Asia Foundation Delegation Visits SLIS

CIRI Blog

Published: September 26, 2012 by Dr. Anthony Bernier

On the morning of 20 September I (along with SLIS Director, Dr. Sandy Hirsh, and Debbie Faires, Assistant Director for Distance Learning) had the distinct pleasure of welcoming to the SJSU campus a 15-person delegation of East Asian education and library administrators from as many different countries hosted by the Asia Foundation. The Foundation is a non-profit NGO committed to the institutional development of civil society in the Asia-Pacific region. The Foundation hosted the delegation for a 10-day whirlwind “Study Tour” of the library landscape that included public, academic, special, and governmental libraries in both urban and rural settings on the west coast.

What a fascinating experience this was for me – I was asked to introduce the group to library and information science (LIS) from the explicit point of view of an academic in the United States. The group varied tremendously in English comprehension capacity. They began the trip strangers to each other. They represented different kinds of institutional backgrounds – with little common experience. And each member of the delegation came from a different country: Nepal, Laos, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, Myanmar, among many others.

It was a very challenging task to assemble a 30-minute introduction to the entire library world for such a complex and distinguished audience. Where to even begin?! Where would you begin?

Unlike a lecture for a new group of SLIS students in a section of LIBR 200, I could not assume that the audience had much “background knowledge” or shared “common” understandings of what libraries are like in the United States. I could not assume the audience was familiar with our institutional definitions (“academic” vs “school” libraries, for instance). I could not assume they understood the nature of our culturally-specific definitions of “public service,” “intellectual freedom,” or “professionalism.”

The title of my talk attempted to address an important transition LIS has made within the past generation or two, “Libraries Meeting Community Needs: An Introduction to Library and Information Science in the United States.” My presentation posed a deceptively simple question: How is LIS and the library profession in the United States responding to changes in the delivery of public service? The thesis of my talk was equally broad: Through changes in the profession, its institutions, in how professionals are educated, and in the changing demands of the public, LIS in United States is shifting from a library-centered vision of itself to a library-user-centered vision of itself and its role in society.

The thesis may appear “basic” and “simple” to people already familiar with the cultural and professional contexts in which LIS and libraries exist in the U.S.. But to people from vastly different kinds of backgrounds it helped to lay the foundation for the institutions and environments the delegation would visit over the next nine days of their Study Tour.

My comments attempted to portray LIS and libraries together as a dynamic institution in civil society. I characterized a transition from one institutional vision to a more current vision. I introduced our four major institutional environments and contrasted them against each other – for instance, I compared how governance structures differed between public, academic, school, and special libraries. I discussed LIS’s transition from defining professionals based upon the “professional trait theory” to our more current “competency based” definitions and how competencies can vary tremendously by specialization. And I concluded by addressing the challenges LIS faces in all our institutions in terms of identifying user needs, measuring these needs, assembling service profiles increasingly based upon them, and then evaluating services to determine the ways in which they need to constantly improve to provide value and contribute to the well-being of our increasingly global communities.

I would like to add that SLIS Director, Dr. Sandy Hirsh delivered a similarly challenging presentation for the delegation in introducing SLIS programs and characterizing the School’s many aspects and stake-holders. Debbie Faires also did a most excellent job of demonstrating various procedures and tools of our online instructional model – she even facilitated real-time experience with a student connecting from Hawaii. We would all also like to thank Randy Cheng for producing flawless technical support for all of the morning’s presentations.

In our day-to-day experience it can become easy to default into a US-centric vision of what we do. It can become so easy to base our assumptions about LIS education, training, resources, practice, and research on what we do every day that we forget about the big wide world out there – a big world rapidly becoming “smaller.” So having this opportunity to “translate” our vision to those outside of our “bubble” was intellectually and professionally very satisfying. Challenges like these should urge us all to continually consider the ways in which our work more and more includes preparing to serve global needs.