Biblioteca: Three Library Students and Their Experiences with Library Work Abroad

by Aaron Bowen, MLIS Day

On February 8, 2005, the ASIS&T Special Interest Group for International Information Issues (SIG-III) hosted a panel of three iSchool students: Jennifer Peterson, Zola Maddison, and Kris Unsworth. Jennifer, a second year MLIS student, talked about being a graduate student assistant for the Gates Foundation. Zola, also a second year MLIS student, shared her experiences doing fieldwork in South Africa for the World Library Partnership organization, and Kris, a PhD student studying linguistics who has studied extensively in Germany, talked about her experiences working at the Berlin Social Science Research Center.

Jennifer began her GSAship in the fall and will continue throughout the summer (and she noted that her position will again be available when she is finished, with further information forthcoming in the spring). Her job includes such tasks as synthesizing industry reports, manipulating statistics, and conducting literature reviews for various projects, locating and analyzing current events, and general library service. She talked about specific tasks on which she worked - for example, as the Gates Foundations' work in Chile identified strong leadership as a key characteristic of a successful library and information institution, one of her first projects was to research leadership in an international context, how to determine appropriate leadership indicators, and how they relate to the success of a program.

Coming from a circulation background, Jennifer described working with the Gates Foundation as being faster paced and more "high stakes" than her previous library work. She also said she felt "immediately part of the team," attending team meetings, being a part of the discussion at these meetings, and getting to know her coworkers. As each person was hand picked to fill a given position, Jennifer described everyone she worked with as both "really bright" and "passionate" about their jobs. She further noted that this type of culture exists foundation-wide, and that she has learned a great deal from her whole experience.

Zola is completing a concurrent certificate in international development policy and management at the UW's Evans School. One of her Evans School requirements was to do a practicum, which led her to a program in South Africa with World Library Partnerships.

She said her experience made her face the question of whether library development is the type of work she wants to do, and then allowed her to affirm her interest in this field. She very quickly began to learn Tsonga with the help of the local students, and said that "the community was so embracing, and so excited and proud to have us there thatů I realized that there was nothing else I wanted to be doing." Zola also noted that her experience exposed her to certain difficulties that accompany the construction of libraries, such as the teachers at the school at which she worked not understanding the need for a library program and interpreting Zola's role as being a substitute teacher instead of a librarian. But with time, she added, this misperception changed, and teachers began bringing their students to the library to learn about and gain exposure to information resources. Zola described the heightened curiosity of the schoolchildren and the community as a whole as being the highlight of her experience.

Kris had lived in Berlin for three years before coming to the iSchool. She decided to return to the U.S. to pursue a library degree in order to examine the differences in information seeking and communication between the two cultures. For her MLIS directed fieldwork she contacted a systems librarian she knew at the Berlin Social Science Research Centre, an international research center with a multi-lingual library, working on database design projects and computer programming.

Kris said that "working with a different library system than we would use here was fascinating." In particular she noted that libraries there use open source software more than U.S. libraries would, largely due to budget restrictions. She also noted that her weekly meetings with the systems librarian and other staff members "was an amazing experience" due to the collaboration between everyone towards providing the best library service possible. Finally she noted that she has maintained contact with the people she met through the Research Centre library, and that this will add a very valuable element to her dissertation ideas (which examine multi-lingual access to information).

All three panelists shared a variety of resources relating to their experiences and offered great information on what library work in an international setting is like. Their personal anecdotes - such as Zola saying she could only get a cellphone signal on top of a particular stump in town or on a windowsill that required her to alternate between listening at the earpiece and speaking into the mouthpiece - brought their experiences to life and added to the pictures of the technologically and culturally different settings in which all three worked. And Deb Raftus provided a tasty addition to all of the information we received - delicious homemade cupcakes!


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Page last updated: March 14, 2004