It’s been awhile since my last interview, so I’m happy to post my conversation with Libby Bergstrom. Libby is the librarian at IDEAS, and has spent many years working in school libraries overseas. She blogs at GlobalReachLibraries.com. I hope you’ll enjoy her interview as much as I did.
Q. How did you get your start in libraries?
I decided I wanted to be a librarian back in third grade – because I thought they got to sit and read books all day! Of course, I learned differently but didn’t lose my love of libraries. I volunteered at a local elementary school library and paged at a public library in high school, worked in my college library, and since then have worked in a special library, public libraries and school libraries.
Q. You’re currently working overseas developing and creating libraries. What kind of impact has this cross-cultural work had on your faith?
Living and working overseas has helped me look at my faith through fresh eyes. I have realized that parts of my faith experience, while good and valid, are very cultural. My brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have taught me a lot about faith outside of America. Truth is constant; how we live out that truth is very much impacted by time and place. And of course, living in parts of the world where the events of the Bible actually happened definitely opens up greater understanding to Scripture.
Q. What do you think librarians in the West should know about libraries in developing nations?
Let me change the question a bit. I think librarians in general have the skills, mindset and passions to transfer what we do to less developed areas. We know how to find out what our patrons need/want and provide it in whatever format is most appropriate – whether that’s online or with “old-fashioned” physical books.
The bigger question is what people in general need to know about libraries in developing nations. Part of what motivated me to start the Global Reach Libraries project through IDEAS was seeing a lot of well-meaning non-librarians to start libraries overseas. They would often gather book donations, ship them to a location, help with some sort of initial set up, and then leave, not knowing that the books they’d brought sat unused because they were out-of-date and falling apart, there was no plan for ongoing support for the library, no library programs or promotion. The donors were happy, but the impact of the libraries was minimal.
One of the stories I often tell is about when I first started working with a school in Morocco. The school was 10 years old and I was their first trained librarian. The library had been started with a container of donated books sent from the states. Among the books I found on the library shelves that first year was one published in 1964 talking about someday when we go to the moon. Kids in developing countries deserve and NEED up-to-date, current information as much as American kids!
We librarians know there is a lot more to starting a library than collecting books. Someone needs to help the library become a place where people can learn and grow in all areas of their lives.
So, my challenge is for librarians, especially librarians of faith, to help educate our friends who are doing development and ministry work overseas and who want to start libraries. We need to be using our skills and gifting to make these libraries into places that will impact their users and their communities.
Q. Brag a bit! What library-related accomplishment are most proud of?
Most proud of??? That’s hard. I can point to “bigger” accomplishments, but I’m most proud when I’ve seen a child who used to hate books and reading get excited and WANT to check out a library book. And I’m excited when a group of 5th grade boys chooses to hang out in the library rather than go outside for recess, because then I know the library is a welcoming place. And when a middle school girl who rarely finishes a book tells me she loved Wanting Mor because there were Arabic words; it felt familiar and drew her in.
Q. Do you have any thoughts on how Christian librarians working overseas can be a light for Christ while respecting the local cultures and traditions?
As Jesus said in Matthew 7:12, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…” I start by thinking about how I want to be treated by those who don’t share my worldview or beliefs. Then I treat my patrons and co-workers in the same way. This means I listen well to them, I learn about what they think and feel, and then I enter into real friendships and conversations. Actually, the challenges and the joys are the same as when I worked in a public library in the states. The most important thing is just to be truly present and praying.
Q. What advice would you give to a librarian who is thinking about looking for work overseas?
First, take time to pray. Figure out where God is leading you. Then start looking for opportunities – they take many forms. International schools often need librarians; recently the national library in Qatar has been looking for librarians. And various ministry groups also know of opportunities. I work with IDEAS: International Development and Educational Associates and through my project, Global Reach Libraries, I know of several opportunities in libraries involved in transformational, hope-giving work. If you want to know more, check out the website or email me.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like my readers to know about you and your work?
I’ve just started my own foray into the world of blogging, exploring issues related to global libraries. Please check out my blog and join in the conversation. I also send out a newsletter with updates on my work with Global Reach Libraries. Email me if you like to be added to my update list.
Many thanks to Libby for taking the time to talk with me during the busy holiday season. Let me know if you’d like to be featured in an upcoming interview. You don’t need to be a “professional” librarian to participate. If you’re a Christian and have had school library experience, I want to interview you!