10 May 2011

Intercultural Library

One of the things I have been thinking about a lot lately is: what does it look like to help establish a library (a very Western concept) in Africa? How do you bring two different cultures together and help students find information? How do you help them find information while respecting their cultural ways of studying and looking for information? What does this look like in a college, which is also fairly Western? Especially a college that is run by a mix of ex-pats and nationals? How do you get people to use the library when some of them barely know what a library is?

I don't have any answers yet (will I ever?) but I do have some observations:
  • Community. Community is important in African culture. If there are only two students in the library, most likely they will sit at the same table...even if they are not working together on a project. And when one person is using a computer, there are usually several other students watching. Rarely do I see students sitting alone. This seems so different than my Western ideas...if it was me, I would pick a table away from everyone else!
  • Reference. Most of my 'reference' questions have to do with helping students upload a picture to Facebook or send an email with an attachment. I am learning to change my idea of what it means to answer a Reference Question. (This gets even more interesting when I help the students who use Yahoo! email in French...)
  • Google. It seems many librarians have a love-hate relationship with Google. For now, I have decided to embrace Google. With many language barriers in communication, Google is a simple and well-known tool I can use to show students how to find information. (Hopefully next term I can get into other research tools.)
  • Talking. Our 'official' rules ask for quiet in the library. Generally I ignore this rule in favor of the community aspect. I have found that students want to be near each other and they're going to talk.
  • Time. Technically we close the library at 5 for dinner. Usually I leave work around 6. Having specific opening and closing times is a fairly unusual concept for these students. We ring a bell to signal closing and eventually they all trickle out. Should I enforce this? I don't know yet. This also means that students don't always return books 'on time'. I give them two weeks per book and usually get it back at 3-4 weeks. As far as I can tell a penalty has never been enforced in regards to due dates. Again, should I start enforcing? How? Compound that with the fact that borrowing means different things in different cultures and, well, it becomes an interesting dilemma.
  • Greetings. Greetings are very important in African culture...you greet people as you walk by them on the road, even if you don't know them. I try to greet every single person each time they come in the library.
  • Security. Not sure if this is necessarily a cultural thing but it is something I've observed. Students regularly will leave their books and papers in the library while they step out. Sometimes they will even leave their belongings overnight or leave their phones charging in the library while they go to class.
It all comes down to carefully examining the culture and needs of the community. I don't know if these are all specific to African culture or not but I find them interesting idiosyncrasies of the RTC community. And as a librarian, I think it's important to recognize the context of the library before I start making changes. I don't want to come in and decide to change all the rules at once (I've only changed a few and that's been a struggle). I also can't decide that certain tasks are 'below' my job description..i.e. helping students attach a file to their email. I am learning to simply observe the students' behavior and try to determine what can stay and what needs to go. I am trying to think outside the box (and outside my own culture) and redefine my daily activities to find ways to accomplish my goals: help connect people to information and in turn create an   intercultural library.

Here are some pictures of our students...I kind of wish they hadn't looked when I took the pictures. They stopped to look at me but just before I snapped the photos they were all leaning over each other, looking over each other's shoulders and had their arms around each other. I love that picture of community!


    1. My compliments for your blog and pictures included,I invite you in my photoblog "photosphera".


      Greetings from Italy


    2. Fantastic work, Rach! I'm loving your updates! Keep up the good work!