Adventures in Library School: Russian Librarians and Missed Opportunities

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with a delegation of Russian librarians, including the president of the Russian Library Association and the Deputy Dean of the St. Petersburg University of Culture. They were here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the Third Meeting of the US-Russia Dialogue on the Civic Role of Libraries in the 21st Century, which I hadn’t known was even a thing. On an intellectual level it made sense that the head of the Russian Library Association was here, since the ALA (American Library Association) is headquartered a corncob-throw away in Chicago and the visitors were interested in how librarians are trained in the United States. Emotionally, however, I’m easily impressed and I bounced into the meeting place eager to learn.

“Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation” just sounds fancy.

Now, I’m an awkward person. I’m very much in my own head and I say a lot of things that are a bit off-kilter because most of my attention is committed to thinking about the most patron-friendly way to shelve a Young Adult series. Living in the moment is not something that I do. I’ve accepted this about myself, so I only felt mildly horrified resignation when I realized that this get together wasn’t to hear a brief presentation about Russian libraries and the importance of international cooperation. Instead, my fellow students and I would be answering questions about our library experiences. I had been tricked, and worse yet, only healthy snacks were provided.

I did get some cool swag, though.

My usual story of being from the boonies and committed to bringing quality service to rural libraries didn’t play well with this crowd, two of whom were from Siberia and entirely unimpressed by my tales of having to wait three days for Amazon Prime deliveries instead of the advertised two. Luckily, some of the more interesting members of my cohort were there as well: Shannon, who is building libraries in Congo, and Simone, who has worked for the Chicago Public Library in their teen program. The Russian delegates were especially interested in what Simone had to say, since the Chicago Public Library is a trailblazer in youth programming (read about CPL’s YOUmedia here). I breathed a sigh of relief, happy to hide behind the better-prepared.

In an apparent bit of synchronicity, I had just received the latest issue of Libraries: Culture, History, and Society, the official peer-reviewed journal of the Library History Round Table of the American Library Association, and it had an article about libraries in Russia (“Perestroika in the Stacks: Independent Library Associations in Moscow and Leningrad” by Kelly A. Kolar). I don’t link it here because it’s behind a paywall, but it should be readily available through the university of your choice. It discusses what happened to Soviet, and then Russian, libraries in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a good article and worth the read. I was pleasantly surprised to get the journal in the mail—I had joined the Library History Round Table last spring because they had been nice to me and I was grateful. This is an impulse I should try to reign in before I end up joining a cult because someone compliments my shoes.

I had read this article before going to the meeting, with the idea of gaining some context for the presentation that never came. Nothing ever goes entirely according to plan, of course, but in this case I was especially disappointed—if I had thought about it ahead of time (or if I were better at improv) I could have asked some intelligent questions. I might have been able to arrange an interview for this very article! There’s nothing to be done about it now, so I have resolved to be more alert for opportunities, and to keep a few general questions on my phone so that I have a fallback the next time I meet someone interesting and panic.

If you had found yourself in my shoes, what would you have asked them?

Images are by the author.

Emily is a first-year graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is seeking recommendations for the best place to get library tattoos done.

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