by Kathryn Poulter
Culture and language fascinate me. Libraries seem to me to be the perfect places to slake one’s thirst for things cultural and linguistic: in the library we have access to the thought and languages of the ages, as well as to current discussions of the world and the implications of modern political decisions. I am passionate about the ways libraries can bring people of all cultures and backgrounds together. So when I was asked to be the chair of the Idaho Library Association’s annual 2012 conference in October, I hoped there would be a way to combine my interest in worldwide libraries with my dedication to the freedom of information and vitality found in our Idaho libraries. Thankfully, others shared my ideas as well, and it is with excitement and anticipation that we find ourselves now in the final planning stages of the conference, which is built around the theme: “Everywhere You Want to Be.” Let’s step beyond our borders and explore the world!
Now I don’t have vast experience with international libraries, simply interest in all things cultural and linguistic. However, two years ago I was invited to go to Germany to attend the christening of the daughter of a dear friend. While I was there, I also had the opportunity to visit Sylvia, a long-time pen pal who lives in the small town of Verl in northern middle Germany. Sylvia, who knows me well, arranged for me to meet and speak with the director of her town’s library. How exciting! Like many other librarians, I feel a vacation isn’t really complete unless I can visit a library sometime during the trip. Although my German is only barely passable, I was anxious to talk to the director and see what a library was like in another country.
As we walked in the doors, I was surprised to see how new the library building was. I suppose I thought all European libraries would be scores, if not hundreds of years old, but the Verl library was just celebrating its tenth year of operation. The familiar smell of books and bindings and waiting words greeted me and I felt immediately at home. A librarian led us on a brief tour, and although I couldn’t immediately grasp the cataloging or shelving system, I still felt comfortable surrounded by shelves of books and busy children happily playing on computers and with puppets in the youth area. Then the librarian led us up the stairs into the administrative offices where my German would really be put to the test.
A bright and obviously very professional woman was waiting in her office. She stood to shake my hand, and was patient as I greeted her in my stilted German. For a minute I thought I had probably made a terrible mistake in thinking I could carry on a conversation with this obviously busy and impressive director. Then I asked a question about her integrated library system and all of a sudden the walls between us came down. We discussed our shared concerns, successes, and disappointments regarding library systems in general. Words came quickly, and we had a wonderful, warm discussion. By the time we ended our meeting, I felt the confidence that comes from mutual sharing and understanding. Sure, German libraries are a bit different than what I am familiar with in the United States, but at the core we share similar outlooks and goals. I realized that as librarians we are part of a very large force of thinking people around the world who recognize and are committed to the power of words and literacy and information.
Verl Library in Germany
But not all libraries in all countries are similarly dedicated to the free access of information. My father, Ken Luker, was also a librarian during his working career, but in an academic instead of a public library. I remember that in the early 1990s, as the former Soviet bloc began to allow a bit more openness, Dad was invited to go to Eastern Europe to visit libraries in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. When he came home again after a month or so of intense work and travel, he described poorly lit libraries where scholars had little or no access to resources, and where the idea of lending materials was unheard of, even shocking. When Dad proofread this article, he added these recollections, “The shocking thing, I think, was not just the failure to lend books, but the failure even to allow anyone into the book stacks: It was retrieval by a library clerk, always, and often only by appointment. Browsing at the shelves was forbidden, and the only index to the collection was a card or book catalog, if it existed, which was often in sequence only by author. My take-away impression after all these years is remembering, when the single fluorescent light in the ceiling was turned on just for us visitors, the sight of a hopeful library user squatting near the floor in a dark alley between catalog cabinets, straining to read the bedraggled catalog cards with the feeble light from a window high in the wall.”
After listening to Dad’s experiences, I was very interested and excited when Amy Campbell, one of the librarians in my own library, had the opportunity to go to Ukraine to build international library connections and see firsthand the changes that have occurred in the past years. She wrote about her experience in the Fall edition of the Idaho Librarian. (https://theidaholibrarian.wordpress.com/2011/11/24/ukranian-libraries-past-and-present/) Amy wrote, “Under the Soviets, libraries did not flourish as areas of free intellectual activity. Instead, censorship, purging of records, and the retroactive changing of history were normal occurrences in Soviet libraries in the 20th century. . . . After so many decades of secrets and restricted information, Ukrainian librarians take a tremendous amount of pride in their freedom of information policy. Most libraries are open to all Ukrainian citizens; they simply must apply for a reader card and occasionally pay a small fee to belong to the library. At that point, the reader may access any information housed in the library. For example, the parliamentary library keeps careful records of all governmental and legal decisions made by Ukrainian politicians, and these records are available for any of their readers to peruse. For a region of the world that spent so many recent years under oppressive and violent regimes, this freedom of information is miraculous.”
I was fascinated by the changing ideas of openness and freedom represented by these visits and observations from librarians on the outside. Because we write and live and work in an atmosphere where there is much more access to information, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend the huge paradigm shift that has taken place to allow such freedoms as do exist in Eastern Europe.
This vast difference in the expectations and practices of libraries around the world brings me to some questions posed by Fiona May, the publicity chair of our upcoming conference. Fiona asked, “In what ways are libraries around the world similar to one another? What common goals and interests bind libraries together? Are there ways librarians can and should support one another beyond the state and national associations we usually think of?” Answers to these questions lie at the heart of our conference theme: Everywhere You Want to Be.
I believe libraries around the world do share some common purposes and goals. I believe there is a golden thread that weaves through libraries everywhere that consists of the desire for, even if not always the practice of, openness and access to learning. Libraries are the repositories of the wisdom of the ages, they can also be places where people of today gather and learn and talk and find some appreciation for whatever hankering they may have toward learning or thinking or developing.
As New York writer Sheila O’Malley, recently wrote in a movie review, “Looking for like-minded people and kindred spirits is something we all do during our time on this planet, and finding kindred spirits in the giants of the past, the artists and writers who came before, is one of the ways that [people] feel less alone, or find the strength to keep going.” (http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/culture/2012/02/5342531/oscar-scouting-report-best-picture-some-deserving-nominees-plus-help) Libraries are places where the search is possible, and where the anticipation of discovery permeates the atmosphere. It’s not always like this, of course, but it is an ideal, and when reality and expectation meet, there is where learning and appreciation and recognition of our common humanity can take place. That, for me, is the shared experience of libraries everywhere, and the type of connection our Idaho Library Association conference wants to acknowledge and promote. Join us in the celebration! 2012 ILA Conference
Kathryn Poulter is a Librarian at the Marshall Public Library in Pocatello, Idaho. She is also the Chair of the 2012 ILA annual conference.