A Library Mission to Kyrgyzstan

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By Herb Landau, Library Director, Milanof-Schock Library, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.
Originally published in the January 2008 edition of the Pennsylvania Library Association Bulletin

Something weird and wonderful happened to me in October 2007. The U.S. State Department sent me to the Kyrgyz Republic in central Asia on a public library good will mission. This odyssey began in August 2007 when I found a message on my desk from the U.S. State Department offering me a speaking engagement in a central Asian republic. I first believed this was a practical joke—“Yeah,” I thought, “The Government wants me to go to Kazakhstan and teach the Dewey Decimal Classification to Borat.” However, when I returned the call to Washington, I found out this was for real.

The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgzstan had requested a visit by two U.S. librarians, one academic and one public. The visit of this team would coincide with the three-day International Conference on Libraries and Democratization of Society to be held in Issyk-Kul, Krygyzstan in October 2007. The other team member was Professor Leigh Estabrook, retired dean of The Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. The State Department wanted me to advise the Kyrgyz public librarians and Dr. Estabrook to help academic librarians and library educators.

Not quite believing this was happening, I asked why I had been chosen to represent the U.S. on this mission. The State Department said they had come across the February 1, 2006 issue of Library Journal in which my library was named “Best Small Library in America.” The LJ article highlighted the fact that we were able to accomplish a lot on a limited budget. Kyrgyz public libraries suffer from insufficient government support and the State Department postulated that perhaps some of my money-stretching techniques might prove transferable to the rural libraries of Kyrgyzstan. Still not certain that I was the best person for this job, I decided to give it a try after discussion with my board and staff. It would be nice, I thought, to visit a country that was friendly towards the United States and sought its advice.

The U.S. State Department took care of all the international travel details under its Speaker and Specialist Grant Program. Once in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. Embassy’s library director, Larissa Desyatkova, and her staff were to arrange my itinerary and provide interpreters. My main tasks were to prepare and present two talks on how to achieve public library excellence on a limited budget, to participate in the Issyk-Kul conference, and to informally visit with rural public librarians. In late September, I set off from Harrisburg on a 6,500-mile, 32-hour journey to Bishkek, capital of the Kyrgyz Republic.

The CIA’s World Fact Book describes Kyrgyzstan as “... a central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions.” Over 80 percent of the land is covered with high, snow-capped mountains, with valleys and lakes making up the remainder. It borders Kazakhstan on the north, China on the south, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the east. It has a population of 5.3 million with approximately 1 million living in its capital city of Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet Socialist Republic until the breakup of the USSR in 1991. Its inhabitants are largely Asian in race but have adopted Russian language and culture. The population is 99 percent literate and 75 percent Muslim. Although the city of Bishkek is very cosmopolitan and very Russian in nature, the rural areas appear to be more Asian and Muslim with most women (including librarians) wearing headscarves and modest floor length skirts, and the men wearing traditional embroidered tri-corner hats. The Asian/Russian cultural juxtaposition can be seen at the dinner table where a typical meal can consist of Asian style dumplings accompanied by borscht, boiled cabbage, potatoes, and buckwheat kasha.

Despite the Russian influence, many Asian nomadic roots are still evident in Kyrgyzstan. For example, their national drink is kumus, a fermented mare’s milk that is definitely an acquired taste. While driving 100 miles cross-country from Bishkek to visit libraries in Karakol and Bokonbaevo, our embassy van was halted several times to allow men on horseback, wearing pointed hats that made them look like Mongol warriors, to herd cattle, sheep, or horses across the two lane blacktop road which serves as the main “highway.” The young Kyrgyz university students I met of both genders prided themselves on carrying on their nomadic tribal heritage of horsemanship.

When it was part of the USSR, Kyrgyzstan had an agrarian and mining economy and relied upon Russia for its manufactured goods, financial support, political and cultural direction, and advanced education. Most institutions, including libraries, were patterned after those in Russia. This world came to a sudden end when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Kyrgyzstan was on its own. This newly-independent nation found that it was ill-equipped to fend for itself after nearly 100 years of Russian rule. This new nation appears to still be struggling to find a true national sense of mission and identity. There has been political instability, and a 2006 popular uprising toppled the first independent (and reportedly corrupt) government. The U.S. provides moderate economic assistance and has established an Air Force base at Bishkek’s Manas International Airport.

On the library and educational side, both U.S. government and private groups, such as the Soros Foundation, provide seed money, educational materials, and advice to Kyrgyzstanis. That was where my library mission fit in. The State Department wanted me to advise public librarians there how to become more self-reliant, how to win support from their communities, and how to make their funds go further in providing library services. This turned out to be a challenge.

I arrived in Bishkek on a red-eye flight from Istanbul at 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday. Twelve hours later I was in an embassy van heading cross-country on a six-hour trek to the small city of Karakol. There I visited their public library’s “American Corner” where U.S.-provided books and computers are available to patrons.

Our next stop was a three-hour drive to Ton Oblast (province) to visit their district library center and to meet with local public librarians. The U.S. Embassy’s assistant librarian, Jyldyz Bekbalaeva accompanied me and served as my interpreter and guide. A Kyrgyz native, Jyldyz earned her MLS at the University of Illinois and was fluent in the Kyrgyz language as well as Russian and English. In remote areas such as Ton, Kyrgyz is the primary spoken language although published materials are virtually all in Russian.

Arriving in the town of Bokonbaevo, on the Chinese border, we met with Gulnara Mukasheva, library system director, and 14 of her 27 local library directors. The district system headquarters library and administrative offices were quite small. They housed the library district’s single computer (kept in the director’s office) and had no indoor plumbing. The library’s bookshelves were only partially filled and I saw no patrons in evidence. My culture shock at these primitive facilities was probably exceeded by that of the Kyrgyzstani librarians when I presented my two-hour seminar (translated sentence by sentence into Kyrgyz by Jyldyz.) As my talk proceeded, I discovered to my chagrin that many common U.S. public library practices I was citing were not appropriate for the Kyrgyz environment.

For example, when I discussed the book sale as a common library fund-raising technique, I was met with a sea of puzzled faces. These librarians could not conceive of having “surplus” books to sell. Their collections and acquisitions budgets are so limited that they cherish each and every book they can find and keep it until the pages fall out. With little money to purchase new materials, collection weeding is virtually non-existent in Kyrgyzstani public libraries. Other common U.S. public library tools such as public access online computers, OPACs, and AV collections are unknown to these rural public librarians. They appeared overwhelmed when I described my 8,000 square foot library as “small” since it is twice as large as and far better equipped than their district library center.

Only when I began to address outreach to the community did we begin to approach a common ground. They seemed responsive to my exhortations that we public librarians must not allow ourselves to lapse into a victim mentality when governmental support evaporates. When I cited the inadequate governmental funding of public libraries in Pennsylvania, the Kygyzstani librarians nodded their heads knowingly. Most of them seemed to accept my suggestions to use business fund-raising and public relations techniques to generate money and programmatic support, but not all. One librarian seemed troubled because I was asking her to think and act as a “capitalist.”

After my seminar with the rural librarians, I visited a few public libraries in Ton Oblast. All seemed rather in need of new collection materials. Again, I saw no patrons in their reading rooms. On the positive side, I noted that one library had sponsored a woman’s native craft cooperative as a means of both raising funds and attracting patrons. I stocked up on some wonderful embroidered souvenirs there.

At the end of the day, I bid farewell to Ton Oblast and rejoined Dr. Estabrook, who had met separately with academic librarians. We headed out on another three-hour drive to the Aurora Sanatorium & Resort, the site of the international library conference. The conference venue was on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul with a beautiful beach and park-like grounds. This combination health clinic and resort has an excellent conference hall that was, disconcertingly, next door to a facility labeled “Intestinal Irrigation Center.”

Virtually all of the 80 conference delegates (except for Leigh Estabrook, four visiting American academic librarians, an EBSCO salesman from Dubai, and me) were academic, government, or public librarians from former Soviet Socialist Republics. The official conference language was Russian; fortunately, the U.S. Embassy provided an interpreter for us. Although the tone of the meeting was serious, things lightened up each evening at our group meal where there was entertainment, music, dancing, and a good supply of Russian wine, brandy, and, of course, vodka. This confirmed my belief that librarians, no matter where, know how to have a good time.

I was worried about my conference talk scheduled for the second day of the meeting. My rural library visits had demonstrated that much of my prepared remarks on U.S. public library marketing and fund-raising techniques were not really appropriate for Kyrgyzstan. I had not anticipated such a wide resource gap between our two countries. Also, via informal discussions with other delegates, I perceived a professional gap. Most of the librarians there had been trained under the Russian system that tends to emphasize “theory,” archival collection maintenance, and cataloging precision over responsiveness to community needs and patron outreach.

Because of this, I scrapped my prepared talk on U.S.-style fund-raising and creative programming techniques and instead focused on how to fill resource gaps by reaching out to local communities. I was nervous about how this message would play to an audience who grew up under bureaucratic communism and attended Russian library schools. However, I was relieved during the question and answer period following my talk where I perceived that my message did get across and was accepted. There, conference delegates asked if I was really advising them to apply “capitalistic” marketing and public relations techniques, and, if so, which would work the best. We had a real group dialog where they asked good business questions like how to obtain tax-exempt status for library earned income and how to use statistical market analyses to project library patron needs.

In retrospect, my whirlwind one-week good will mission to Kyrgyzstan was fascinating but I still wonder if it accomplished its objectives. At a minimum, I think it helped to spread good will among librarians and build international understanding at a time when the United States needs friends abroad. It showed me that as much as we Pennsylvania librarians may bemoan our dearth of adequate government support, our Kyrgyzstani fellows are much worse off. U.S. and Kyrgyzstani public libraries may be separated by cultural and resource gaps, but we share a basic concern with providing library services to our patrons despite inadequate public funding.

I hope I was able to raise the consciousness of my Kyrgyzstani colleagues by showing them that even a small public library can take charge of its own future, raise its own funding, perform outreach and, in general, become more self-sufficient. I encouraged them to seek alternate approaches to funding and programming. I exhorted them to think less like victims and more like “capitalistic” innovators. And I had confirmation that my message took hold with at least one librarian at the Issyk-Kol Conference on Libraries. A conference speaker from Kazakhstan followed me and in her talk complained about the lack of government funding for her library. The session chairperson interrupted her and suggested, not too gently, that she stop her whining and “go out and raise some money as Herbert from Pennsylvania has suggested.” I felt sorry for the poor woman but proud at the same time.