Internship Week 11: Thinking “International”

Last week I wrote an extensive post after visiting the National Library. I did not receive much feedback (positive or negative) on the post, so that must mean I nailed it, or got everything wrong and no one’s courageous enough to tell me. Either way, I’ll take the silence as a good thing and sprinkle some blame on the fact that the post is huge. Since it is.

This week I’m sitting here in Sihanoukville, which I’m visiting with my friend Suzanne, an Indiana librarian, thinking about the past quarter. It’s been extremely short here, and it’s going to feel the same way at the end of two weeks when my internship is formally over. There is a small chance that I’ll be able to work part-time for the project to train a future librarian, but I do not know what the chance of that is. I’m also going to hopefully be starting work at FCC as a part-time marketer, and a school I applied to work at earlier since being here reached out to me again about employment there. So there are opportunities, is what it comes down to. And I really look forward to making the most of them.

But for now I’m in this internship, and it’s a great internship. One thing that being in Cambodia, both as an intern at ODC but also as an “expat” who has moved and set-up-shop on foreign soil is what it means to be international. Among the many flaws of Americans is the lack of communicating with and understanding the relationship the United States has with its neighbors, Mexico and Canada. My generalizing aside, it’s mostly a question of the many, many people who do not think about the other countries the United States interacts with and is closely related to based on geography, and this is a huge issue. I really started to get a better understanding of the “international paradigm” when I came here, because questions of neighboring interests (Vietnam and Thailand) and regional interests (ASEAN, China, Singapore, for a few examples) are daily conversations.

What does it means to think from an international perspective? What implications does it hold to go beyond the boundaries of your own country, when thinking about daily life, social building blocks, human rights, and libraries? Often the term “melting pot” gets applied to cities like New York and Los Angeles, or in the case of Southeast Asia, the city-country Singapore. Every city by default means there are going to be a series of cultures getting melted into each other. In the case of Cambodia, there’s a lot of migration to and from nearby countries. There is also a lot of investment from countries like China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. There are significant people doing significant things from Western countries as well, and that goes above and beyond the NGO sphere.

“International” not only means keeping up to date with international relations, migrations and those people who have come from another place to live in the country of question, and import-export. International is also an extension of multiculturalism, tolerance for new ideas, things, and cultures. To be “international” means confronting many of the challenges of bringing multiple peoples from multiple countries together.

In the United States there is often angst about illegal immigration coming into the country from Mexico, and it dampens a lot of the potential for a cultural relationship due to grotesque generalizations and depressing elitism. There are issues in Cambodia with illegal Vietnamese immigrants, as well, and as I’ve seen, a lot of aggression toward the Vietnamese that is partially inspired by the Cambodian government and their relationship to the Vietnamese government and investors. There’s aggression toward Thailand as well, fueled by some territorial grievances, as well as illegal logging that has been going on steadily over and beyond the past few decades.

I feel privileged and enlightened to be here, to engage in conversations that involve a much higher degree of global awareness than most of my situations when I was in the United State. The USA is so big that it makes sense for the conversation to be within and about itself; however, things are far more exciting when your perspective expands. As a library “person,” I find any fuel for my interests and my cultural engagement to be positive. In the case of ODC, development is often related to international and regional interests, which means I’m hooked into the International. When I was with the Audubon Center, I found catalog records as close as Australia, which is significantly international.

One of those mantras I’ve been repeating is: you’re not going to know everything. And it’s true: to claim expertise on the many substantial topics and ideas floating around in contemporary Cambodia is impossible at only three months here. The landscape is pretty well painted out, but the details and that logical tree explaining to me how all the pieces fit together has yet to be crafted, consumed, and digested.

Working with the resources and actively engaging other people at ODC, and going off on the many adventures I have and seeing the country for what it is . . . these things have supported my own personal “open development” here in Cambodia, and getting to stay in Cambodia for another internship from January through March will be a real treat. It’s all about cross-pollinating one’s mind with knowledge from various information sources. Once that is accomplished, over time, the benefits will emerge and truly reward. Fortunately, though, the first step has been taken: knowing that the international perspective can really emerge and become a phenomenal tool is realized and will continue to propel me forward in life.

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Internship Week 10: History and Potential

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This week I’m actually going to be focusing elsewhere than ODC. I recently took a trip to the National Library with Margaret, which is located just north of Wat Phnom, near the Raffles Hotel, in Phnom Penh. As a result of the visit, and a spontaneous imagination, I have pondered the situation of libraries, particularly public libraries, in Cambodia.

I should preface this post with a note expressing my lack of expertise, and any criticism I have is based on only three months of being in the country. There are many details that will be left out because I simply do not have a full grasp of them, including the remarkable strength of the library staff members that diligently devote themselves to the library and keep it afloat. But these details are important, and often exist under many abstract surfaces. To not acknowledge their existence, even briefly as I am doing here, would be a major mistake when talking about the situation of information provision and information centers here in the Kingdom of Wonder.

Also, another edit: after writing a lot of this post, it came to my attention that there have indeed been numerous events (including an art exhibition) in the library, and so a lot of what I say below is simply commenting on spaces that don’t see enough use. And information centers that do see use can always see more use, so my post is still a bit valid. I have to throw in an apology for coming off in tone like I know everything about the National Library and think that there is absolutely nothing going on within its walls, which is completely false.

An additional aside: I still haven’t been to all of the libraries or information centers in Phnom Penh and so I will certainly not be able to highlight or touch upon all the functioning spaces in the city. Particularly, I have yet to visit the National Archives, the CDRI library, the Buddhist Institute (which is currently located in a construction zone), and the library of the Cambodian Senate.

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Visiting the National Library

It was another hot day at ODC and I had arranged to meet Margaret near her apartment. We met in the early afternoon and drove together to the historical building that is the National Library. The first thing you notice when you arrive to the National Library is the space in front of the National Library. A gravel driveway leads to a gravel lot giving space to countless vehicles. As Margaret informed, much of this parking lot (the front yard of the library) is due to employees of the US Embassy. It is quite a sight, and we almost couldn’t park there because there wasn’t enough room.

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Originally built during the French occupation of Indochina, the library itself is still standing despite the alternative uses of the building during the Khmer Rouge. The building has undergone several recent renovations, and remains a beautiful building, but one can’t help but feel pity when seeing much of the disrepair. From mold to neglected re-coating of paint, the space is unsightly and sports more beauty through its decay than what has been kept up.

Despite the decay, the building is remarkable in its presentation of space, and is almost reminiscent of a Carnegie Library in the United States for its square design, blended with French colonial architecture. The signage is in both Khmer and French, and some visual art continues to be preserved in all their degrees of flourished adornment on the exterior facades. The interior of the building? A large main room that features the circulating and reference collections, a handful of tables for study, racks of children’s literature, and some computers that look like they haven’t been used in a while and come from the 90s.

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Fans hang from the ceiling keeping a mild current of air, though it was still quite a bit muggy and stifling when I visited. Next to the main room, which also houses the work stations of the catalogers and circulation staff, is the administrative room, where the director and the higher-ups do their work, and several archives that I was not able to examine. There was quite a bit going on with the team when I visited, so I did not get to inspect the archives or some of the narrower recesses of the offices. I did get to take a look at the stacks, though, and one of the lovely sections belonged to the “king’s family,” and featured mostly coffee table books from a decade ago, mostly on international countries. Unfortunately most of the exploration of the stacks felt more “prison-like” and opposing (dare I write the often-ALA-used “chilling”?) than I would have liked, but since much of the library appears to be non-circulating documents, I understand the apprehension.

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A couple of other thoughts on the visit: first, one disheartening element of the experience was the lack of customer service upon entry. While the administration was kind enough to say hello, the library staff working at the desks in the main room did not so much as say hello. I’m not sure if it was because we were obviously foreigner-expat types, or if it’s part of the culture of the library as a whole. I sincerely hope the friendliness and outreach is more present for local Cambodians.

I also noticed that while some of the collection was in English, and most in Khmer, the majority of the signage was in Khmer. And while this makes sense being in Cambodia, it’s curious as there are significant populations of English, Chinese, and Vietnamese language people with vibrant, engrossing cultures living within the confines of Phnom Penh. All of these “markets for libraries” could potentially benefit from the National Library.

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You might be asking yourself: why isn’t Greg talking about the people using the library? Well, despite the table space, the library was quite empty. This might have been due to it being an afternoon. Or it might have just been an “off-day,” but there were only 5 or so people, all young, using the space. It looked like they were all studying (and in some cases, sleeping), and, in fact, it reminded me of some of my library experiences at Olney High School in Philadelphia. Despite the depressing circumstances, Margaret did let me know that the library does get a lot of student use and she has seen the place packed. Packed, however, does not go a long way as the seating capacity is certainly less than 100. While the library could certainly add more tables, the established interior design did not seem to promote any expansion for seating.

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The visit, on the whole, lasted just under an hour, which gave me a taste of the space and the context for which it sits. Some other points of information that are obvious to me but not the general reader: despite the Ministry of Culture existing to help support institutional structures like the library, it does not provide much at all in the way of funding for the library to exist. It is rumored that library staff (and librarians proper) make extremely little money per month and work the gig out of their belief in the library (isn’t that all librarians, really?). So the point here is that despite any perceived negative statements above, the National Library is under a lot of influence and control from the government and, ultimately, larger social constraints. An aside: we have to keep in mind the privilege of American history with its appreciation of libraries and the value system therein. While libraries in America are under threat in many cases, a lot of the population acknowledges and values them despite the pressures against their value from evolving technology. In Cambodia, the Civil War and Khmer Rouge in the second half of the 20th Century, and the countless struggles thereafter, have resulted in a reset of similar value systems. And so it seems, to me, that libraries have to start from scratch in proving their value and their relevance, especially in the 21st Century.

Thinking about Information Centers

A library is a center of information: it provides resources (documents, tangible or intangible) and services (in whatever form they might take) to its interacting populations (members or otherwise). This community in turn utilizes the facility of the library in order to meet its information needs. An information center doesn’t have to be a library, of course, but the library, or ballahlai, is a formidable option as a center or focal point for all of the above.

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An information center doesn’t survive on its own, and as much as these centers want to act as silos, the mere fact that they do encourage interaction (on some level, with their populations) means they’re not as isolated as they think, or present themselves to be. But an information center can appear quite dead and dysfunctional if it doesn’t have A) the advertising and promotion of its services through the community outside its walls and B) the staff and resources to support the goals of the center. The latter, the resources, support the methods of presenting, facilitating, and measuring the resources and the services and assistance given to those the center serves.

If there is no greeter to welcome me to a library, how will I feel that I am welcome there? If I saw a bar with a flashing neon sign that read “Bar,” but there was no one in the bar, I would not be having a positive experience. The design of the bar, just like the design of the library, needs to not only describe its intention but carry its intention out into truth through results. So we must ask ourselves, “What does ‘library’ mean to me?”

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Libraries as Places

With this post I’d like to continue to focus on the physicality of the library, or the tangible qualities that makes the library visually identifiable and interactive. Maybe it’s because I’m working almost entirely on the digital elements of the ODC library. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in where I spend my time when I’m working or having fun or studying. Or all of the above. Regardless, the physicality is king when it comes to facing the challenges of the neglected information center.

What can physical spaces offer you? For one, they bring the community together in an immediate way, a way that allows everyone to see each other and know who the other community members and supporters are. The physical space then allows wonderful conversations to occur. Even though the name of the game today is “anonymity” and “displacement” due to the Internet, the value of being around peers is a different and coextensive value.

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One thing I’ve started to pay attention to more and more, especially since becoming an educator of some capacity, are the variety of learning styles that exist outside of the classroom. The way we seek out and retrieve information is different for everybody. Some can do just fine behind a laptop all day. Others get distracted and need to be sitting in front of a Powerpoint, or a book, or someone talking to them. Think about how successful a new chef would be if she/he had to learn the trade entirely from a tablet. You need to the kitchen. So let’s bring the kitchen to the library. But hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Most importantly, the physical space encourages people because it shows participants what other folks are doing. You go to a physical space and see ten people reading and studying in silence, and you’re going to be encouraged to read and study in silence. Broader still, if you know a culture of research is going on because you can see it happening at the reference desk, you’re going to be encourage to try it out and be on the “in” crowd of the culture. And as more grow to have a “soft reliance” on the space, I think that’ when the magical things happen, when it grows.

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SmallWorld (above) is a great example of this propelled behavior. The space encourages collaboration and the organizers are open to innovative use of the space. I recently did a presentation there for Open Access Week and it was wildly successful, and I think a lot of folks learned from it. But the point isn’t that I did the presentation, it’s that folks of all kinds are doing the presentation, and going beyond to do other fantastic events and activities in order to benefit Cambodians with diverse interests. From gaming to Google app development to critical dialogue to day-long bike trips, the organization succeeds in facilitating the exchange of information, but more importantly, knowledge. There are experts and champions of the information who are supported and promoted into positions where they can optimally share with others.

Imagining the National Library

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There’s over a million people living in Phnom Penh, which is a significant population. By the Western Standards I can’t help but talk about since I’m from the West (and I acknowledge them as the “Other” and “Imperial” etc), the public library of the city should be drastically bigger to support its population. Here’s what I think the library could offer to invite more people into its walls:

  • Study Sessions for Students and Non-Students
  • Think Tanks and other private meeting sessions for small groups
  • Task Force space for government and NGO operations
  • Meta-sessions that encourage media literacy and discuss the value of the library
  • Readings/talks/lectures of all kinds
  • Greater connections to minority populations (previously mentioned)
  • Greater emphasis on the “nation” since it’s the National Library (something like Singapore)
  • More exhibits and stationary exhibitions
  • Finding other ways to raise money rather than using their front yard as a parking lot
  • And this would lead to the front yard being available for some other awesome projects

Alternatives to the National Library

It’s interesting to think about the National Library in a silo-manner when there are many other libraries in the city that can offer similar services. Collaboration and consortium-like activities should obviously be encouraged, but in some cases, the public library is the leading information center due to certain cultural barriers. In Cambodia, I’ve started to notice a sense of exclusivity that exists within the university. While anyone can simply walk into a university and use the library to study, I’ve talked with Cambodians and they’ve mentioned the same thing over and over: they won’t go in if they’re not paying. If you’re not a paying student, you’re not a student, is what this says to me, and it’s really unhealthy. The libraries at Pannasastra, the Royal University, and the National University of Management (pic below) are the three academic libraries I’ve seen since moving to Phnom Penh, and they are all wonderful facilities. To not believe they are accessible even when they are is daunting to me. Or haunting. Yes, haunting.

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Similarly, one can conduct plenty of free research at other non-library information centers, like Bophana Center, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DCCAM), and the Center for Khmer Studies (in Siem Reap). But just how many people know that these spaces exist? I had a hard enough time just trying to find the Documentation Center, even though the staff were wonderfully helpful and provided the antithesis to the National Library folks (though I emailed them in advance, which might have had something to do with it). I think at the end of the day, it would be really important to ask young people and old people about all these great spaces for information retrieval and access, and see if they have actually heard of them or visited them. Pairing that up with what forms of advertising and promotion go on to increase the presence of these spaces is another question.

I also wanted to throw in a side note about Monument Books and Java Arts, two spaces which offer events in the presence of books and stationary art. They are awesome, and are a great example of other types of spaces people could be using as information centers. Similarly, the New Leaf in Siem Reap, which I just visited, provides fantastic book resources and donates books to lots of different spaces.

Book Fair

Oddly enough, in a week the National Library will be “revolutionizing” its space by throwing its annual book fair. I haven’t been to one, so I don’t really know how it will pan out, but they’re closing the front area off to cars and putting in tables and all manner of other structural supports to allow vendors, exhibitors, and presenters the chance to use the space in a productive way. It should be awesome.

I will be there on Saturday morning (hopefully) to see a poetry reading I helped setup by connecting my friend Soknea at Nou Hach with Kolap, who is one of the heads of the book fair. I’ll also be presenting (definitely) for ODC on Sunday morning.

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The book fair brought smaller ideas to my mind. First, you’ve got to make use of what you already have. If you have spaces and objects and items, you should really consider how these can be used in new ways. Think about what you have but not in the way you have it. This aphoristic tidbit is something I think everyone should apply to their spaces, but also to their lives.

I also thought to myself: this is so great even though I don’t know what’s happening in it because it’s happening. The mere idea of its existent got me excited. Activity of some kind is better than no activity. Of course, this is just my opinion. The flip side of the coin is that having activities that are bad might actually put your information center at risk, but that’s a long conversation and only needs to be touched on here.

One of the great things about the book fair is that it’s the epitome of collaboration. Empowered by participants and audiences alike, the book fair brings together a diverse crowd that will talk, will be happy, and will think about the future. Collaborate first to discover of future collaboration and future possibilities of the space.

Ultimately, what I think it will come down to is a question of “community.” The inclusive act of the book fair, and any other replications or events that go on within the National Library’s walls, will create a certain kind of literacy, a “community literacy,” where people will start to find the space as a producer of events and a magnet of cool people and cool ideas in the city. This is idealistic and who’s to say if anything more will occur after the book fair, but I sincerely hope so.

Ultimately the library is about information needs, right? And how the people who use the library can benefit, of course. I think that it’s important to constantly be aware of how the greater community perceives the event, and respond to those needs. If they really, really like the lectures and presentations, then there should be more of those available through the National Library in the future. If they really like the exhibitions, then having collaboration with those vendors and organizations seems like a positive way to go forward. The same with the poetry reading. Let the community redefine how your space is used, but support and augment that redefinition on your own term.

I mentioned the poetry reading and I would love to see a poetry series at the National Library. Anything related to the arts is going to bring in people, some crowd, great or small. By evoking the power of Cambodian tradition and the historical culture, the National Library could start to get a greater cultural following (and flowering) itself. Even if it wasn’t a huge program, simply having poetry readings there once a month would be fantastic.

My Role in All of This

How do I see myself, grand intern from Seattle, in all of this? I strike a hard balance between supporting the projects and simply hanging back and studying what’s going on (as best as I can, since many of the “issues,” as mentioned before, exist under the surface. As a natural connector and a community organizer and a (generally speaking) innovator of space, I can’t help but think about ideas and share them with people here who often look like they could use the support.

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From the digital library presentation at the book fair (and later at BarCamp), to a Cambodia Library Association internship in the Winter Quarter, I’m going to be consistently tapped into the issues identified above and finding solutions for those.

But at the end of the day, one person can’t do everything and one person shouldn’t be doing everything and one person shouldn’t even be a concept on the table. And so everything here is a framework for interaction and collaboration with the librarians who have been here much longer than me. But most importantly, for me, exploring the National Library seems like a fun challenge and opportunity for discussion.

As a follow-up, I will write about how the book fair goes in a couple of weeks and maybe there will be even greater insights made.

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Internship Week 9: Collaboration

This week I’ve decided to focus on something I should have long-since written about: my coworker. ODC’s team is amazing and diverse and incredibly skilled, and it’s about time they had a shout-out. One of the challenges of keeping a blog, especially one that delves a little bit into culture and a little bit into theory and is all about my own journey is keeping the people who are in my life in the spotlight too.

If you saw my daily activities at ODC, you’d see that more than half the time I’m being social with the folks around me. On one hand, you’ve got the fact that I’m sitting right next to four of them every day and ear-buds only go so far. On the other hand, there’s the collaboration of the work itself: being social is necessary to getting the library as powerful as it can be. While the library tasks generally fall onto a couple of teams, I make it a point to consider the greater implications of all the decisions: when you make one decision on one part of the site, how will that affect the other parts of the site? How it will it affect the overall organization of data and information resources? How will it affect the workload of colleagues? Is there any single way to make things more efficient?

I try to consider the team a “family” of sorts, because everyone is so close and the team is really not that big. And everyone needs help. And everyone needs a second opinion. The healthy of the community within the walls of the ODC is of utmost concern, and I think that’s considered by lots of the folks who work there. ODC is probably my second “work experience” where the identity of the community and the health of the team workers has been consistently considered. Nothing is perfect, however, and at times the amount of work and the amount of imaginative ideas becomes overwhelming. Like anywhere. But we make up for it with fun activities: from team meals and parties to sharing media to connecting on social media to exploring each other’s language, we really do make an effort to be as close as possible. For that, I am proud.

But for now: here is most of the ODC team in pictures. Those I didn’t get a chance to snap a shot of include IT lead Huy Eng, ODC founder Terry, ODC research intern Kimberley, and EWMI intern Phil. But more on them later!

The Mappers

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From left to right: Kalyan, Seila, and Naro. These guys are responsible for the maps on the ODC site, which could be considered one of the sexier types of content we make available. Technically I am half mapper, because I sit right next to them and am privy to their conversations and work more often than any of the other teams. These guys are probably the biggest joy I have when visiting ODC. From the jokes and the exchange of slang to the (probably) unnecessary Khmer vocabulary education, we have a really fun day every day. The room, by the way, is nicknamed the “Ice Cave,” because Naro prefers the place ultra-cool from the A/C (and there’s no mildly-cold setting).

The Outreach and Volunteer Coordinators

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Penhleak (or “Pinkie” as she likes to go by) is actually only one person, but I would say she does enough work for ODC to be several people at one time. Insert your “multi-arm Vishnu jokes” here. Penhleak’s become one of my closest friends in Cambodia, and has taught me more than anyone else on the team. She’s generally responsible for all the “outreach” (which you could probably exchange for “marketing”) and communication for partnerships with researchers, journalists, government, interns (including me), and so on and so forth. Though she will probably kill me for saying this, I often see her as the protective sister of ODC. But joking aside, it can’t be denied that much of the success of ODC as a project, whether through the encouragement of design ideas during group meetings, or the method and process of team communication and collaboration, are because of her. I only hope she doesn’t get completely burned out after putting in so much effort!

The Director

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Try (pronounced “Tree”) is the director of ODC. He joined shortly before I arrived as an intern, so I feel connected to him simply through time alone. But Try has been extremely helpful. While most of his work obviously goes on behind the scenes, and is administrative in nature, he does also provide a lot of the “face” to the organization. Whether it’s leading meetings, or supporting teams in their tasks, Try is the internal utility knife of the organization. If something needs to get done, Try’s there to figure out the way to make it happen. It doesn’t hurt that he’s an amazingly nice guy!

The Editors

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First: Vicheth. Just above: Vongseng. I tried to get a picture of them together, but they just wouldn’t let me! The editors are the fantastic mega workers at ODC. When it comes to reviewing news articles and briefings, or working on the site’s taxonomy, the editors are it. They’re responsible for the publishing. They’ve got responsibility for a lot of the translation too. In fact I’m really not sure how all of the work they do gets done, but somehow they manage it! When not swamped with work, they (and sometimes me, too) are out having great conversation over a beer, or watching Vongseng sing some tunes, or grabbing noodles around the corner. These guys bring a stability and seriousness and realism to the workplace that, when combined with their friendliness, raise the bar of my experience at ODC quite a lot!

The IT Team

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Above: Saren and Chomroeun. Not pictured: Huy Eng. The IT team is the team I’m most connected to in terms of actual work. Saren and Huy Eng especially are the ones who make my digital library dreams come true. When it comes to web design, it’s always a process. There are a gazillion things going on with the website, all at once, and to balance the library with all of those things is often a challenge. But the IT team is a great team, one that I love working with, and arguably some of the best communicators I’ve had the pleasure of working with. When the site goes down, they respond to it immediately. When there’s an issue with the library that they discover, they come to me and we talk about it. If it wasn’t for these guys, I’d be poking around the underlying infrastructure of code weeping silently. And because I don’t have to do that, I’m eternally grateful to these guys (and gal).

The Founder (and “Mother”) of ODC

Not surprisingly, I actually didn’t get a snapshot of Terry in the past two days because I didn’t run into her. She’s that busy. (If you really want to see what she looks like, you can check out this picture from my post last week.) Splitting her time between ODC and other EWMI projects, Terry is yet another example of someone who does more work than is technically physically possible. It’s like everyone here is blessed or really lucky or something. I don’t know what it is, but I’m thankful, because the standards for putting a lot of time and effort into amazing projects are always high. Terry’s also been a great mentor on management, organization, and the Cambodian/Southeast Asian culture. Every conversation I get the opportunity of having with her is one part history lesson, one part philosophy, and one part critical inquiry into the many sides of life in Cambodia. She’s been a great colleague, a great “boss” (I hesitate to use the word here, because it makes the relationship seem a bit too harsh), and a great resource for becoming adjusted to the local environment.

The Interns

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Okay, I obviously needed a picture of myself in here, so everyone an see that I’m gaining a little bit of weight and still happy and alive. Now that that’s out of the way, how about the other smiling face? Eric, on the right, is a Duke fellow who technically graduated from Law School (does that need to be in title case?) and is now hanging out in Cambodia for at least a few months. He just started this past week (or thereabouts) and has been pushed in next to me. Okay, so to be honest: the room is cramped, but it’s nice having another awesome person in there! I have had the chance to help him edit his work, give him updates on ODC tasks, and chat with him about what it’s like living in Cambodia on a daily basis. It’s been great, actually, because the other foreign friends I have I don’t see very regularly, including . . .

The Other Interns

Phil, who technically interns for EWMI, and Kim, who is a research intern that will soon be transitioning out of ODC (in December), have also been great friends. And while Kim didn’t want her photo taken, and while Phil wasn’t around to have his photo taken (he was off on some crazy moto trip to Udong), both of them are still great people. I forgive them, even though I wanted their smiling faces on my blog. I forgive them. But joking aside, these guys were some of my initial friends in Cambodia, and from the lunches and smoothies together, to the occasional partying, I’ve found them to be fantastic resources for social life after the work life stops at the end of the week. I think that interns should band together by nature, by their helpless natures, and so far that’s happened, and been a good thing.

Other Collaboration

I realize I haven’t really written about actual collaboration, but seeing how much text was needed just to introduce the “family” at ODC, I think it’s okay. There are other collaborations, though: from the librarians in Cambodia (my friends Kolap and Mao) to my adviser Margaret, working with and learning from others is a regular part of the daily flow. I think that’s pretty obvious and, unless you’re some crazy writer living in a lighthouse and working on your next novel in solitude, collaboration and communication with team members or coworkers is a pretty universe experience. Maybe next week I’ll touch a little bit more on the depth of the collaboration, but my fingers are tired and it’s time to end this week’s post.

Internship Week 8: Adventure

When not holed up in the ODC office debating the best way to translate the catalog, under various design techniques that may or may not be impossible due to the systematic restrictions, and invest a lot of time learning about concessions throughout Cambodia, I’m the guy that’s off in search of adventure. I’m an “adventure librarian,” or I will be when I get my MLIS (for now I’m just an “adventure guy”). One of my biggest flaws and biggest strengths (one and the same) is my curiosity. I have my hands in many buckets for a reason: I really enjoy checking new things out, and even if I don’t become a master at any of them, I try my hardest to understand the topical relevance of each and every activity I get involved with. From eating fish head curry in Singapore to trekking the rainforest in Johor, from sitting and meditating in the Angkor Wat library to stumbling around at two in the morning through the streets of Nha Trang, Vietnam, I like to get a taste as much life as possible.

This week I got to flex my adventure muscles and take some time to revisit Siem Reap, which is a small town approximately 300km to the Northwest of Phnom Penh. I visited the town not to spend more money and more camera clicks on the Angkor temple complexes, but rather to engage in a National Community Media Competition and Festival (I don’t know if this is the actual title of the event, but it’s pretty close regardless). The celebration of culture had its ups and downs, but this was the real deal. As I mentioned in my last post, part of the internship experience is understanding language, and my argument was that language goes beyond that which is spoken and written, and is also related to the general sharing of culture.

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I went with the ODC “director” (Terry, in the photo above) and the EWMI Grassroots Coordinator (Sao Sotheary, who is standing next to Terry in the picture). The event, in a nutshell, was fairly straightforward: participants who won local cultural competitions (on the provincial level) all gathered just outside of central Siem Reap (strangely and surreally in a tent on the side of the road near a local market) for two days. Each group performed multiple times to the general audience. In an act of solidarity (or just general unity) everyone was given blue shirts and caps. The “tribal” (I hate using that word) groups, who are also in the picture above, from areas like Mondulkiri, did not wear the event garb, but were noticeable enough. I had actually seen a handful of the performers in Phnom Penh at a Cambodian music event earlier during my time here. The country is quite small, as you know.

The first day we arrived on the scene and I realized that aside from my coworkers, nobody else “looked” foreigner (IE Westerner) and a strange set of isolation set in. I hardly know the language, but I was able to hear all of the locations of the participants easily enough, and during one stage play, I heard “sa” (white) come out of one of the actor’s mouths and everyone looking at me chuckling in warmth. It was a nice event: one that tested my patience for being alone and immersed in local culture, and one that allowed me the introspection of many cultures in Cambodia, and many “issues” (from human trafficking to poly-amory to general poverty). While I was supposed to stay at the event with the others until 10pm, a fairly horrendous storm broke out around six and the tent nearly collapsed. Heroic and aghast, I held the tent’s main structure up as short Cambodian men scrambled around me to make the necessary preparations (as the wind howled and the rain poured). It was dramatic.

During the first day I also was delightfully surprised to meet a handful of participants who spoke English and were extremely polite and kind to me. The three young ones below are garment workers at factories in Phnom Penh City, as they called it. Sreywin, the “leader” (called such because she knew the most English and was the most outgoing) shared posters with me (describing the terrible living and working conditions these and many other workers had to go through, pictured below) and even helped translate some of the performances on the second day.

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One of the joys of getting out of Phnom Penh is striving to actually see new things. As with any city, Phnom Penh offers you some great insight into life and life’s many pros and cons, but the cyclical nature of it can grow a bit neutralizing. I often feel, living here, that much of my life is dictated by what I know rather than what I want to find out. There are safeties and securities. There are things that we enjoy and depend on, that we come to expect in our daily life: the grocery store, the source of information or educator, the friends, the restaurants. All of these things add up to comfort, convenience, and a degree of the casual that might be stifling to the scholarly experience. The journey outside, to Siem Reap, helped to spice things up a bit.

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I’ve been getting to know a lot of writers in Cambodia, and by the end of my time here I will know, probably, the most active ones. Part of the pleasure of working with writers is in connecting to other people who care about Cambodian culture. One of my friends in Phnom Penh, a student of the workshop I taught, Chheangly, is from Siem Reap. His sister and her family lives there. Before going to the second day of the event, they met me outside the hotel where I got to talk and hangout with them. We discussed family, education, culture, politics, and, most importantly, raising a child. (The husband’s name is Bongthom and the daughter’s name is Nathalee.) Though it would have been nice to have them join me at the festival event, it was clear that they had to spend a lot of time out of their routine just to come visit me at the hotel, and they had a lot to do later that day.

Another lovely experience during my trip was visiting the Center for Khmer Studies. Located in Wat Damnak, just south of the river in Siem Reap, this information hub might be home to one of the best libraries I’ve seen in Cambodia. Complete with books from the entire region, lots of archived documents, the part I enjoyed most was the beautiful interior design. I originally visited this library and information space back in August, but was so exhausted and wrecked by travel that I didn’t talk with anyone or pay too much attention to the setting, but after this latest visit, I can still see the reflections of the sun in the polished wood right now!

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One of my regrets was not taking pictures with the folks I visited. I met the head librarian, Oum Daraneth, and the head director, Krisna Uk. You can see them here. I first talked at length about CKS and the various projects and capabilities the venue has to offer. I discussed my own history and learned a lot about the extensive history of Krisna. I was then introduced to the library’s front-end via Daraneth. The library itself is still in the process of being cataloged, but should be completed soon. There are thousands of resources in the stacks, and my first thought after browsing was: “Why don’t I live in Siem Reap and read these every day?” It’s a consideration to make in the future, for sure.

CKS’s library, which is not accessible online, unfortunately, also uses NewGenLib (the same ILS that we use at ODC, for those of you who haven’t read about my explorations of it previously). They host NewGenLib locally on computer terminals and an internal network that is “turned off at the end of the day.” IE: a local computer is hosting the library rather than a true server. Their goal is to get the library up and accessible online. I think it’s possible. But they want to finish the catalog first.

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I mentioned my work with poetry and writers in Cambodia, and while I could write pages and pages on that alone, I’ll keep it to a minimum. I wanted to mention my time with the tuk tuk poet Prakchhim Say, an amazing guy who I shared a couple meals with and talked about writing with extensively, is seen in the pic above at the festival. In addition to driving me around in his tuk tuk, Prakcchim joined the first day of the festival and hung around, meeting artists and generally engaging the community at large. A writer with a wife an five children, Prakchhim spends all his free time writing. It was great to expose him to this event which, it as clear, he had not heard about before. If I get any future funding for projects in the future, one of the main things I’m going to do is come out with a print and digital newsletter and community spaces where Cambodian writers and artists can learn about new events. The gap in communication appears to be one of the largest barriers here, and it’s especially concerning because those who do go to the events and learn about organizations and projects are almost always positively engaging them.

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During the second day of the event, I was alone. Terry and Sotheary had to go back to Phnom Penh and I decided to stick it out to see what I could see and cover the rest of the event. After a morning of work and rest, I met with the wonderful labor organizers I mentioned earlier in this post and they befriended me. It was gracious on their part, but also clear that they were feeling slightly as “isolated” as I was, having come up from the city and not really knowing anyone. At the threat of yet another rainstorm, the end of the event closed with a magnificent dance party on the stage that brought Cambodians from all the provinces (and the tall white guy, me) together in harmony.

The strange thing for me was the combination of music being played and blasted through the tower of speaker cabs on the bed of the truck next to the stage: Cambodian, Korean, and American. In the case of my own country’s contributions, it was mainstream hip hop. As the rain poured down around us, I looked at my life, my internship, my adventure, and let myself go. So what I was feeling completely out of place. So what I had felt alone for so long during this festival that was truly foreign to me. Moving my body around on the dance floor, a young Cambodian guy came over and asked, “Are you happy?” with a grin on his face. I nodded and said “very happy” (knyom sop-bai ai na), and he laughed. And then the rain grew (pleung thom) and everybody ran off the stage like it was the end of the world. And it was, but in a good way, a revitalizing way. From that end came the birth of a new one.

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I guess I have to wrap this post up somehow. A lot of the internship involved me hanging out in the hotel, Rithy Rine, and doing work for ODC. I had transferred the cataloging and coordinating of the library from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. This is the joy of communication, I suppose! And it was a productive experience. I had some good food, too. And some not-so-good food. I certainly felt rested after being in the town, and I certainly enjoyed the entire experience. The 6 hour ride back? Well, the only highlight was seeing the little girl with the living spider (well, “tarantula,” as Cambodians are proud to correct, or “abping” in Khmer) in Skuon, a town nicknamed Spiderville and one I had always wanted to visit. I did not eat the spider, having already tried it in Phnom Penh.

This post is about adventure and how it’s affected my internship. One thing about travel is reflection on the tried and true cyclical experience of living in the city. When I returned to Phnom Penh, got off the bus, and walked the hour back to the office (refusing all transportation since my legs needed significant assistance after being in the bus for six hours), I entered sweaty and tired and happy. I was back in my space of understanding, the space I know and identify with. The library sat there, ready to be engaged with. The coworkers welcomed me back (and jokingly scoffed when I said I hadn’t brought any gifts back). It was time to get “back to work” and I was more than ready to jump in.

I just realized I haven’t really written about my coworkers/team members/colleagues/etc. That will be the focus for the next post.

Internship Week 7: Language Challenges and Opportunities

Move to another country. Find a one bedroom apartment on a quiet street and move into it. Live alone. Make sure your first contacts in this new place are locals. One of them has their office right above your apartment and you can use the Internet connection when you need it. The other one is a courageous educator at one of the best universities in the city. You settle in. You see them. You meet other locals. You meet lots of foreigners, like yourself, both from the country you’ve come from and the countries you have not come from.

Eat local cuisine. Learn local customs. Try to figure out the language. Take language lessons from a private tutor. Put sticky notes over all your things to improve your vocabulary. Start to learn basic phrases in the local language. Things that will help you out. The very basics. Get very confused when you try to understand grammar. Get even more confused when you spend too long thinking of the vocabulary word you need in any given situation. Look at your computer. Think about the script of the language on signs and walls of buildings, bars, restaurants, everywhere. Download the Unicode for the language and turn your keyboard into a dual-language tool that you don’t know if you’ll ever learn. Attempt to learn a little of the written/typed language each day. Take a moment to breathe. Stop and look around. Realize you are in a sea of language and culture.

Start to realize that you are proud to spend time with locals from the country you’re in. Start to realize you are happy when you hang out with them. Start to realize you are happier spending time under the paradigm of the locals than the paradigm you know best, the paradigm shared with the other foreigners. Start to realize it might have to do with language. Start to realize you may know less and less each day as the world gets larger and larger, but you are trying. You are putting in the effort you can. And you are aware of the effort.

The Internship is About Being International

When I arrived in Phnom Penh, I knew I would be in for many culture shocks. I didn’t realize that it was less difficult to transition into life here than the time I moved from Rhode Island to North Philadelphia. It’s actually been quite easy to live here. But I didn’t throw myself into the fire, so to speak. I prepared. I read books about transitioning here. I read a book of Cambodian history. I picked up as many possible resources and bits of information I could in order to gain an understanding, almost in a scientific way, of the environment I was about to become a part of.

I would not say I’m perfect at being the “international student,” I will say, with pride, that I’m probably doing a better job at it than some of the other transplants that wound up here. I love experiencing new things, and I love experiencing a way of life (or ways of life) that are conducive to worldly thought, that bend and tweak (and twerk, or shake up) any notions I have, be they about life, love, happiness, inequality, libraries, information, media, communication, and so on and so forth.

I’ve never really studied international librarianship and I have never studied international relations and I have never studied abroad before. I have “never done” many things and I will be the first to admit that I did not know what I was doing when I started applying to be out here in Southeast Asia. It was another “whim moment” (of which my life has had many), and it’s resulted in a lot of amazing surprises. Eating noodles every day, for instance, is something I now wish I had been doing all my life. Visiting markets and standing in wonder at the daily life of so many merchants. Looking past rooftops to golden and orange pagodas, and remembering the endless Christian churches in my country.

There are many differences in life, lifestyles, and activities here that are inspiring. If not inspiring for life choices, they’re inspiring for intellectual inquiry. I can’t go into them all, obviously, but I can say, generally speaking, that being an admirer of culture is conducive to my approach to librarianship. It’s one of the most important qualities of the international library professional: to be empathetic and curious about the world around you. Just as coders design apps for the user by knowing what the user needs are, the librarian’s ultimate goal is to provide resources when learning about the information needs of the community. And if the librarian doesn’t know about the culture, the librarian doesn’t know enough about local information exchange. And if that’s the case, well, there’s a problem.

Ask yourself: how important is multiculturalism to you?

The Internship is About Language

At the end of the day, the internship is about language. It’s about how people connect with one another, either through the spoken or written language, or the broader inter-cultural communications. If I’m cataloging a new document and I’m not familiar with the topical content in the document, it’s my duty to gain an understanding of that topical content by going to the expert. And if you’re living in Cambodia working on Cambodian resources, you’re going to be speaking with Cambodians.

Ask yourself: how do you communicate ideas?

Translation is important. Not merely the translation of words and phrases, but the translation of the ideas. These ideas are most commonly transported from one actor to another through spoken and written language. I’m very fortunate at ODC to be working with a team that loves language. In fact, they would all be wonderful experimental poets if I had the money to pay them to be! I enjoy working with the team because they know a lot of English but they don’t know everything. And so I am teaching them some of my language. And I know only a small bit of Khmer and they know a lot, and so I am constantly learning the language, be it spoken, written, or typed (in Unicode). And it’s hard. Though I’m doing many things in my life right now, the hardest challenge is understanding language and continuing to be inspired to learn the language despite my struggles.

Someone once told me (or maybe I read it somewhere) that when you’re an international librarian, or a librarian that is working abroad, you don’t have to be fluent in the host country’s language. This is obviously optimistic and encouraging for librarians everywhere who want to go somewhere “exotic” or “exciting” or, more reasonably, “more interesting than what they’re used to.” But I argue it’s a pretty bad approach. Librarians should have their goal to become fluent in the language. The language of the culture is the, as mentioned above, the optimal way to understand the information of that culture, and thus the closest and most intimate connections can be made through the relationship between language and knowledge: reinforce knowledge by harnessing the power of language.

Language and Work

Language is confronted every day at ODC. At some meetings Khmer is the primary mode of communication, which is an obvious barrier to me as someone who doesn’t know much at all of it. I ask for translations as much as possible, and probably less now than when I first started, because I attempt to be tactful and not take up everyone’s time begging for an explanation. But sometimes the translations are necessary for me to be optimal in my position.

Other times, and arguably most times, the method of communication used when I’m around is English. The language is thus easier but not perfect. The coworkers I work with know a lot of English–impressive bodies of both words and ideas–and I teach them a little more every day, and willingly. In that way, I’m learning to be a better manager of ideas through the facilitation of communication via language. It’s an exciting “bonus” to the internship I’m sure many others in my position would find annoying, burdensome, and troubling. But I don’t. I don’t think it gets in the way of my learning at all (see above, on my note about understanding and learning the culture to be a better librarian).

On top of it all, learning how to communicate and share language with your coworkers strengthens the bonds of the the individuals and team. It establishes degrees of trust and coordination you probably wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise. And I only realized this because of the language barriers that exist. Looking back on previous jobs I’ve had in other companies and organizations, I realize that language issues always exist, but if the primary language is the same across all speakers, you take too much for granted and poor communication can often go on unnoticed in very subtle ways, whether it’s in daily work, special events, short term tasks, or large-scale projects.

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On Halloween I helped throw a fun work party during the lunch break where I hired a couple of face painters to come into the office and paint everyone’s face. This was a great example of cultural language exchange between what I know and what my coworkers did not. Say what you will about me imposing some strange foreigner activity on the Cambodians, but I think it turned out great. As you see in the picture above, the “classic” style of face painting was tweaked to the aesthetic of the Cambodian artists. The style aside, the initial idea of having the faces painted amid a sea of candy and a screening of Beetlejuice provoked a lot of hesitancy. All but one of the team members ended up getting their faces painted, however, after a bit of coaxing.

What can we learn from the Halloween party? The Halloween party was me inviting the team to have fun, in my terms. I was able to offer them through my cultural history and my cultural language activities and knowledge that they had not been exposed to previously. And thus they could learn a little bit more about America, sure, but also a little bit more about me. We are individuals trying to understand other individuals, and to do this we find ways to connect with others. The Halloween party was a great opportunity to continue to expand on the fostered friendships I’ve had with this wonderful team.

Language and Libraries

You have a catalog. You have records in the catalog. You have a display for those records. You have two languages. Right now, I’ll be honest, the “system” by which we manage the library records does not handle two languages consistently or optimally. Some records are completely in Khmer. Some are completely in English. These states of being are due to, of course, the nature of the original document. But the goal, which is aligned with the entire website, is to make the library dual language. This will be a major challenge.

I have been working closely with the editors to figure out how to best translate keywords from English to Khmer and vice versa, and apply the taxonomy (which has already been translated). I have been attempting to find the optimal way to enhance library records for both English and Khmer documents so that researchers of either language will be able to seek out the information they desire and using the language they find most appropriate. On the technical side, MARC records are slightly challenging to do this with, but it can be done (albeit a bit sloppily). The important ideas to take into consideration are those that deal with accessibility.

Having a flexible document is a document that can be malleable and moved around in such a way to allow easy and powerful description to take place. When it comes to language, the power of the description falls on the librarian and the editors the librarian is working with. Thus it comes down to additional dialogue, communication, and language exchange. As time passes and the language becomes easier and more fluid, with the relationships among the team developing, and the cultural context becoming more understood, the work on the library can blossom. And the library can become easier to explore for everyone in the community.