On Thursday March 22, a bunch of library professionals and students came together to revel in the dream of travelling the world working in libraries. Four highly entertaining speakers regaled us with stories of language difficulties, inadequate resourcing, and dealing with decaying buildings, wild thunderstorms, and cockroaches. But it wasn’t all about the good times!
On a serious note, SALIN’s ‘Travelling with your Qualifications’ forum gave a wonderful insight for any library professional seeking an experience working in an overseas library. Not only will you meet some amazing people and be exposed to other cultures, but it’s a great way to gain valuable skills and experience, and share ideas amongst the international library community.
Our first speak, Meg, was living in the Solomon Islands with her husband who was working with the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI). She had been volunteering in a school when a friend, who was a teacher, told her about the lack of a librarian at the Honiara campus of the University of the South Pacific. It seems there were no qualified librarians in the country to take on the role of Campus Librarian. In fact, there had not been a campus librarian since the last one fled after the April riots of 2005. Meg applied for the position, participating in a phone interview with the main campus in Suva, Fiji, and before she knew it, she was run off her feet dealing with the heavy demands of a busy campus of around 3000 students.
Most students were doing foundation courses or degrees in finance and accounting, with rote learning a prevalent teaching method. Meg initiated group sessions on using the Internet, but encountered cultural issues with students unwilling to talk in groups, or even be in a one-on-one situation with Meg, especially if they were male. The library catalogue was on Athena, a free software package. The periodicals were the most extensively used resource, including New Scientist, Time, and the Bulletin.
While space was often not an issue, although the tropical climate meant the buildings often appeared in decay due to peeling paint, there wasn’t enough funding to complete projects, or even cover the costs of chairs for study areas. One of the most difficult things Meg had to deal with was competing distractions that stopped people turning up for work, or people agreeing to do things with nothing eventuating. With no high expectations of what she could achieve, Meg often had to search for other ways to get things done.
While the pay was minimal ($26,000), it’s evident that the pleasure Meg gained from working in the Solomon Islands made the experience a memorable one.
Louise Gillis – Wageningen UR Library, Netherlands
Louise is a Canadian expat who came to Australia three years ago when her husband gained work here. While in Canada, Louise worked as a bookmobile librarian and showed us the sweetest photographs of her colourful vehicle. Unlike Meg who applied for her job while already residing in the country, when Louise found about her impending move to Australia she immediately began her research. Using the ALIA website and other online resources, Louise started by finding out what types of jobs were available, what skills and qualifications were asked for in job adverts, and what type of library would most likely be hiring. This led her to decide on academic libraries and she began monitoring the websites of Adelaide’s three universities.
Louise spoke about the need to have low expectations about getting a job immediately but to remain upbeat at all times as employers like to see this in potential employees. She also spoke about the need to start conversations with potential employers to get your name known. Louise’s first job in Australia had a touch of serendipity. She contacted the library at Flinders University about a vacancy to ask whether she was eligible to apply. While it turned out she wasn’t, this dialogue led to her being offered another opportunity within the library. Since then Louise has worked a number of contracts and now works as a Research Librarian at Barr Smith Library.
Since moving to Australia, Louise also spent a four month stint in the Netherlands, working at the Wageningen UR Library. Once again Louise used her initiative and contacted the Library Director, whose details she found on the Internet. She explained her situation, being upfront about the limitations of her finite stay, and volunteered her services for free, emphasising her enthusiasm and commitment. It worked, and the opportunity allowed her to develop experience and skills that eventually led to her being offered a paid contract when another staff member went on leave. The only difficulty Louise encountered revolved around the language barriers. Even though staff were required to speak English when serving clients, Dutch was still the language used ‘behind-the-scenes’, making it a challenge to fit in socially with the staff.
To sum up Louise spoke about the differences between the three countries she has worked in. Culturally Canada and Australia have good similarities and work-wise it was easy to assimilate into the workplace. Although, addressing selection criteria was something she hadn’t encountered before. The value of qualifications was also of interest. In the Netherlands, many library staff had doctorates in their subject specialisation but not library qualifications; in Canada most librarians have a Masters; while in Australia qualifications seem important, but experience on the job seems often just as valuable.
Karen had a different approach to working overseas, applying with Australian Volunteers International for a position at the Public/National Library of Vanuatu in Port Vila, Efate. Contrary to what you may think, volunteers do get paid, and the allowance goes towards rent, food and other living expenses. Most assignments last for 12 months and can be located anywhere around the world. Check the AVI website for current available positions.
Karen was the first librarian to volunteer in Vanuatu and her experience was a real eye-opener. The public library’s budget only covered salaries and some stationary. The library collection subsisted purely on donations, most coming from Australia or from expats who donated their books when it came time to leave the islands. Karen spent her time helping students find information, providing reader education, working in children services and even cleaning shelves. Vanuatu has three main languages – French, English and Bislama, a pidgin language that Karen had some lessons in before she left. However, most books in the library were in French (which made cataloguing challenging) or English, with very few in Bislama. The lack of resources made her appreciate the’ luxuries’ we have in Australia.
There were plenty of other challenges too. Coping with the tropical weather (both the humidity and hygiene issues), dealing with old and inappropriate donations, and fighting off the cockroaches. Despite this, Karen gained great satisfaction from organising new collections, gathering donations from Australia for a new toy box for the children, meeting some amazing people, and giving back to the profession in using her skills to assist library staff in developing their services and resources. She highly recommends the experience to others.
Ainsley Painter – St Mary’s International School, Japan
Our last speaker, Ainsley, was working as an ESL teacher in Japan when a friend suggested she would suit library work. She started regularly checking the employment section of the Japan Times and eventually applied and secured a library assistant position at the local International School. The school catered for students of expat parents from over 83 nationalities and was based on an American schooling model. Ainsley also found that responding to selection criteria was not a requirement of the application – only a cover letter, her resume and two interviews (one with the headmaster and the other with the head librarian) was needed.
Ainsley had no library qualifications at the time, but as the role also required her to be in charge of the media library, she thinks the fact that she had enough Japanese to read the buttons on the video play helped her get the job. Besides her media specialist duties, she mainly reshelved journals. But Ainsley wasn’t afraid to try new tasks and take on duties outside her job description which led to her being responsible for the library’s website. The pay for librarians was very good, and if you were an expat hire, as opposed to a local hire, you earned more and received other perks such as subsidised accommodation, an annual flight home, and paid holidays over the summer break.
Ainsley’s tips for surviving the experience include:
- Do your research before you go – into the culture, qualifications required, and tax implications of working overseas
- Make friends with the IT guy – very useful if you accidently break something
- Develop a support/social network outside of the school. Ainsley recommended Being A Broad – a support and information network for international women living in Japan
- Try to learn some of the language
- Be enthusiastic to get the most out of the experience
The experience secured Ainsley’s interest in libraries (she began her Graduate Diploma externally during her 2-year stay) and she now works as a graduate librarian at the Barr Smith Library. For others wishing to seek employment in an International School, Ainsley suggests looking at the employment section of the Weekend Australian, or attending the Job Fairs in Sydney or Melbourne.
In finishing up, Ainsley related the experiences of a friend who had moved to the UK last year. It took him 6 months to secure an entry-level position in a law firm, but this may have been halved if he had known about the library-specific recruiting agencies. Two resources to use are Sue Hill Recruitment and CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Interestingly, to study the graduate diploma in the UK you already need to be working in a library, and you need a Masters if you want to rise above an entry level position.
Overall it was wonderful to hear four very different people share four very different experiences. Thank you to all our speakers who entertained us with their tales of adventure, their advice and tips, and their stunning photography of far-off places.