11 September 2015

How Traveling Made Me a Better Librarian

My library 'career' started over fifteen years ago, with a job at my local public library at age 16. Since then I've held a variety of positions in a number of different libraries. And I've enjoyed the opportunity to understand libraries from multiple positions and levels. I believe that those positions  make me a good librarian because I understand comprehensive library workflow and understand how all the positions in a library work together to provide access to patrons.

But as I'm reflecting on this past summer in Uganda, I believe it's my time in Africa that has really made me the librarian I am at this point. Not because I gained important library skills [which I did!] but because by it's nature, travel changes us. Traveling to new countries and cultures allows us to see the world in news ways and to get outside ourselves and our own experiences. And those are the ways that have had the greatest impact on me, and ultimately on my career.

For example, I am more compassionate toward students since living in Uganda. I've always had great empathy for others. Recently I even found my Preschool Report Card that said "Rachel is very sensitive to the other students." Apparently I've always cared about other people. :) But spending time with my students in Uganda gave my heart even more compassion for them and others. I often say that I am not a particularly great librarian. That is, I don't always ask the perfect questions when I'm helping someone and I may not be the best teacher in the classroom. But I show students compassion and empathy so that they felt heard and understood in the midst of their research frustrations. Which ultimately, I hope, does make me a great librarian.

I've also learned to slow down. In East African culture, life moves at a slower pace than here in the US. In Uganda that meant stopping to talk with neighbors when walking home or taking the time to fully greet people as they walk into the library. But when helping students in the US, it can be easy to rush through their question, give them some resources, and go back to 'my other work'. Multitasking and busy-ness are buzzwords here. And I'm learning [and re-learning] to slow down and listen. Sometimes slowing down creates moments that have a lasting impact. Not because I answered a student's question in the most amazing way but because they trust me and share a piece of their story with me. I've had students tell me about how hard it is to be a single parent and a full-time student or the difficulties of returning to school after serving in the military. It's such a privilege when students share those things with me and they only do that when I slow down enough to really listen.

Most importantly, though, my time in Uganda has given me a bigger perspective on life and also librarianship. One of the best things about traveling and living in another country, is the chance to get outside yourself and your own experiences. Living in Uganda gave me the chance to not only see life in and through another culture but to also see librarianship in a different context. Now when I am tempted to think that something at work is 'the end of the world', I try to remember that librarians in other parts of the world are dealing with many of the same things. There are men and women around the world, working to provide access to information with few resources or personnel. They are the heros of the library world. My random issues with a problem patron or furniture placement in the library are nothing compared to what others deal with every day.

This past summer, someone gave us some advice to make the most of our time in Uganda. We were told that in order to have an impact we should: slow down, listen more, talk less, and focus on people. Without those things it wouldn't matter what 'did' in the library. I'm realizing that those aren't just lessons I needed while I was in Uganda. Those are things I need to do here, in the US, everyday. Because those are the things that will ultimately make a difference in someone's life. Finding someone the perfect book is great but what they will remember is how they were treated while they found the book. So, that's my new focus. As the new school year begins I want to come to work every day with a mindset to slow down, listen, and focus on people. Because really, helping people is what being a librarian is all about.

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