here’s just a sampling:
1. Greet people!
My library in Uganda had one service desk. The desk was located just inside the door and used for circulation, reference, cataloging, book processing, everything. Sometimes trying to multi-task was hard, especially trying to catalog the entire collection in a public space. But by constantly being in a public area, I learned the importance of greeting people. Greetings were especially important in Ugandan cultures, so even if I was in the middle of cataloging, I tried to greet people as they walked in the library. This made the library a more personable space and helped remind me regularly the importance of building relationships with patrons and not simply see them as another question to answer. I learned so much from the students by choosing to engage in conversation and listen to their stories regularly.
2. Some things are cultural, some are universal.
As I worked to set up a library in another culture, I was faced with a lot of questions. I had to consider what parts of libraries are cultural and which are universal. For example, when arranging the new computers I thought long and hard about where to place them in the library. The students preferred to work in community (a common thing in East African culture I discovered) which meant there were often 3-5 students sharing one computer. I choose not to enforce a ‘one person per computer rule’ and kept the computers spread out so students could work together. As I restart my professional career here in the US I want to try to remember that every library exists within its own culture and that the work I do needs to be relevant to that culture.
3. Know Your Collection
It wasn’t uncommon for the power to go out for hours (or days!) at a time in Uganda. During those times I learned the importance of knowing the library’s physical collection. I know here in the US we often have computers, internet, and databases available to us to help provide library and reference services. But by knowing the physical collection well from regular shelf reading and by shelving materials, I discovered that sometimes it is just as fast to direct someone to a book as it is to find the information online.
4. Understand the Community
This is similar to number 2, I suppose but worth mentioning. As librarians, we know that every library is uniquely tailored to its particular community. The collection, resources, and programs are all geared toward the type of community the library serves. This lesson was especially important in Uganda. I spent several weeks simply observing the college community and culture in which I worked. I hope that I will remember that here as well. As I find a new position and re-enter into life in America, I want to spend time observing and understanding the community in which I find myself.