Internship Week 6: Managing Your Learning

It’s been a steady and intense week and I’ve found myself going into the office and then leaving a work day later to ask: where did the time go? As with any activity requiring you fill a position, be it an internship, job, class, or otherwise, the initial dustiness settles and things become normalized. But in such normalization, we tend to learn more about who we are as workers, what we’ve been doing wrong, what we’ve been doing right, and what we’ve taken for granted. Actually, I’ve been paying attention to “taking things for granted” quite a bit because it’s related, extensively, to culture shock. Culture shock tends to strike the hearts of transplants after a couple of months, after the craziness of the new location becomes regular, regulated, and tolerable. I can drive in traffic now without so much as batting an eye, even when I’m almost getting run over. I can go to a food vendor an understand the chances of that food vendor and I not being able to thoroughly communicate. I am starting to get adjusted to politics, both with government but with everyday life.

Of course, I’m still learning about everything, but I can sense myself coming to terms with life in Cambodia regardless of how well I know them. I’m starting to live life in a more static way. I’m okay with not going out as much. I’m okay with not spending as much time studying the language. I’m okay with watching Western films and reading articles on Western libraries. I’m okay with eating a cupcake or a doughnut or all the sorts of food I got sent from the USA by my loving mother in a recent care package. These are the amends, the agreements, people make to “feel okay.” To feel secure. To serve as a reminder that I’m not just some adventurer in a foreign land, but a guy with a history in my own country, with a behavior and interests that extend previous to (and most likely in succession to) that which I’m exploring here. It is all about balance.

That of course is not to say that I am not longer interested in Cambodia! In fact, the more meaningful relationships, the friendships that are starting to become more complex, are being born as we speak. Whether they are with my coworkers, the expats I’ve met through work or through personal life, the Cambodians I’ve met through work or personal life, or otherwise, I’m starting to learn more about everyone and understand how our timelines interact. Like a dance, the lifestyle I have adopted is one of mitigation and intersection. Being careful not to overwhelm myself but also trying not to control every action and activity, are various elements of my life here I try to foster and encourage. That being said, I have always been slightly stubborn and slightly selfish, and my drive to do new things is often dictated by what is most interesting to me. But in most cases, I sit back and enjoy the ride as it’s being created by others.

What You’ve Set Out to Do

I haven’t really gotten into the thick of the internship, but here it is, in all the gritty details (well, almost). What I’ve set out to do includes revising the library, improving the design of the library, creating a workflow for library resource allocation/selection, conducting outreach for the library for the identification of partners and collaborators, engaging in social media for the promotion of the library (and the organization as a whole), encouraging the efforts toward the taxonomy and other organizational methods being used within the website as a whole (including geo-tagging, linked data and content crossover), and assisting the team where they need help.

I enter the office Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The first thing I do is catch up on local and international news. Maybe I’ll read a transformative library article. Maybe I’ll discover a new source of documents for the library. Who knows! I follow over 100 blogs in my RSS reader, and it takes about an hour each day and an hour each night to review everything. Sound like a lot? It sure is, but it’s served me well and keeps my sightseeing capabilities in full throttle.

After browsing the swarms of content, I work on the catalog. The catalog has almost 1,050 records in it. I’ve been systematically going through every record individually to clean up grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes. And non-descriptive records need to get made more descriptive. And records need their fields cleaned up. There’s still the question of geo-tagging. There’s still the question of taxonomy implementation. That will happen next, in November. And beyond, the translation of all records from English to Khmer . . . potentially a pipe-dream, but it can be done long-term. For now, it’s all about baseline editorial work from the librarian perspective. It’s gruesome and often brutal how minute the edits are, but it gives me a chance to zone out into the world of music I’ve been snagging since being here.

It takes about 1.5-2 hours (undisrupted) to go through an entire Last Name Initial worth of records. I’m done with “O.” It’s been many hours, and disruptions and distractions are numerous. But that leads me to additional work: meetings. Meetings are constant, and they are typically long. I will go out on a limb and admit that ODC’s meetings are a bit longer than is comfortable, and, respectfully, a bit longer than necessary. I think that everyone on the team knows this, and we’re all struggling to find more efficient and direct ways for getting tasks completed (but also reviewed) without elongation. I do believe that the meetings will get shorter. I do believe that a constant push-back on the length of meetings will help achieve this goal.

During meetings I lend thoughts and opinions and am supportive when necessary. In many meetings I am silent–not because I have nothing to say, but because I value the perspectives and opinions and directions of the Cambodians on the team. I will claim no expertise in any skill-set I have, and while I do think that I may have some knowledge that the others do not, at times I struggle with choosing to focus on my skills over the others. Like jobs I’ve had in the past, admitting your knowledge will create more work for you. As will be described in the section below, having additional work can often detract from your primary responsibilities. And if the core reason for being in the position you’re in is jeopardized, you will have to face disappointment at the end of the position. I struggle (in a good way) to make sure I help where I can but stay on track with what I am mostly interested in and involved with: the library.

When I’m not working on the catalog and throwing in my 100 riel at meetings, I’m tying to make the library website prettier and more usable. I love UX and I love theories on UI and I love the ability to make libraries (and anything, for that matter) sexy. Or sexier. Libraries are always sexy, but that’s obviously a bias. From the verbiage to the language, the library has needed a drastic overhaul for a while. There are many non-functioning elements on the library site as well, which need to be removed. The library, in effect, can get simpler and be easier to use for everyone. I work with the awesome IT team to accomplish this, since most of the editing involves coding expertise. I could probably make the modifications on my own, but collaborating with the IT experts is one of the subtle joys at the office.

And that’s it, really. Those are the three tasks that occur often enough to call them “my regular work.” But it’s not all I do. And in fact, if it was all I did, it would be perfectly fine, but it wouldn’t reflect my own strengths and curiosities . . . it would be a static internship that would probably pass by with the only significance being the results returned on the final day.

Confronting What You Least Expect

What the internship becomes about is something greater, something much more dynamic. It’s all about confronting what you don’t expect. Situations previously-reported regarding TechCamp and BarCamp are great examples. Communicating with researchers and discovering possible partners through seemingly-random social encounters are great examples too. But while many experiences can serve as successes, there are many we can look at as failures. Failure, for those of you who have never talked with me about it, is something I believe in strongly. As an occurrence that one can learn a lot from, and that one must encounter if they really wish to grow holistically.

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Here’s a short story about a fairly brief and painless failure I encountered earlier this week. I must preface this story by saying that others might not see it as a failure, but I certainly do. And I’m sticking to it.

The story is about the October Open House that ODC through for around 20 invited participants from NGOs, international governments, and individuals. The evening was a great success. As you can see in the above picture, there were some enthusiastic visitors who got to know a lot about ODC by coming to the office, listening to several presentations from the head honchos (Terry and Try) and the lead editor (Viceth) and the the outreach coordinator (Penhleak). Even more thrilling was the ability to visit the work spaces of the individual teams and see where the website was being made. That’s right, they visited our desks and were introduced to each team independently.

So what happened? People obviously came up to me, library intern extraordinaire, and heard my elevator speech on the library. There were probably four or five groups of audiences I was privy to communicating with. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and feel like I was able to give some great information out to visitors who legitimately needed it. There are several researchers who plan on contacting ODC in the future for further information specifically found in the library That’s great! Everything was going well, but then I was approached by a young man who asked, “What is your policy for presenting information on the website that is wrong, inaccurate, or misleading?” And: “Will you remove information that is wrong if you discover it is wrong?” And: “How do you verify that your documents are in the public domain? Do you have a process in place?”

I froze up. These are the questions you always read about in scholarly journals, hear about in your LIS course lectures, dream about being an expert on. But I realized I had fundamentally forgotten to prepare myself for these questions. In fact, every librarian in a public position should be able to have the FAQ for their library, and variations to account for being all-types-realistic, tattooed in their mind. I froze up and really wasn’t able to give a great answer. Not even a bullshit answer. I had to turn to colleagues, some of whom I didn’t even really know, some of whom weren’t even in the room, and say: “This is a question for X.” Yes, embarrassing. In Khmer, the phrase “I don’t know is” “Knyom ort yol te.” It was an ort yol te moment for me.

These things, I know, happen all the time. And in some cases it’s even more complicated. In some situations and jobs in my past there have been coworkers, some of which have been higher up in authority than me, who have said things that were simply incorrect. I’ve had to struggle with correcting them or letting the misinformation be spread for the sake of politics. I hate lying. I hate admitting I do not know. But we are not perfect. And we can not anticipate everything. The failure of not knowing to anticipate the questions asked at the open house serves as a firm reminder that many discussions need to take place, even those where I’m the only participant, in order to get a baseline understanding of how the ODC library fits in with all the theoretical that has been branded in me. I firmly believe that failures in communication and having the knowledge to support the “product” I represent are the best forms of failure. As an intern I get the intern pass, the card that says, “I’m new here, so please understand if I mess up.” Obviously that luxury won’t exist in an actual job. And obviously that luxury probably won’t fly in a month from now. Which is why the open houses and the conferences and the communications that are least expected are the ones I cherish the most. Even if there are negative emotions attached, due to embarrassment/ignorance/etc etc.

The conversation here is one that can continue on and on until the end of time, but I will leave it there for now. I think it requires a revisiting, the themes anyway, at the end of the quarter. Next time I plan on writing a little bit about cross-culturation, team communication, and subject knowledge. These ideas are all complicated and haven’t really been approached in this blog thoroughly. And so next week they will be.

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