Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Celia Emmelhainz.
Originally published on May 2, 2014
When you’re worn out by your studies and dreaming of your future post-MLIS life, many library students start to imagine what it would be like to travel somewhere far, far away. With a beach, ideally, and palm trees, and a small waterproof hut for our books and technology. If you’re looking outward to the rest of the world for library opportunities, the first thing I’d do is to encourage you to go for it! If you’re looking, Heidi Dowding has shared a great list of international LIS job sites to get you started, Chris Eaker lists some more, and Laura Sanders overviews the international school experience.
In any case, after you’ve applied and started getting interviews, there are several things to keep in mind.
1. The Job Titles Aren’t the Same
I’ve covered this before on my blog: titles layer differently in Asia than in a western institution. A senior manager may sit at a desk and lend books like a student assistant would in an American library; a general director may manage the library director. I’d always recommend you submit an application first and ask questions later if they’re interested in you. You may want to inquire about the meaning and place of your title in the hierarchy, so that you don’t take an ‘assistant’ role that actually involves substantial team management, or a ‘management’ role with ten people who directly watch and give instructions to you!
2. The Workplace Culture is Different
Workplace culture, as I’ve suggested in other places, is a tricky concept. But I don’t find culture mostly in food or clothes – I see it in hidden assumptions about life in the library. Working in Kazakhstan, at times beliefs peek out from underneath a conversation, suggesting that professional women still need to have a child to be fulfilled; that everyone needs to be watched by a supervisor at all times; that long hours are more important than what you do with those hours; and sometimes that promoting local culture is a primary goal of libraries. If you work abroad you’ll be an “expat librarian,” and many of the frustrations we face come when we’re not prepared to deal with differences in implicit expectation, values, and beliefs. It’s helpful to come to work prepared to listen closely and accommodate your colleagues’ assumptions, as well as to share your own background assumptions about the library in a respectful way. Just because you learned an attitude towards work in library school in Chicago doesn’t mean it’s “right” for your new workplace in Shanghai.
3. Your Responsibilities May Differ
Here in Kazakhstan, a core part of the librarian’s role is sometimes to closely guard an inventory of books and ensure that no book is ever without your supervision. Libraries are silent places of study – I have fond memories of my former boss standing up to announce “shumno, rebyata!” (“quiet, kids!”) when whispering commenced among university coeds. In centers of library training like America, Europe, and Malaysia/Singapore, you may have learned to give specialized research or education support. When moving into places like the post-Soviet Union, you could find most of your time spent in counting books, or back-dating and filling out checkboxes on a form. Do go for the interview – but ask carefully about the responsibilities and what percentage of your time is likely to be spent on which tasks. Again I’d emphasize that it’s worth it to go abroad, but your career trajectory and tasks may be *different* from a US-only library career track.
4. Your Job is to Provide Training
Chances are, if you’ve been hired from a ‘developed’ country to work in a ‘developing’ country, part of your job is to provide professional development to local colleagues. This may be the case even if some of them have western MLS degrees and are just as experienced as you. Sometimes the argument that ‘locals need training’ is the only way management can be persuaded to hire foreigners that would add diversity to an already strong team. Most countries (including our own) have require incoming workers to be ‘highly skilled’ and have restrictions on hiring any skilled expatriate workers who could take a job from a local; showing you have some niche training that you can share with others may be of help.
5. Contracts and Benefits May Be Flexible – or Surprisingly Inflexible
It’s common in post-Soviet workplaces to have mandatory set hours: contracts may state that you’re working five or six days per week, 9:00am-6:30pm, with an hour and a half in there for lunch. However, the reality may be that you skip your lunch and stay until 7pm, you come in on the weekend for a Saturday spent raking the lawns, or everyone takes a leisurely breakfast and tea break during work – it’s hard to tell beforehand. Sometimes vacation days or bonuses can only be taken after the first year of work. A good question to ask in a Skype interview is whether they’ve had other expat librarians work with them, and if you can contact those people; or if there have been past misunderstandings with expats and what you could do to avoid that. A question like this may give you a good clue to likely areas of tension, and allow you to sign up for your first post-MLIS job aware of the cultural differences – and ready to enjoy life abroad!
Celia Emmelhainz has worked as a school and university librarian in Kazakhstan, a post-Soviet country located between Russia and China. She has an MA in anthropology, a BA in Russian & sociology, and is finishing up her MLIS this summer. She blogs at dumplingcart.org and enjoys sharing both stories and strategies for living abroad as a librarian in Eurasia.