International Librarians at US Conference

The annual conference of the American Library Association (ALA) welcomed delegates from over 80 countries. Marydee Ojala reports from Anaheim.

Robust international programme

The American Library Association's annual conference, held 18-25 June 2012 in Anaheim, California (yes, across the street from Disneyland), attracted over 15,000 delegates from many different types of libraries. Although this is a gathering of the national US association, it has a surprisingly robust international programme. Almost 500 of the delegates, representing 83 countries, were from outside the US. This led to some interesting cross-cultural sessions.

Some sessions simply introduced the library structure in another country.  Harvard's Brad Schaffner, filling in for Irina Lynden, National Library of Russia, explained the situation in Russia.  Public Libraries must cope with the fact that, although Russian is the only official language, there are another 27 officially recognised languages, and 100 minority languages.  The National Library of Russia is complemented by two other national libraries.  The newest is the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library, designed to be an electronic collection, digitising materials from Russian archives and libraries.

Isaiah Munyoro, Director of the Parliament of Zimbabwe Library described how Parliamentary Constituency Information Centres have been established across the country to inform the public, provide access to parliamentary information, and encourage participation in the democratic process.

Disaster recovery and other unexpected events

Disaster recovery was another international topic. In a session titled 'Expecting the unexpected: libraries respond to profound change', Carol Brandenburg, Lincoln University, and Carolyn Robertson, Christchurch City Libraries, related their experiences during the New Zealand earthquakes. Although they talked about the initial tremors, they noted that aftershocks are still ongoing. Not only did libraries face significant damage, librarians also found the time, resources, and energy to reach out to affected communities, even while coping with extremely difficult personal issues. Their presentation included many photographs of the devastation and recovery efforts.

While not to be filed under disaster recovery, the situation in Egypt for libraries during and after the 'January 25th uprising', as Carolyn Runyon and Meggan Houlihan, American University in Cairo, phrased it, was certainly unexpected. The change in regime changed the University's collection development practices and altered their research priorities. The situation was particularly interesting for Runyon, as she had only arrived to take up her post as the university's Digital Collections Archivist, a few weeks before the revolution began. One of her new projects is University on the Square: Documenting Egypt's 21st Century Revolution. The University's Digital Archive and Research Repository is open access (

Digitisation partnerships

Another session, on international library partnerships, highlighted two digitisation projects where US universities partnered with local entities to digitise endangered collections in Afghanistan and Sudan. Yan Han, University of Arizona, described the logistical issues that confronted his university in its collaborative efforts with the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University to digitise unique Afghan records. The collection they are digitising includes information about the history, economic and cultural heritage of the country (

Han outlined several issues facing the digitisation project. On the logistics side, the files are so large that the entire hard drive must be shipped from Kabul to Tucson. However, the Afghan government doesn't permit this, so people take the hard drives to Europe or New Zealand and ship them to the US from there. This can take six months and pages may be missing. The scanner is old and not large enough to digitise maps. Communication is another problem, since participants in Arizona don't speak the Afghan languages and the Afghans don't know English. Cultural sensitivity and distance add to communication difficulties.

The second project, described by Princeton University's David Magier, concerns manuscripts of an Islamic sect, the Zaydi, which is persecuted in Yemen. These manuscripts are scattered around the country and handed down from father to son. If found by the authorities, they are burned, so members of the sect hide the archives, usually in their homes. The Imam Zayd ibn Ali Cultural Foundation in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, has become a safe haven for them-manuscript owners sneak in late at night to bring them to the centre for digitisation. However, the power supply is not reliable.

The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative is a separate endeavour from Princeton's Digital Library of Islamic Manuscripts and has the Staatsbibliotek Berlin as an additional partner. This is extremely fortunate, because, like the Arizona/Afghanistan project, hard drives from Sana'a must be shipped to the US and similar government restrictions make this impossible to do directly. They can be carried to Berlin and shipped from there. Training also happens in Germany, with both Americans and Yemeni travelling there.

Magier joked that Princeton is "now in year three of a two year project" and hopes that project will not only preserve high value manuscripts but also highlight the plight of the Zaydi.

Both projects have funding from the US National Endowment for the Humanities, but the budgets are rather small for such ambitious digitisation ventures. In addition to logistical hurdles and government red tape, the partnerships face issues regarding trust and cultural disparities. In Yemen, said Magier, it's important to overcome worries about neo-colonialism and stress that nothing is leaving the country. The Afghani culture and the fact that it is Islamic texts being digitised led to some friction between the Kabul and Tucson partners. In the long run, the beneficial nature of the projects and the promise of preserving endangered texts for future study makes all the ups and downs of international collaborations worthwhile.

Marydee Ojala edits ONLINE: Exploring Technology & Resources for Information Professionals and is a frequent speaker at international conferences such as Internet Librarian International. 

Image of flags courtesy of rubberpaw via Flickr.