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June 2010: Librarians Learning to Think Outside the Borders

June 1, 2010
Participants gather for a group photo during the "Thinking Outside the Borders" conference, September 2005.

Illinois State Library

2004 National Leadership Grant for Libraries

Participants gather for a group photo during the "Thinking Outside the Borders" conference, September 2005.

Illinois State Library Contact: Bonnie Matheis

Mortenson Center Contacts: Barbara J. Ford

Susan Schnuer

Website: Thinking Outside the Borders


Project Resources
‘Thinking Outside the Borders’ professional development manual Pamoja: A Learning Activity for the Information Age

As information becomes more accessible worldwide, librarians of all types find they need to be able to navigate varied resources around the globe. For those wanting to learn how to collaborate with libraries in other countries, however, the opportunities are scarce.

To fill this leadership training gap, the Illinois State Library in Springfield and the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign developed the "Thinking Outside the Borders" project.

"We have long partnered with the Illinois State Library in hosting international visitors in our state. We saw an opportunity here to build on that partnership to do even more to allow Illinois librarians to interact with international visitors," said Barbara J. Ford, director of the Mortenson Center, which works to strengthen international ties among libraries and librarians, regardless of geographic location or access to technology.

Over the years, Mortenson staff discovered that U.S. and foreign librarians have some similar needs, and that members of both groups frequently requested leadership training to help them work with international libraries.

"That’s why we kind of came up with this idea of pulling these two groups together," explained Susan Schnuer, the Mortenson’s associate director.

The Illinois State Library received funding for the project through an IMLS National Leadership Grant. In addition to the Mortenson Center, project partners included the Arizona State Library and Archives and the Nebraska Library Commission.

Institutes for Leadership

The project focused on common leadership issues that affect librarians worldwide, promoted international cooperation, and created a training institute model that others could replicate. "What we were doing was trying to test and develop some kinds of things that we thought would work and then put out a guide that might help people do their own institutes," said Ford.

The team gave presentations at the American Library Association annual conference and at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions annual conference.

The Mortenson Center then wrote a curriculum for the Thinking Outside the Borders Institute that addressed leadership issues such as resource sharing, negotiations, empowerment, and advocacy, as well as preservation and technology.

"Preservation is a need that really cuts across all the different countries," said Schnuer. "And everybody had about the same level of expertise with preservation, so that allowed us to introduce some materials and to do some leadership training."

The project included six leadership institutes: four in Illinois, one in Arizona, and one in Nebraska. A total of 156 librarians attended; approximately half were from the United States. The others came from Canada, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. "One of the institutes was primarily Latin American, but most of them were very diverse," said Ford.

During the second institute, the Illinois State Library provided digital imaging training, and included hands-on activities with scanners, cameras, image-manipulation software, and metadata creation. The concept of Web 2.0 was introduced during the fifth institute.

The core curriculum used throughout the institutes consisted of a leadership assessment tool, the Pamoja cultural simulation game, partnership projects, and presentation sessions, including "What It Means to Lead in the International Library World," "Strategies and Skills for Cross-Cultural Communication," and "Disaster Preparedness."

The Pamoja game helped establish a sense of trust, so that participants felt comfortable speaking their minds in a multicultural, multinational group.

"That game is sort of a simulation where people develop their own countries and then they have to exchange information. What it develops is a feeling of trust and cooperation and partnership, because people have to work together in their countries to be able to achieve anything. It’s always very popular and people have a great time, and really the atmosphere changes after that," said Schnuer.

The first institute served as a test, and subsequent institutes were changed based on the lessons learned.

"What we found was that the international librarians liked certain parts of the institute that the U.S. librarians didn’t like, and vice-versa," explained Schnuer. "So we had managed to create almost two parallel types of institutes, but we weren’t accomplishing our purpose, which was to bring people together over a topic and exchange information. So we revamped our plan, and we were able to get there over the next two or three institutes."

Making Connections

The project created new links between librarians of different countries and broadened the perspectives of participants. Canadian librarian Connie Forst wrote in the Library Leaders blog that the institute made her aware how important diversity and multiculturalism are for libraries and communities.

"Thinking Outside the Borders was a chance for me to challenge my thoughts about leadership, not only within my own borders, but to examine cultural biases as well. I learned so much about other libraries and librarians from around the world. While my day-to-day focus may be local, my experience from attending the institute definitely stretches beyond."

In addition, the grant project produced a 178-page professional development book, Thinking Outside the Borders: Library Leadership in a World Community (PDF, 8.9 MB). This guide, which is available online, helps libraries develop their own leadership institutes with an international perspective.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

During the project, the state library agency contended with shrinking budgets and staffs. The logistics involved in planning and conducting a major conference became burdensome in terms of time management.

Language sometimes was a challenge, and the team used translators when needed. "In a couple of the institutes, the librarians that we brought from other countries were all Spanish speaking, so we did some of the sessions in Spanish and some in English—which of course was also interesting for the U.S. participants," said Schnuer. "And sometimes we had a discussion that would start in English and go into Spanish. We had some interesting moments as we worked through some of that."

The sheer number of people involved from various countries presented its own challenges. However, there were benefits to the wide diversity. "Working with all of these partners really enriched the project because we had so many different ideas and approaches," said Ford.

The team also learned that, in terms of organizing the institute, the context of the discussions, and the setting of the event were crucial to success.

"You need to move outside of the United States context; you need to try to have a level playing field, so it’s not someone telling someone else how things should go. You want people to interact; and you need a time and a place where people feel comfortable doing that," said Ford. "The venues were very important. We held one of the institutes at a rural retreat area here [in Illinois], which was very nice because people were really free to interact and have meals together."

Far-Reaching Impact

Thinking Outside the Borders has inspired activity around the globe, from the creation of a similar institute in South Africa at the University of Pretoria to an ongoing digital imaging technology training program for international librarians at the Illinois State Library. Many participants from the six U.S. institutes are working on joint projects, others have informal information-sharing relationships, and some have even invited one another to visit.

Overall, the institutes have given participants a deeper understanding of how libraries operate in other countries and the ability to utilize cross-cultural communication networks and strategies. For U.S. librarians, the result is that they will be able to help more people in more ways.

"Part of what happens is the librarians go back and have a broader perspective," said Ford. "So they might change how they organize certain types of information. They might do outreach; since we did focus a lot on Spanish-speaking populations, they might do some additional outreach to Spanish speakers or new immigrants. They might use some of their contacts, as I know some of them did, with colleagues in Latin America to get information or resources to offer to their users. So there are direct impacts to people who use our libraries."

National Leadership Grants for Libraries