Catch the International Library Development Bug! It’s Highly Contagious at ALA
When you see several groups of librarians energetically participating in interactive programs or poster sessions at the American Library Association Annual Conference focused on ways to participate in amazing international library development projects, you may catch the bug and find yourself planning your next vacation around teaching workshops in Nicaragua or volunteering to host librarians from Ghana, Cambodia, or Vietnam.
Since its inception in 2002, the International Sustainable Library Development (ISLD) Interest Group of the International Relations Round Table (IRRT) has been sponsoring interactive programs at each annual conference focused on ways to participate and actively contribute to library development projects all across the globe.
The ISLD mission statement reads: “the ISLD serves as a clearinghouse of sustainable community-based library projects in developing areas of the world. This group mobilizes the power of ALA librarians to raise awareness of and make significant contributions to international library development. Librarians in developing countries can tap into resources for training and projects in their libraries.”1
In 2003, ISLD developed its own page on the IRRT website to help facilitate this clearinghouse and to attract ALA librarians to the Saturday meetings, Saturday lunches, and Monday programs in order to connect with international library development projects around the world. Librarians can also access helpful guides on fund raising and the Pamoja: a Learning Activity for the Information Age Facilitator's Guide authored by Gail Wadesworth and Wendy White, a powerful tool to develop cultural sensitivity and negotiating skills through interactive real-world activities.2
Librarians can also find 20 featured library development projects in Eastern Europe, Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East, each with its own unique mission and remarkable successes in changing the lives of children and adults through books and reading.
With HIV/AIDS orphaning children in many parts of Africa, there is an increasing number of very vulnerable young people living without basic shelter or the means to escape grinding poverty. However, street children in Lusaka, Zambia now have a place where they can learn to read and gain valuable skills in the first Lubuto Library. Jane Kinney Meyers, president of the Lubuto Library Project, enthralled librarians at an ISLD program with pictures of street children reading books in a shipping container that served as a library and the plans for an indigenous library where these children could escape the street and learn to read. Many librarians went back home and held fund-raisers and collected children’s books to help make this plan a reality. Through their efforts and so many others, the first Lubuto Library opened in September 2007 and has been a resounding success in bringing hope and education to Lusaka’s street kids.3
Before ISLD was formed, making these connections was fragmented and often only a one-time event. It was difficult for librarians to network with others interested in international library development. Barbara Ford, during her tenure as ALA President in 1997-1998, with her theme of “Libraries: Global Reach, Local Touch,” provided a vision of involvement in international library projects. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), she sought ways to bring other former volunteers together to share their experiences and help promote her vision.
RPCV librarians began to meet over lunch on Saturdays at ALA Midwinter and Annual to reminisce and discuss how they could contribute to international library development. The ALA 2002 Midwinter lunch in New Orleans was very different. Joan Weeks, also a RPCV, related an event that occurred when she had returned from the 2001 Annual Conference. A librarian had looked everywhere for a place to generate interest in a library project in Africa, but had found no one to talk with. Another RPCV, Gail Wadesworth, talked about the difficulty in putting on programs and getting volunteers for another project in Africa. Proposals for projects would circulate in emails but were not coordinated. Ideas starting coming fast and furious. Could there be a group formed in ALA to promote international library development? Goals and objectives emerged and by the time everyone had provided their contract information there were over 20 signatures. This group of RPCVs needed to move from a restaurant into the ALA structure to bring librarians into active participation in international library development projects.
Later that day, Weeks met with another RPCV, Jordan Scepanski, who suggested contacting the International Relations Round Table chair Lea Wells about forming a committee or interest group. At the Sunday, ALA Midwinter 2002 IRRT Executive Board Meeting, Weeks petitioned the IRRT Board for permission to form an interest group. It was granted and given a mandate to form. Over the next six months Wadesworth and Weeks met several times, collected the required eight IRRT members and provided the mission statement and organizational structure. At ALA Annual 2002 in Atlanta, ISLD was formally recognized as an interest group within IRRT.
By attending ISLD programs and finding the ISLD table full of enthusiastic members at the International All Committee meetings on Saturdays during ALA Midwinter and Annual, librarians began to spread the word about this new interest group. From the beginning there have been 10-12 people at the meetings and over 30 at the Saturday lunches, founding projects and linking up with programs to promote international library development. During the RPCV luncheon in Denver at ALA Midwinter, Ann Weeks from the University of Maryland approached Janet Lee, a RPCV and Technical Services Librarian at Regis University in Denver, to assist in obtaining electronic versions of Amharic children’s books for the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL). Lee, then a volunteer for Ethiopia Reads was able to have two titles scanned, advised Ethiopia Reads staff on the completion of the license, and created the metadata. Both titles were available on the ICDL website less than two months after the RPCV luncheon much to the delight of all involved.4
It was at just this type of informational meeting that Jane Mirandette, president and founder of the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua, found ISLD a place where she could present her library project and attract volunteers, as well as book donations.
Mirandette told of staff members asking if they could borrow books and magazines left behind at the hotel where she is the proprietor and how she started thinking about what we take for granted a public library. Was there a place where people could borrow books in San Juan del Sur? She discovered there were no public lending libraries and began to bring back books with her from trips to her home in Colorado and provide discounted lodging if a patron would bring a suitcase full of books in Spanish. By word of mouth people in the town would ask if they could borrow the books and they did bring them back.
Through contacts she gained at ISLD, Mirandette recruited volunteer librarians to come to San Juan del Sur to help set up the library and instruct staff to run it. She began a "Library in a Box" Project to get books out to the local schools. Books are loaded in plastic tubs that are distributed monthly to schools and then picked up and swapped with different books, many of which came from vendors and contributors who attended her presentations at ISLD programs.
To provide a sustainable source of funding for the library, Mirandette established the Hester J. Hodgdon Foundation, named for her grandmother who inspired her love of books and reading.
At the 2004 ALA Annual Conference, Mirandette made connections with the Simmons College Library Science graduate program and since 2005 has given their library science graduate students a very valuable international professional experience teaching workshops to the children and adults who come to San Juan del Sur Biblioteca. In January 2009, the University of Maryland iSchool graduate students gained course credit for their two-week international study abroad experience in the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca and by helping to distribute books throughout 32 farming communities and schools in the "Library in a Box" mobile project. Students gained valuable insight in how to fund and manage an international library development project.5
During the 2008 Annual Conference in Anaheim, ALA President Loriene Roy instituted the Presidential Citation for International Innovation and awarded it to her former MLS student, Yohannes Gebregeorgis, Founder of Ethiopia Reads. Members of the audience have since visited Ethiopia and provided valuable feedback on programming, provided training for new librarians, and helped plant a school library.
James Rettig, president of ALA in 2009 presented Jane Kinney Meyers with the ALA Presidential Citation for International Innovation for the Lubuto Library Project and Jane Mirandette with the ALA Presidential Citation for International Innovation for the Hester J. Hodgdan's Libraries for All Program at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago. This award was also presented to Tongji University Library in Shanghai for innovative services to the local community.
Early in the development of ISLD there was a discussion about whether this group should become a standing committee under IRRT or remain an interest group. Many realized that the interest group structure was ideally suited to advance the goals and mission with continuity of membership and the involvement of all who wanted to participate. A committee, with limits on the number of members and terms that could be served, would not give this opportunity for all to participate actively in international library development.
Everyone is welcome to come to the Saturday ISLD meetings during ALA Midwinter and Annual, as well as the Saturday lunches. The formal ISLD program is always scheduled for Monday morning of the ALA Annual Conference. If you cannot come to ALA there are many projects and ways you can help. Just check the ISLD website for the times, locations and projects, and then you too will catch the international library development bug.
1. IRRT International Sustainable Library Development Interest Group, American Library Association, http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/rts/irrt/irrtcommittees/isld/isld.cfm
2. Gail Wadsworth and Wendy D. White, Pamoja: A Learning Activity for the Information Age (Bahama, North Carolina: World Library Partnership), 1999. Available at http://www.library.illinois.edu/mortenson/pamoja/facilguide_2.pdf