Up Front: Taking Your Skills Overseas
By Katharine Dunn, Dean's Editorial Fellow
For our international librarianship issue, we profile recent graduate Meaghan O'Connor '08LS, who worked abroad before and during her studies at Simmons. She recently started her dream job, which gives her the chance to travel to Eastern Europe to improve public libraries in two countries. To read more about O'Connor's international work, look for her posts on the GSLIS Dispatches from the Field blog under the categories Iraq, Jordan, and Korea. She's now blogging at http://irexgl.wordpress.com/.
Meaghan O'Connor '08LS enrolled in GSLIS in fall 2006 with clear plans for post-graduation: to work in international library development, focusing on public libraries and youth services. Few students could have prepared better. She spent the previous year in central Serbia, volunteering to develop library programming at a cultural center while her husband taught English at a local university.
The work helped her get a coveted GSLIS fellowship, for which, during her two-and-a-half years at Simmons, she was involved in several international initiatives. She was part of the team that secured funding to train Iraqi librarians, and she helped arrange for two Iraqis come to Simmons to get Ph.D.s. She also coauthored an article on the longstanding GSLIS program training Vietnamese librarians. And she organized the first GSLIS study-abroad course, in which eight students are traveling to Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, later this summer. (O'Connor will join them.)
Beyond her fellowship, O'Connor was a co-chair of the Simmons International Relations (SIR) student group, bringing speakers to campus to talk about international work. She also joined ALA's International Relations Round Table (IRRT) and volunteered to work on the wiki for the IRRT Sister Library Initiative, a "dating service" that connects American and international libraries. Throughout her time as a student, O'Connor kept her eye on job boards for international postings, but she rarely saw anything other than volunteer opportunities.
"I came here gung-ho about [finding a job] overseas," she says. "I came to believe that job simply didn't exist and that I'd be very happy as a children's librarian, getting involved in international projects in different ways. And that would be a very wonderful life."
One Sunday last November, a month before she finished school, O'Connor saw a posting on the ALA website for a job in the Washington, D.C., office of the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a nonprofit that works on education, media, and other development projects in more than 50 countries. IREX has been awarded two five-year grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Libraries initiative to equip libraries in Romania and Ukraine with computers and Internet access, provide training to librarians, and help library associations develop policies and advocate for support from their governments. IREX was looking for a librarian to advise the grants' implementation. O'Connor saw the ad and thought, "Is this for real?" During her interview, the vice president of IREX told her they had taken one look at her resume and thought the same thing. "This is exactly what I said I wanted when I came to Simmons, almost to a tee," she says.
O'Connor is the sole American librarian working on the grants. There are four other project managers with her in the D.C. office and larger field staffs in each country made up of a mixture of American expats and locals, including a Romanian librarian in the Bucharest office who is, says O'Connor, a "huge" resource for her. O'Connor usually communicates with the field officers from D.C., but since taking the job she's already traveled overseas several times to lead workshops and meet with local librarians.
Over the next five years, IREX will install computers and establish networks in about 1,500 libraries in each country. But technology improvement is only part of the plan, and O'Connor's concern is the overall library. "We're putting the computers in, and for their security they need to be in a locked room. So sometimes the computers feel very separate from the library," she says. "The danger is that they will become de facto Internet centers that happen to be in the library, instead of part of a whole library service."
Part of that library service is, of course, the books. In her visits to libraries — most of which are in rural areas run by a lone librarian — O'Connor found that they haven't changed much since the Soviet era, when "the library was a place where you store books, and the librarian was supposed to protect the books from the government, from the people, from anyone who wants to look at them," she says.
One of O'Connor's goals is to introduce libraries to different ways they can serve their users — by, for example, moving away from a culture that prizes an overabundance of books. "There's no such thing as weeding," she says. A librarian in eastern Romania told her the library holds onto almost everything, even the now-outdated Communist books. "I said, 'But how are you ever going to convince your government that you need more books if your shelves are overflowing with ones that no one ever looks at?'" says O'Connor. "The idea that we'll change that way of evaluating libraries is kind of a long shot, but I have hope."
O'Connor is careful to point out that IREX isn't imposing American methods on libraries in the two countries. In the presentations she's given so far to field staff and others on subjects like advocacy, she's talked about policies and practices in Canada, New Zealand, and Great Britain, and she's collectinlocal success stories to share. "We're not going in and saying you have to provide story hour twice a week, you need to have programs on this, on that," she says. "If we give them a lot of different perspectives, they can figure out what's right for themselves."
For more information, be sure to check out Meaghan O'Connor's job-seeking advice for international librarians!