Preparing for the Internship, Preparing for Life in Cambodia

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Greetings! I arrived just under a week ago to Phnom Penh. I had been traveling with my friend, the poet Jason Conger, throughout Southeast Asia for 4.5 weeks prior. We visited Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam. We were in jungles, on islands, in cities, and beyond. I’m still publishing the countless pictures I took from our adventures. After we parted ways, I took the six hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, stayed in a fancy boutique hotel room for a night, and then was ushered into an apartment located near the Senate on Street 63. This was all due to friends of friends and the wonderful budding of a local Cambodian/expat network here. And now I’m here. In Phnom Penh. And for the first time since I’ve arrived, I am starting to put my fingers to the test and write some reflections on myself as a student, as a library enthusiast, and as a lover of all-things-information.

Let’s back up, though. Why did I move to Cambodia? At the University of Washington, where I am a graduate student at the Information School (or iSchool), internships are not required but are encouraged. The DFW, or directed fieldwork, is a for-credit internship aligned with a light academic structure (taking place during a formal academic quarter) that is open enough to accommodate the student and organization/business a la a traditional internship. I wanted to partake in an internship to gain more practical experience, follow up the project management from my independent study at Seward Park, and to continue to apply theory into the tangible universe of librarianship.

Also, I had never studied abroad during my undergraduate years, and I had always felt a bit a guilty for losing out on the opportunity of a lifetime, as so many young students comment. So doing just that, studying librarianship and information management abroad, as a grad student, seemed more than ideal. Plus, money was saved from my time at ADP Cobalt, and I had the logistics and resources to allow me some room for adventure. All the lights were green, the flags said go, and I was off.

Cambodia specifically struck me as a place to go to learn because I did not know much about it. I didn’t know about the people, the culture, the government, the history, or anything, really. It felt like a fresh slate, a clean space, a blank canvas to study and grow. One of my dear friends and collaborators from Philadelphia, Linda Thea, told me a little bit about how her family escaped the Khmer Rouge and was able to relocate to America. That was years ago. Aside from that, nothing. I don’t remember studying Cambodia in high school. I don’t remember watching the Killing Fields growing up. I don’t think I really knew anything about the country. Not even where to find it on a map.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before I would gain that introductory knowledge, where I would invest in knowing about where I would be studying. But first I needed the confirmation that Cambodia would happen for me, that there would be an academic, DFW opportunity here. (Granted, since moving here I realize that every day there are countless opportunities all over this city, and country, but I am a student and I do intend on graduating on time!) Originally, to be honest, I had my eyes on the Singapore National Library Board. Later on, people I told about this idea would say that studying there would have been much like being back in the United States. Whether or not that statement is true is beyond me, but I understand their comments–both the USA and Singapore, to be extremely general, have resources for their national libraries; though I would argue Singapore’s may be a bit more prepared for the future and expectations of the people in the future than the United States’s Library of Congress.

After getting rejected from my proposal to study at the Library Board, I asked my adviser, Marie Potter, if she had any leads. Wanna Net, Cambodian librarian extraordinaire, had actually studied and got his MLIS degree from the same program that I’m in, just a few years ago. This was the contact that would lead to my moving here. Wanna helped me meet Margaret Bywater, who is now my formal adviser over here, and we’ve been exchanging communication ever since, crafting (as they say) a plan or outline for what I’ll be working and who I will be working with over the next few months. Here’s where things get interesting.

Both Wanna and Margaret are staff at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), and they are both doing amazing things there and elsewhere (more on initiatives in Cambodia soon!). Originally they were delighted that I had inquired and wanted to volunteer/intern with them. It was a definite possibility. This agreement, which required a hefty, specific proposal (though I probably overdid it, to be honest), actually happened over the course of a couple of months between late 2012 and early 2013.

Fast-forward to now. As anyone who is following Cambodian News knows, Phnom Penh is a rather busy place, politically speaking. Due to acknowledged corruption and a fairly popular opposition to the current party in government, mass demonstrations/prayers/protests (the term changes by the minute here) are occurring on a regular basis and a degree of tension fills the air. How does this affect my upcoming DFW? In significant ways.

Originally I was supposed to study and work on projects at RUPP. Now that political challenges have arisen, I have been denied the internship at RUPP. There are several possible reasons for this, and I do not want to admit to knowing the answer, because clarity is at a minimum at this point. Out of respect to the institution, I won’t go into the details, but if you’re curious about some of the theories I have, please reach out to me. In any case, despite the news above, I am extremely happy to say that all is not lost.

Part of the plan, originally, was to assist Open Development Cambodia (ODC) with their digital library. The ODC deserves an entire post to it on its own, so I won’t go into the details of the organization (in fact, you can read about it on their website, or check out their parent organization, East Meets West, for even more related projects). What was previously a potential supplementary project has now become the spotlight of the DFW. Tomorrow I have a meeting with Margaret and Terry Parnell (the ODC’s project manager) to discuss possibilities. Just for fun, here is a quote from the ODC on what it really is:

Open Development Cambodia is an online hub compiling freely available data in a ‘one-stop shop’ to help consolidate access to up-to-date information about Cambodia, using an ‘open data’ approach. By making materials available to all users, the site intends to facilitate stronger communication between public, private and international sectors.

When you think of a digital repository, what does it mean to you? A collection of electronic documents? An aggregation of links? A combination of both? With ODC, I will have the pleasure of truly understanding what it means, with the added benefit–and a big one at that–of understanding Open Access from the inside-out. You often hear about Creative Commons from a legal standpoint, but the processes of ensuring the information is indeed open and not challenging copyright are both elements of an environment I have not yet entered. Plus: Cambodia. What is copyright and ownership like here? Despite the poverty and the immense division between the super rich and the super poor majority, does anyone care about copyright? And if not, does “open” become less related to “copyright” and more related to general “free access.” Keep in mind that Phnom Penh does not have public libraries. There are university libraries, but universities cost money. So how do individuals get access to reading material? How do NGOs discover valuable research? Where do people go for their news and knowledge? Is the phone and tablet here as prominent as in Western countries? I already have been privy to some hints to these questions; however, I am not yet an expert, and will carefully study the information exchange around me over the next few months.

In addition to actually working at ODC (hopefully!), I will be visiting other libraries with Margaret, and trying to find as many different people to talk to as possible. I already have met (through serendipity and otherwise) a variety of amazing individuals, and look forward to continuing to do so. I also have some librarians on-deck to meet up with over the next few months. In the meantime, if you have any questions about my experiences, about the culture, or about information here in Phnmom Penh, please feel free to comment on my blog, or find me on Twitter, or Facebook, and send me comments. I will happily respond! I will be doing the internship through December and will hopefully be in Cambodia through January (and maybe beyond if all things work out!), so there will be plenty of time to think about the broad and the narrow and everything in between.

PS: remember how I toured some countries in Asia? Well they had a lot of libraries in them, so expect to see some writing on the libraries I visited (or failed to visit due to closures) down the road.

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