Serving Abroad

Librarians share experiences working overseas

June 30, 2015

The library at the American University of Afghanistan.
The library at the American University of Afghanistan.
Photo: The American University of Afghanistan

Opportunities for librarians wishing to work in foreign counties are plentiful, according to the speakers at An Opportunity to Serve: American Librarians in Eurasia, a panel discussion held Sunday at the 2015 ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco. They would know: Over the course of their careers, the featured librarians have worked in Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Afghanistan. The keys to finding employment abroad are flexibility and adaptability, they said.

Rebecca Miller, library director at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, and Leila Gibradze, an instructor librarian at Florida State University who hails from Georgia, shared their experiences living and working outside of the United States, detailing the issues, challenges, and needs affecting librarians and libraries, as well as everyday people, in Afghanistan and Georgia. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the past Soviet occupation of Georgia have left permanent scars on the countries’ infrastructures. Libraries are abundant, but they are severely underfunded and, in the case of Afghan libraries, often without power due to Taliban bombings. Such conditions notwithstanding, Miller and Gibradze painted positive portraits of their work; their colleagues and patrons; and the beauty of the respective countries. It was evident that these aspects of the jobs trumped any sociopolitical or economic upheavals.

Practical advice for working abroad came from James Agee, university librarian at the University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, who until December 2014 was library general manager at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.

“You have a niche,” he said. “There are so many people seeking jobs in the global marketplace. What you have as a US librarian sets you apart. You probably have skills that you didn’t even know you had.”

Agee said that training in LC classification systems, inter-library loan, and instruction, and working in customer service, social media, and in an open stacks system benefit US candidates.

“Structure yourself and your skills so you can address what they need, but you must discover your own needs,” he stressed. “What do you want to get out of it? [Working abroad] is not an opportunity to change the world, but you will touch the lives of many others.”


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