I just finished a study abroad program in the Netherlands with my school, the University of Washington. The course topic was innovation in the cultural heritage sector with both honors undergraduates and MLIS students. We stayed in Amsterdam for two weeks and in Delft for another two, for a total of four weeks in the Netherlands. We visited numerous museums, archives, and public, special, and academic libraries. Each site tour and lecture was informative and interesting, shaping my understanding of all these institutions can do. I am so thankful I went on this trip as I learned much personally and professionally, especially since this was my first time studying abroad and traveling outside North America.
While I do try to write from my experiences in away that can be applicable in a more general way, I will be speaking from my experience in the Netherlands as an able-bodied, cis-gender, white woman. The Netherlands is a country where most people speak excellent English, where it is safe, and similar to my home of Seattle in many ways. Thus, this post will not consider some specific aspects of traveling to vastly different countries and traveling as someone with different abilities or identities.
The course focus of innovation lent itself to studying in a different country, however, studying other subjects away from home can also be beneficial. Being immersed in a different culture while learning about something new allows one to see the different ways it can be approached. Whether this be done through site visits, lectures from professors of the local universities, experiential learning, or a mix of these, there is so much to be learned directly from this and having one’s own assumptions challenged. For my program, seeing the variety of things libraries, archives, and museums are doing in the Netherlands served as expanded ideas of what they can do. Upon being greeted by a cafe and a delightfully eclectic style when entering the Delft Public Library, one of my undergraduate classmates exclaimed, “this isn’t a library!”. In the libraries we visited, the move away from monographic collections towards different uses of space was not something to decry but an opportunity to pursue the goals of libraries in more creative, and often better, ways.
The perspective shifts gained on whatever topic being studied does not have to stay isolated to the course content; cross-pollination of ideas and frameworks can melt into other personal and professional areas. So many questions are implicitly asked of one when traveling, like “what do I assume is true, what ways of thinking do I stay in, how do I attach value judgements to these, how does this impact my work and personal life?” that really force one to re-evaluate not just what one is studying but many other aspects of life as well. People are not siloed creatures, and growth and development in one aspect of life impacts the rest of it. This especially true for most information professionals whose work requires bringing your entire self to coworkers and clients, patrons, or users. For example, while I was not really interested in art before this trip, going to the Van Gogh Museum and learning about Van Gogh’s process, artistic growth, influences, and how his mental health impacted his work has deepened my appreciation and curiosity about art. How this will come through in my professional work will remain to be seen, but I am so thankful for getting to incorporate this into my personal interests and understandings.
Travel is wonderful but not without some work. One of the biggest barriers to studying abroad is cost. I was able to go on this program thanks to a scholarship, but it was still expensive. The program costs and the plane tickets were a significant consideration. I also wanted to try new foods, buy books, and go to other museums and attractions that were not included in the program. I wish I had better accounted for how much I would want to spend and this is something to keep in mind next time I travel abroad.
The other challenge of this program was how busy we were from the start of the course. There were assignments, numerous readings, and site visits in the first week. It was exhausting and I felt I was constantly playing catch-up. As someone who struggles with anxiety, such a schedule heightened my anxiety and ability to manage it, something that affected how I interacted with my classmates, my energy, and how much I enjoyed what we did every day.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, trips to other countries will present their own challenges for language, safety, ability to get around, etc. Any good program will prepare students for this before departure and students also need to do their own research. Did you or will you study abroad while an MLIS student? Where to? What did you study?
Hanna Roseen is a first year residential MLIS student at the University of Washington with interest in public librarianship and archives. She just completed a study abroad program examining how innovation works in library, information, and museum services, practices, and designs in the Netherlands. Read about her shenanigans and learning here