If I say. . .
wax print boubous
taxis and car rapides
. . . do you know where we are? We’re in Senegal and I want to tell you about a very unique opportunity I had while there.
For the months of June and July, I spent my time working at the West African Research Center’s (WARC) Library in Senegal’s capital city, Dakar. This institution hosts an annual fellowship for a qualified candidate interested in forwarding Africana librarianship. This means that the eligible candidate has a demonstrated interest in both Africana studies and also Library and Information Science. Moreover, a competitive candidate will have significant competency in the French language. The chosen fellow is granted a round-trip plane ticket from his or her city of departure and a $2,500 stipend intended to cover the costs of a six-eight week stay in Dakar. Find out more about WARA/WARC and its annual award here. In a mini, bulleted, 21st century listicle, here are a few words about my experience there, summer 2016.
Top Three Benefits
- International network. Having spent two months working with a staff of ten Senegalese professionals and developing working relationships with each of them, I now have access to a new set of colleagues on another continent who will share opportunities with me, with whom I can collaborate, and whose support I can depend on throughout the duration of my career. This type of loyalty and authentic camaraderie is not easily duplicated.
- Intercultural competency. Half of the experience involved work within a library setting. The other half involved me getting to know what it is like to live with a Senegalese family, learning how to negotiate prices for taxi fares and souvenirs in open air markets, washing clothes by hand, sleeping under a mosquito net, and learning about teranga, Senegalese hospitality. As the likelihood is high that I will be working with many people who come from different parts of Africa, knowing what some of their lifestyles are like affords me unique insight into their culture(s).
- Practical experience. While my main responsibility was to create digital records for new acquisitions, I had ideas about how our collection could be improved. The best of these was to draft a collection development policy that established standards in terms of the types of donations the library would accept. Having previously worked largely in outreach, it was my privilege to broaden the scope of my LIS horizons and to help shape policies that would enhance quality access to materials of good condition and strong relevancy. The work I did in this effort will certainly inform future efforts of a similar kind.
Top Three Challenges
- Language barrier. While French is Senegal’s former colonial language, the predominant language in the region is Wolof. One can certainly get by with French in Dakar, but demonstrating some degree of competency in the local, native tongue is admirable and appreciated. Moreover, intimately knowing another culture may in fact require knowing the tongue.
- Going it alone. For study abroad programs, many Westerners travel in groups of twenty, thirty, or forty people. With this particular program, the fellow is a party of one. So, in the absence of a cohort, the fellow must make an extra effort to seek out peers, expats, and friends. My “ambiversion” made this possible for me. However, more introverted souls might struggle without a built-in social unit.
- Developing world challenges: It is important to realize that the libraries we are used to in the United States are not identical to the ones we will encounter abroad. Be prepared to have your ideas challenged about every aspect of librarianship: cataloging, collection development, reference, information and communication technology (ICTs) access, etc. For example, this library uses the Dewey Decimal system; its new acquisitions are donations; its reference consultations are brief and public; and while wifi is available, there are only five laptops dedicated to public use. Moreover, power outages interrupt access and allergens like dust abound. Would I recommend this opportunity? I would not recommend it to just anyone. Future participants will succeed if they demonstrate high levels of resolve, patience, adaptability, and problem-solving skills. If that sounds like you and you are interested in promoting discourses surrounding Africa, I say apply.
If this opportunity interests you, this type of librarianship, and/or this region of the world, you can read more about my time in Dakar here and look for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Center for African Studies’ Habari Fall 2016 Newsletter that will provide even further detail.
Editor’s note: this article was originally published on August 24, 2016.
Katrina Spencer works in Madison, Wisconsin as the university campus’ Diversity Resident Librarian. She is interested in promoting international and area studies collections. For more on her activities, see katleespe.com.