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Librarian Shares Asian Experiences
lLibrarian chronicles his journey to different Asian countries assessing university libraries' conditions, services and holding.

September 29, 2005

To better understand the research needs of international students, as well as equipping Cal State Fullerton students studying abroad, librarian John Hickok has embarked on a yearlong sabbatical in Asia, where he will assess university libraries — conditions, services and holdings. He departed July 28 for Indonesia, where he spent the month of August.

Hickok’s itinerary has him traveling to a different country each month. This month he is in the Philippines, followed by Singapore and Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

When he returns, Hickok hopes to develop a booklet for students planning to study abroad that would have photos and information as to what kind of services to expect and whether they’re free. He’ll also offer specialized workshops for exchange students on the features and expectations of American libraries — in partnership with Robert Erickson, director of international education and exchange — and develop a comparative analysis of U.S. and Asian libraries.

What follows is the first of a series of monthly “recaps” of his experience that he shared with his Pollak library coworkers.

I am completing my first country here in Asia: Indonesia.

It’s too bad Indonesia’s reputation has been maligned with incidents of terrorists, because the other 99 percent of the population are the most friendly and welcoming imaginable. I have been received with incredibly hospitable receptions.

My itinerary of library visits has been as follows: Jakarta, the smog- and traffic-choked capital — unbelievable; even worse than L.A. at rush hour; Bandung, a university suburb two hours from Jakarta, and Medan, Sumatra (by plane; it’s the northernmost island, where the tsunami hit); Yogyakarta, in central Java, and site of breathtaking pre-Islam Hindu and Buddhist temples; Surabaya, in eastern Java, the second largest city and rival to Jakarta; and Bali, the resort island next to Java — yes, there’s actually a university there, besides all the surfing/snorkeling resorts.

My agenda at each university has been similar. I meet with the library director and conduct an interview, then meet with the staff and have a Q&A session — or give them a presentation about libraries in the U.S., as they sometimes request — then tour their operations and facilities.

Overall, the university libraries in Indonesia are attempting to keep up with international standards — they have many of the same modernizations (online catalogs, Internet access, etc.). But they also have many struggles and challenges too. Here are a few:

• A nonprofessional perception. Librarians are considered merely clerks or workers, not information professionals. As more masters-level librarians are produced, this might change. But, on the other hand, it may go slowly; enrollment in graduate library programs in Indonesia is low because the eventual pay and respect is low.

• No consistent software/automation. In the U.S., we enjoy the fact that many universities use common (or similar) software for online catalogs. Not so here. Commercial software is too expensive to buy/license, so universities have created their own, in-house online catalogs from scratch (IT programmers). That means all universities have different systems, making linked-catalogs or interlibrary loans practically impossible.

• Very little library user education. A one-hour presentation about the library for new students during orientation week is about the only formal library instruction offered. Workshops? Not common. Bibliographic instruction for professors’ classes? Almost never. There is still the very strong tradition that professors do the teaching, and the library is only a repository to pick up books (the problem with this is that professors don’t teach research skills, so students are left to struggle on their own).

There are other challenges too (as I’m compiling in all my data). On the upside, however, there are some very promising circumstances I’ve seen:
• Proactive library directors. Many library directors who received their training in the U.S. or U.K. have made great strides in bringing in contemporary features, such as, student ID/barcode circulation.

• A commitment to Web-based online catalogs. Nearly all universities either already have, or are working on, making their online catalogs Web accessible.

All this, of course, is only a very abbreviated summary. There has been so much I’ve gathered data on. I’ve visited over 20 libraries in only 30 days (including conducting all the interviews with the directors, staff and tours of their facilities). Quite an intense schedule. But I’m loving it; the research is fascinating!

Hickok’s subsequent correspondences will be posted online on Dateline Extra.

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