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A School Library Tour in Central Ohio Leads to a School Library Visit to Central Asia

By: Annie Ruefle, Library Media Specialist at Columbus School for Girls 

In August of 2016, Columbus played host to IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations – the largest international association of librarians in the world. Though most of IFLA members are public or academic librarians, school librarians also are members of IFLA, and dozens arrived in Columbus last summer. Arrangements were made for two groups of school librarians to tour local school libraries, and my school, Columbus School for Girls, was part of the arranged tours. We hosted school librarians from places such as Singapore, Africa, Canada, Japan, South America, and the Philippines. In one of the groups were three school librarians from Kazakhstan . After the “official” tour ended, the librarians from Kazakhstan lingered behind to continue the conversations, and we all decided to ago out to dinner together. Despite the fact that there were obvious language differences, one of the Kazakh librarian’s English was so strong she easily moved us through English and Russian and we had a lovely evening together. At the end of the dinner, the librarians from Kazakhstan extended an invitation to my CSG library colleague, Dr. Linda Swarlis, to come to Kazakhstan in 2017 to share her expertise of research and spatial skills by presenting a workshop to school librarians from across Kazakhstan.

After Dr. Swarlis and our contacts in Kazakhstan waded through months of discussion and international red tape, I was also included in the invitation for the workshop, and from June 11-18, Linda Swarlis and I traveled across the world to give a three-day workshop entitled Creating a Culture of Literacy: the promotion of reading and spatial skills development in STEM Schools. We flew to Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, which is the 9th largest country in the world.

Our Kazakhstan colleagues requested that our workshop provide both theory and practice; they wanted as many hands-on activities as possible, and they were particularly interested in learning about reading promotions. We submitted our presentations via Google docs several weeks before our workshop so that the presentations and handouts could be translated into Russian.

We presented to a group of 40 librarians, all of whom work at Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS), a network of schools across the country that provide a rigorous curriculum to students who are accepted to the schools only after an intense application process. Instruction is trilingual, in Kazakh, Russian and English. By 12th grade, all instruction is in English. Each of the NIS school has a specific focus, such as physical science and mathematics, or biological sciences and chemistry. The schools are state of the art and the librarians receive extensive professional development opportunities.

The librarians traveled from across Kazakhstan to attend our workshop, some of them traveling more than 1,500 miles. As librarians in NIS, they work with reading promotion as well as developing information literacy and research skills in their students– much like the work of school librarians across America. In fact, our visit underscored the many similarities in our library programs. 70% of their collection is in English, and the Kazakh students love to read American favorites such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the Hunger Games, and Harry Potter.

The librarians had varying degrees of English language skills, so we presented by speaking for a minute or two, and then an interpreter would translate into Russian. We also made use of two screens, one in Russian and one in English, so everyone could follow along both visually as well as orally. I admit I was nervous about this process, but within just a few minutes of beginning the workshop, the translator and I got into a rhythm and it felt quite natural to move between English and Russian.

Workshop participants enjoyed guessing titles of books, practicing spatial visualization with blocks and tangrams, creating art from discarded books, and writing blurbs for a Blind Date with a Book event. We also played several literary games during the workshop, and competition is the same in any language — these librarians wanted to win any game we played!

To say that it was an extraordinary experience is an understatement: everything about the trip was amazing. In addition to giving a three-day workshop, we had opportunities to tour various cultural and entertainments centers. The 2017 World Expo is currently being held in Kazakhstan, and visitors from all over the world are visiting to tour this remarkable Expo; we spent five hours at the Expo and barely made a dent in the seeing the exhibits. And every night we had a two to three hour feast for dinner – the food and the company were equally scrumptious.

Before we went to Kazakhstan, my colleague and I prepared for our visit by reading about the country (we are librarians, after all – we research!) Every source told us that hospitality is central to Kazakhstan culture, but neither of us has experienced anything quite like the graciousness, generosity, and attentiveness of the Kazakh people. Hospitality is not just a matter of being polite and offering food; it is truly the essence of their way of life, and we were overwhelmed by the warmth and friendship conveyed to us.

We hope to continue our connection with our new colleagues and friends in Kazakhstan by inviting a group of Kazakh librarians to Central Ohio next summer. We are hopeful some OELMA friends might offer to host a librarian from several continents away; I promise it will be an unforgettable way to connect with a library colleague whose world is not so very different from our own.