Living in a tiny village in the Republic of Georgia, where the only source of information is the all-day-long Sunday gossip session that Orthodox Georgians know as ‘church’, can lead one to appreciate things that educated Americans take for granted or even complain about. What we call ‘information overload’ suddenly seems entirely copacetic when faced with the alternative of living without modern textbooks, up-to-date medical research, political data, news of the world beyond the village perimeter. The fact that not having access to information is a major handicap becomes easily visible when you are in the former Soviet Union where many people remember Stalin with great fondness. If I hadn’t served as a Peace Corps volunteer I can honestly say that I would never have even considered becoming a professional librarian. I wanted to do something exciting, something that would change the world! Librarians, I mistakenly thought, spent their boring, solitary workdays surrounded by dusty books doing work that was no longer needed now that we lived in an age of Google!
At the beginning of graduate school my one and only plan, inspired by this time in the Peace Corps, was to work in a public library ensuring that “the public” has access to information. I certainly never expected to work in an academic library. Or a school library, for a library vendor or in an archive. But somehow these are the four types of organizations that I have found myself in, contributing to the overarching goals of librarianship in varied and unexpected ways. I actually did work in a public library for several months before graduate school started so, technically, I even have that on my resume. I have had a well-rounded professional experience, you could say! I am reflecting on that today because one of my other library roles has been in the forefront of my mind.
A little bit more than a year ago I spent 3 weeks in the Peruvian Andes. One of the things that I accomplished during that time was to organize a tiny library at a village school that serves some of the most impoverished families in the country. And by ‘tiny’ I mean a few hundred books, some in English, some Spanish, all donated. This tiny library is the only library in Ahuac, as well as in the nearby, much larger, city called Chupaca. In Chupaca the doors of the public library were locked when their librarian died several years ago – and nobody has been inside since.
This experience led me to reflect again on the value of literacy and information. To see a group of students excited – really, really excited – to have access to books is both exhilarating and sobering at the same time. These kids really don’t even grasp how truly limited their access to information is…the way that American children use the internet, continuously bombarded by and engaged with information, is beyond the scope of their imagination. I was fortunate to spend that time with them and have been fortunate to be able to continue to support the library in that school. Last January I made another trip to Ahuac, this time creating a much larger reading space for the library and adding furniture and books. I have been able to do a bit of fundraising for the school and support the library even from a distance. Many days I hardly give a thought to the families that use – and appreciate – that tiny little library. At other moments I am struck by the stark differences between our busy library here at UNT and the pace and expectations of library users in Ahuac.
It’s funny to me that when I tell people that I am a librarian they sometimes seem to think that this is a boring profession, a one-way track through dusty bookshelves and quiet reading rooms. That has definitely not been my experience in my career so far and now I’m looking forward to an exciting first year as an academic librarian!