As you may or may not know, I’m ultimately interested in becoming a subject librarian. More on this (hopefully) in a later blog post, but for now what you need to know is that a subject librarian is responsible for a specific area of study. For example, I want to be a Southeast Asia subject librarian, meaning that I would be responsible for materials from and about Southeast Asia.
This summer, I’m interning at the Library of Congress’s office in Jakarta, Indonesia. This has been a fantastic internship so far. I’m learning a lot and I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to experience different aspects of work in a field office. Earlier in the month, I spent a bit of time working on acquisitions in Thailand. Currently, I’m on an acquisitions trip in Central Java, Indonesia, which has mainly involved hunting out books that aren’t commercially sold.
This work has been particularly eye-opening for me. Here are some things I’ve learned so far:
1. You don’t need as much of a foreign language as you think
In anticipation of becoming a subject librarian, I started taking Thai last year. With two semesters of Thai under my belt, though, I’m still nowhere near to being able to converse in a professional setting. I was lucky to be able to express dietary restrictions when ordering food. Despite this, I was able to acquire a good amount of interesting books all in Thai.
First and foremost, I had to put myself out there. I had to go to university offices and bookstores and use English and bad Thai until I was directed to the right place. Then I had to figure out which books would be useful to collect, which usually meant perusing bibliographies in the backs of them, since my Thai reading skills are also lacking.
The surprising thing was that it worked. I was able to find books all in Thai without really any Thai language skills. Are language skills useful? Yes. I speak Indonesian and I’m much more efficient and able to go more places in Indonesia. But if you’re working in a secondary country without that language, it’s still possible to get things done.
2. Sometimes you don’t need letters
In Thailand, I did not give institutions any notice ahead of time that I was coming to look for books. For the most part, this worked out. I explored various faculties at a university and was able to find the university bookstore and other university institutions without too much trouble. The offices were also willing to work with me to get me what I needed.
This was something of a surprise to me, because I’m used to working in Indonesia where there is a lot of bureaucracy. I suspect this is the case in Thailand too, but I think the takeaway message is that a lot depends on context. In Thailand, I didn’t try to go anywhere too formal that would have required a letter head of time. Thus, everything worked out.
3. Sometimes you do need letters
In Central Java, we’ve been using letters everywhere we go. We’ve been going to a lot of small governmental offices and other rather formal places. To get anything done at one of these, you absolutely need a letter spelling out who you are, when you’re going to go to the office, and what you want from them. The letter is also helpful for you, because if you list the books that you want ahead of time, there’s a good chance that someone in the office will already have them waiting for you when you arrive.
4. You won’t always get what you want
That said, even with a letter things won’t always go your way. Though most of the time we’ve had success, there are some offices that have just told us they won’t give us anything either because they’re all out of copies or because they think we need to get permission from higher up in the government.
Indonesia is also currently undergoing a huge shift to digital publishing, which is not so good for the Library of Congress, which still wants to collect physical copies. A big refrain I’ve heard while out and about is, “Oh, check on our website. We’ve got everything uploaded there already!”
5. There’s so much publishing going on
Probably the most eye-opening aspect of this trip for me has been seeing just how much publishing there is going on. A lot of the offices we’ve visited have been offices that I’ve vaguely known about for some time. For the most part, though, I didn’t know that they had their own publications and that they’re regularly producing more and more material. And we haven’t even touched on NGO’s yet. Multiply that across all the provinces in Indonesia and that’s already a full-time task. Clearly acquisitions in Southeast Asia is complex, and I’m excited to keep learning!
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Featured image from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on Flickr.