A tireless crusader for international cooperation and exchange, Jesus Lau is currently serving on the Governing Board of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. At IFLA’s August conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, he talked with American Libraries about the value of his international activites, especially his ongoing involvement with the American Library Association. Lau is president of the Mexican Library Association and of the USBI VER Library at the Universidad Veracruzana in Veracruz and an advocate for the role of librarians in fostering better relations between his country and the United States. He received his library science degree from the University of Denver in Colorado and his doctorate from the University of Sheffield in England. Lau recently announced his candidacy for the presidency of IFLA.
American Libraries: Talk about your role in IFLA and how you attained it.
JESUS LAU: I'm currently a member of the Governing Board and also a member of the Executive Committee. In Gothenberg, this is my second term, which means that I'll be playing this role for a year more. I'm in the third year right now. I have been active in IFLA for over 20 years, and I have played different roles within the sections and divisions. In the last two years, I decided to try to be a part of the board, and fortunately I was elected to it.
What have been the most important things you've learned from IFLA that help you to deal with librarians internationally?
Coming to IFLA is like coming to an international workshop in different subjects and in different cultures and in different languages. You meet peoples of different backgrounds that work in public libraries or school libraries or university libraries. You learn that things can be done in more than one way. I would say that coming to these conferences means getting out of your own home or your own village and seeing what others have to eat!
Why is it important for somebody from Mexico to get out of Mexico, to get out of the village?
Because you learn to do things in different ways. You learn different perspectives. When you don't travel, you think that the things that you do may be the right ones, but when you do, you learn that things could have a different slant. For me, going abroad is like engaging in a benchmarking process, because every time I come to this conference, I see the layout of the convention center and I compare it to my own environment.
You have been a member of the American Library Association for a long time. How does that benefit you in your own setting back in Mexico?
ALA at first was the first foreign association I joined. I did my master's degree in the U.S., so one of the things I discovered was that there was a library association, there was a big one, and it was a strong group of leaders. ALA, for me, has been the first door to go to the outside world. I remember meeting someone who was an ALA member during my student years, and this person described what our Association did at conferences . I had never been to a conference. So ALA has also been a way to meet some of the best librarians in the U.S. I have met, I would say, most of the ALA presidents, for example, just to mention a group of members, and most of them are people from whom there are lots of things to learn; there are morals to follow in the different ways that they work.
What are some of the things that ALA has done–services, products, that you have found particularly useful?
If you don't come to the conferences, the best tools are American Libraries and the website. During my years as a member, certainly the magazine was the best tool to be in touch with ALA, because during those years I didn't have the means to come to the conferences. Nowadays, the website plays a very important role. And there is a section that I like and I use a lot is the International Relations Office website that is part of ALA. And all the documents, all the publications that you produce are normally focused. But once you go to the conference, obviously the conference becomes the big thing, and the place is like a big supermarket where you can do almost anything and shop for ideas from different sources.
How have libraries or your colleagues in Mexico benefited from your activities?
I have been a library director for almost since graduation.I think that almost from every trip I get a new idea that I can apply to my job or to the things that I do. For example, I'm the current president of the Mexican Library Association, and I have followed some of the U.S. conference-organization projects and tried to apply them to my own smaller environment. So I have learned how to run a conference by attending conferences. And the first conference that I attended brought back, one of the American ones, I have run probably nearly 20 conferences in the country. I have been a great promoter of conferences, and the skills I have developed is because I have been in touch with this international experiences. The second thing is that I have been able to meet people who are willing to share their knowledge, their expertise. I have had several American friends come to Mexico to do a workshop, to do something for the Mexican community, a it's a long list of benefits that I have. The third thing, and probably the most important one, is that I think I'm more open‑minded. I'm more flexible in the things that I do because I know that there are several ways to do things. My own staff has benefited from my travel because I have been able to get library changes, to get grants, to be able to publish. Because even though we're in this high-tech communication environment, when you come to these places, when you get this face‑to‑face interaction, you get more published. You get invitations to publish. I have been able to publish in U.S. journals, in U.K.journals. I think the benefits are many. A big window in your job when you go abroad.
How has going abroad and your involvement internationally changed you personally?
I think I'm a richer person. I love to appreciate different cultures. I love to see the experience of other people. I think after doing my first trip abroad–in fact, it was to the U.S. when I went to get my master's degree, the first plane that I took from my home state in Mexico to Denver. After that, I learned that I wanted to do more. And I think the greatest benefit is to enjoy what people think, what people do, what people eat, the music that they have. I enjoy just, you know, the international experience in the different places.
Were there any big surprises for you as you started going outside of Mexico?
There were surprises. I learned things, simple things through the complex. You know, the complex will be things related to the job, to my employment, but there are some simple things–how an escalator works, how a building came about, some elaborate buildings. To learn how to play these spaces in my own place. Especially when I began my career, I didn't have the experience of how to build, for example, a library building. But coming to this place, I see that the Swedes do it one way and the Italians do it another way, you do it in a different way.
I think there are surprises all the time, and this is what keeps the motivation to come abroad. No matter how many times you travel to a country, there is always something to learn.
Given some of the immigration issues between the United States and Mexico, what do you think American and Mexican librarians can do to foster good relations between our two countries?
I think what we could do is to build communication bridges. I think we need to learn what we do, but especially how we do it. The more we know of the things that you do and why you do them [Inaudible] what you have. We are neighbors. We share a large border. But the language barrier is sometimes the crucial barrier, it’s a big one between our countries. Any time I have the opportunity to talk to my colleagues in Mexico, I encourage them to make the effort to come, but sometimes the language is a barrier. Not all librarians speak English. And the language is a powerful tool. It's powerful to understand what other countries are doing. So I think that it would be difficult to summarize the actions that could be taken, but just by going to each other's conferences, you are building bridges.
It has been quite interesting to invite, for example, ALA president‑elect, which is normally my focus when you go to ALA, to invite them to come down to Mexico. When they come, they get a real picture of what Mexico is, at least in library terms. And they normally make a good friendship with them. I know I have a link with them. Some of them have been longstanding collaboration with them. So I think that what we need to do is to learn what we do, why we do it and we could break those barriers. It is not easy.
That sounds like an invitation.
You are cordially invited to come to our Annual Conference. It is in the first week of May. We have Cinco de Mayo in Mexico. This is going to be my last conference, so it would be a great honor to have you. You have the best library magazine in the world. I enjoy it, and I put it by the side of my bed to browse it and read the news most relevant to me. But I like it because it has a broad approach, and it is always fresh. "Cool," as the youngsters say. This is an open invitation to everyone, but especially to you because you are a communicator.