John Hickok

Summer Travel Journal: Mongolia
John Hickok

July 12, 2006


Below you will find my (very belated) May report for Mongolia.

After leaving Mongolia, the pace of my library visits doubled, so compiling and sending my report has been difficult. But here it is, at last!

Mongolia is truly another world. To get there from China, I traveled via the Trans-Mongolian railroad — which feeds into the Trans-Siberian railroad to Russia — across the vast empty lands of the country. Mongolia is huge, but has a very small population proportionately; 50 percent of the country lives in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, and the other 50 percent is sparsely spread about in small towns or farms.

For the past half century, Mongolia has been more closely aligned with its northern, rather than southern, neighbor. Consequently, so much of its look and feel is distinctly Soviet — from the Cyrillic alphabet to the concrete “block” architecture. And, this extends to libraries as well. Many of the librarians I interviewed received their training in Russia, and book collections are still heavy with Russian titles.

But since the 1990s, when the Soviet Union and its direct aid dissolved, changes have taken place. Most libraries in recent years have switched from the old Russian classification to Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC). And English-language books are now filling the shelves. What a difference a decade makes!
But there are many challenges. Funding is incredibly small at all libraries, both public and private. Physical space is another problem — many libraries are still using original rooms and facilities built in the 1920s-1940s. And while automation is making progress (e.g, barcode circulation), there are many needs: not enough computers, limited Internet access, no databases, etc.

A surprise in Mongolia is the tradition of public libraries. There is a network of them throughout the country, even in small villages. Of course, they may not be much more than a small reading room of some books or newspapers, but at least the tradition is there, and literacy is promoted. When I visited a small town library, an entire class of school children were using it to do their reading/homework. Schools don’t always have their own libraries, or if they do, the collection may just be textbooks or donated books.

Though literacy may be common, Information Literacy (IL) is still far behind. Libraries are still considered merely “repositories of books” or study halls, rather than active places of consultation and research. Library orientations to new students are offered, but other than brief orientations to new students, ongoing IL instruction is absent.

Overall, Mongolia definitely has hurdles ahead — chiefly the limited funding/facilities — but it is moving in the right direction.

Regards from Asia,

Standing in front of one of the main University of Mongolia buildings, complete with a Stalin-esque statue. And yes, that is snow — in May!  Brrr … having been in tropical Southeast Asia for so long, I didn’t have much winter clothing!

Snow in Mongolia

Visiting a Mongolian school library. The school was an all-grade school (K-12), but mostly contained high school-level textbooks, unfortunately. It was a delight to interact with these students.

Hickok with Mongolian School Children

In the lobby of Ulaanbaatar’s public library. The murals were quite the icons! A mix of Mongolian ethnic heritage and Russian/Communist ideology. Ironically, right under the Lenin mural is the “American Corner” — a room of books and resources on America, provided by the U.S. Embassy.

Library Mural in Mongolia

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