30 January 2011

Outside the Box

I am outside the box in a lot of ways right now. I am outside my comfort zone. I am outside my familiar language. I am learning to think differently. This past week I spent most of my time focusing on language learning. Instead of going to RTC, I focused on learning the local language (Luganda). It’s been exhausting but also rewarding as I learn to think in a new language. Even though the classes at RTC are taught in English, learning the local language will help me to better connect with my new community.

Anyway, my last day at RTC, before this break, I got my first reference question in the library. It was very exciting. For my non-librarian readers, a reference question is simply a question asked in a library that involves research, i.e. NOT “Where’s the bathroom?” Joshua, the library assistant, and I were sorting through some of the books we decided to keep (the small pile of boxes shown in my previous post) and a student came in saying she needed help. She said a professor had assigned a research paper and she wanted to start. My first thought was that classes haven’t even started yet and someone wants to do research? Amazing!!

We asked her what she wanted to write about and she said her question was “Why are there no men in my [teaching] Kindergarten classes?” Joshua just wanted to give her the education textbooks and be done. But I decided a reference interview was in order, i.e. asking a few more questions to help refine the research question. After talking with her, I discovered that she was really looking to answer a question about whether or not there are more women that work with children in the classroom and if so, why...is there something different about men and women? Actually, a pretty interesting question when you think about it…getting at gender roles within the education system. Especially interesting when you add the Ugandan context. I'm sure my face lit up and it was all I could do not to jump up and down at such an interesting question. A break from sorting dusty books! :) What stopped me, though, was when I realized I had no idea where I would find resources for her.

When I worked in the States I would have asked:
  • Are you looking for journal articles or books? Statistics?
  • Is there a time frame you need these resources to be within?
  • Where have you looked so far?

But all of a sudden I realized that at RTC:
  • There is no computer or internet and therefore no online databases to find journal articles or statistical resources.
  • There is no catalog or list of books…currently RTC has little to no information about the almost 14,000 books in their library.
  • All the books in the library have come from donations (except for required textbooks, which the school purchases for all students), so the only books on education, besides textbooks, are those that happen to have been donated at some point.
  • While the books are organized into sections by subject, there is no order within the sections. So, within the sections of education books and journals, I had to read each spine and table of contents to see if something might work.

My job this year will be to change these things but for now that's the reality. I calmly told myself not to panic and to think outside the box. I took Joshua’s advice and gave her the textbooks to start so she could at least look at something. Then, I started hunting. Sure, enough, I did find some books about early childhood education, psychology, gender roles and differences, and even some encyclopedia articles on Kindergarten. Whew! Success! At least for now. (I am choosing, for now, to ignore the fact that most resources were at least 30 years old and written from a Western perspective.)

But I was reminded of a couple things.

First, I need to be careful how attached I get to doing certain things in certain ways. My job, traveling, even eating. I’m learning a lot about flexibility since coming to Uganda. My flat loses power frequently so sometimes I go to bed by 9pm. I’m learning to eat and cook new foods. Although, to be honest, learning to eat fresh avocado and pineapple regularly has not been hard. :) This reference question was just another example of learning flexibility. If I, as a librarian, think the only way to find information to a student’s question is to use the internet, I am in trouble. As I learn to eat new foods and travel in new ways, I also need to be willing to try new methods of research.

Second, I was reminded, again, to approach a question from more than one angle and to teach students to do the same. This student was asking about education but I found some interesting information in a psychology textbook about gender roles and expectations in society. I think she was surprised that I was not just looking at education books. But isn’t that part of my job? Teaching the research process? Teaching how to think outside the box?

So, here's to not getting caught in a rut (and believe me, there are plenty of ruts here in the dirt roads :)) and to thinking outside the box a bit.



  1. No computer or internet in the library? Your innovation is inspiring!

  2. great insights!! so proud of you :)

  3. Hi Rachel,

    UIUC and all its libraries are closed today due to snow and freezing rain, so I finally had a chance to respond to your blog! Great job! (Both with the blog and your library work.) It's so easy to take internet access for granted for library reference.


  4. i love that student and i think she is student of Dip course in ECE & i love the topic that she choose.
    & i love you too, you really did much more than your job require.