Librarians Without Borders Takes iSchool Students on a Guatemalan Adventure

Community Profile

San José State University School of Information students put their LIS learning to the test on a trip to Guatemala with Librarians Without Borders.

This year, several iSchool students put their LIS learning to work on a service trip to Guatemala. Kerry Purvis, Elissa Sperling and Jasmin Avila were hand picked to participate in an annual highlight of Librarians Without Borders (LWB): a two-week trip to Que­tzal­te­nango, Guatemala, from April 24 to May 4, to visit, assist and learn from the librarians at LWB partner Miguel Angel Asturias Academy.

LWB is an all-volunteer nonprofit group on a mission to bring library services to underserved communities. To accomplish this, LWB forms partnerships with LIS schools in their native Canada and community organizations in program countries Ghana and Guatemala. As one of their primary library service programs, LWB has partnered with the private, nonprofit, pre-K–12 Asturias Academy since 2009, with the goal of promoting literacy and learning and fostering a love of reading through the development of a school and community library.

LWB and the iSchool also enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship: LWB hosts iSchool interns, and Melanie Sellar, coexecutive director of LWB, is a lecturer at the iSchool. Purvis and Sperling both completed Sellar’s iSchool course, Info 281: Seminar in Contemporary Issues, which focused on the Examination of Global Library Issues Using Project-Based Learning. The course introduced students to LWB by conceptualizing issues LWB library partners face; the students then coordinated online to “design and deliver a collaborative project supporting an LWB community need.”

Library and Information Science in Translation
For their fifth consecutive year in Guatemala, LWB’s goal was to “cultivate a reading culture and to increase book use and literacy within the school and community.” With the help of the 15-person volunteer team from the U.S., Canada and Europe, this year’s focus was on collection management activities, a fun-filled Library Day, and the first-ever Professional Development Day, where the team led workshops like “Library as a Lab & the ‘Flipped’ Classroom.” Asturias teachers brainstormed how they could better use the library and, important for a country where lending libraries are not the norm, how they could get students interested in the library too.

“It was incredible!” Purvis enthuses. “We flew into the Guatemala City airport and spent most of our time working with the Asturias Academy library. We met Jorge Chojolan [founder of Asturias Academy], his family and the kids.” Purvis, part of the communications team, conducted interviews, wrote biographies of the trip participants and did behind-the-scenes work for LWB’s social media.

Everyone agreed that Library Day was a huge success. With a theme of “Discovering Dewey,” children explored three subjects from the Dewey Decimal system through fun arts and crafts. “Each table had a call number,” Purvis explains. “I was at the 900 table, geography, with maps and books, and the kids got to pick a country to go to. [Pictured above: Jasmin Avila in front of the "Geographia" map.] The 550 table was all about fairytales and legends—they had an option to make a mermaid or ninja! Ninjas were very popular. The 300s were astronomy, and the children made telescopes out of paper towel rolls, with stars on the end. And the older kids did fairytale mad libs, which was very cool.”

“Everyone was very excited to see LWB,” she adds. “They were really happy we were there. The last night we worked with the school they had a big dinner for us. It was very moving.”

The Road to Guatemala
When choosing participants for Guatemala, Sellar explains that LWB looks for “a blend of librarian practitioners with MLIS students, Spanish language competency, and enthusiasm for and fit with the Librarians Without Borders mission.” Purvis and Sperling, because they also took Sellar’s iSchool course, “had a great background and training that they were bringing into the trip.”

Prior to heading to Guatemala, Purvis took advantage of the Spanish for Librarians course offered to iSchool students through a partnership with SJSU’s World Languages program. She credits that course, as well as Info 275: Libraries for Racially and Ethnically Diverse communities, with paving the way for an engaging learning experience in Guatemala. Her project work through Info 281, exploring different options for after-school programming, also proved helpful.

“It was so important to understand the needs of the LWB communities before we considered any of the different program models,” Purvis notes. “Several libraries in Guatemala and Honduras have after-school debate teams, which I recommended for LWB’s partner schools; another model focused on creating a bilingual book for the kids. The kids would write it in Spanish and K’iche’ ” (the indigenous language of Que­tzal­te­nango), which would help increase literacy in both languages.

Sperling is pursuing a Master of Information Studies (MISt) at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and was already intimately familiar with LWB as cochair of McGill’s LWB student committee. When she saw a post on LWB’s website about Sellar’s course, Sperling discovered that she could take advantage of the Web Based Information Science Education (WISE) program, which allows students from other ALA-accredited U.S. and Canadian schools to take SJSU iSchool courses.

“I thoroughly enjoyed Melanie Sellar’s course,” Sperling says, “and was very impressed by the online environment provided by SJSU’s iSchool.”

Project-Based Learning Outcomes
Other iSchool students and alumni have been involved with the LWB program as well: in October, alumna Christina Kantzavelos and Heidi Jakal, along with current students Manny Navarro and Hope Hills, will discuss their experiences in “The Asturias Community Library” in a Library 2.015 conference presentation. 

Sperling, part of this year’s Library Day team, says that she used the opportunity to gain a better understanding of international librarianship, and is certain what she learned with be highly relevant to her future career. “It was a very interesting experience and the course provided an excellent foundation for my understanding of Guatemalan culture and librarianship,” she says. 

Purvis (pictured at right, in the Asturias library) says the highlight of visiting the academy was seeing how much everyone values their library. “I noticed the teachers would read to the kids while they worked with them one on one. That they’re spending that time there shows that they really value the library,” she says.

“What I took away from it is that it’s really important to know the community you’re working with.” Purvis plans on continuing her volunteer work with LWB, and applying to go back to Guatemala in a few years. “If you’re interested in libraries, or nonprofits, community outreach—this is a great learning experience.”