My recap of library work in Cambodia

From a write-up I posted on the ODC blog:

Regardless of society, culture, nationality, political climate, technological access and innovation, job, gender, profession, and so on, everyone needs high quality information to tackle their daily problems, and it’s been my goal to pursue how that is best accomplished. From strict, conservative library catalogs, to sleek mobile technology, to web platforms that weave stories, the exploration of information provisions has been aligned with my poetic self for years.

But how does that relate to Cambodia and ODC, and why? Cambodia’s held a special place in my heart for a number of years after I encountered it (slightly) with a Cambodian American in Philly. Cambodia does not exactly come up often in American history books (despite the very recent history), which is a reason I wanted to study it even more, get insight into it, and explore it from a fresh, blank perspective.

Read the entire post and share your thoughts with me. I’m hoping to, in the near future, explore the library work and my exposure to libraries and information providers in Cambodia in greater detail.


My iSchool Guest Post: “Loving Libraries in Cambodia”

Greetings Cambodian friends, and those interested in Cambodian libraries, education, and literature! A recent reflection on Cambodian library work was just posted on my school’s blog. It’s not terribly in-depth, but provides a good overview of what I’ve been working on since I arrived.

Visit the iSchool blog  to read my article, and please leave your feedback!

Information Literacy in Cambodia: Training/Workshop Recap

Last weekend I had the extreme pleasure of co-facilitating a workshop on information literacy in Cambodia. For the general overview of the training, you should check out co-coordinator’s Kolap Mao’s summary, and you can view other pages on this blog for access to training materials. Overall I would argue the training experience was very successful, though it did have many challenges.

Spending a Quarter Designing Training

Designing training takes time. It’s actually one of the most difficult skills I’ve worked on, and I’m by no means an expert on it after this quarter, but I’ve seen so many questions and challenges in front of me throughout the training process that it’s one of the most invaluable experiences I’ve seen through. Training takes time because there is so much in assessing the learning needs of a group of people and a cultural landscape that’s potentially endless and you-as-trainer has to have a handle on when to stop.

Learning outcomes need to be established from the get-go and, as we saw multiple times during the design process, sometimes you just don’t know what the outcomes are, because you aren’t entirely sure of your audience, your body of learners. In our case, we were going to be teaching information literacy concepts to library staff throughout Cambodia, staff whose skills and abilities were not certified by certificate, standard educational backgrounds, or pre-determined cultural norms. We did not know who we were instructing (outside of their interest in the library profession), and though all training has its ambiguities in terms of participants, we felt particularly in the dark.

The process of the design started with goals that included first training  (primarily academic) library staff but ultimately training university professors and, even further down the road, university students in general. Like American universities and their own library instruction requirements (where undergrad kids need to visit the library and learn about appropriate research tools and processes during their first term), the Cambodian Library Association seeks to instill a sense of vigilance and vigor by doing the same here in Cambodia. But at this point Cambodia’s far from that goal.

After we figured out our audience, we decided on delivery: creating online training materials and then delivering them through the workshop. It took some figuring out how to best create a workshop and, to be honest, it was a bit last-minute in arranging the training (I believe only three weeks or so in advance was the schedule finalized). In between the time of the workshop and the beginning of the academic quarter, I worked closely with Kolap to figure out what could be taught for IL in Cambodia. It helped that I was learning all about IL through another course (taken at the same time) on IL, taught by Lorraine Bruce.

Kolap was the seer when it came to topical material and the overall scope of content, as she knew the Cambodian culture, particularly the library staff knowledge. She is, after all, the head librarian for PUC, one of the more prominent academic institutions in Phnom Penh. After she provided an outline of needs to be addressed in the training, tools were chosen. Despite being in the same city, most of the work was conducted asynchronously, with me writing content (or using content from authoritative sources) and sharing the work with Kolap via Google Drive and Dropbox. After several degrees of editing, the working draft was complete.

Process-wise, a couple of additional tasks took significant time: 1) finding high quality and low quality student papers to use as examples of research in Cambodia; 2) writing an example paper (which ended up being on LGBT and, unfortunately, was never used in the training due to time constraints) of high quality research; 3) creating a citation guide with example citations of many Cambodian-centric resources; 4) creating an appendix describing many major types of resources. Unfortunately many of these took a significant time (even if some of the info was from cited sources) and may not see any use from the participants. Fortunately it was a great learning experience for me and the first time I’ve been flooded with academic work in some time. After the content was written it totaled over 100 pages, a staggering body of work when considering the 2-month time frame. I still remember being positioned in front of my laptop night after night doing research and trying to keep my head straight through the duration of the training.

The process for uploading the files to this site (which serves as a temporary home until the Cambodian Library Association website is finalized) was straightforward, and preparing the materials (including the Powerpoint) was the last step. There was some minor scuffling and final edits one would expect immediately before the training, but the only imposition standing in the way was the heat and the mosquitoes invading my apartment on a regular, nightly basis. Hot season in Cambodia is treacherous and damaging to the psyche in its choke-hold.

Recapping the Workshop

In the end, hard work paid off. Kolap and I actually saw 26 people enter our training (one snuck in!) and everyone but two stayed until the end of the training. What’s more, everyone was generally on time throughout the four parts of the workshop: day one morning, day one afternoon, day two morning, and day two afternoon. To be clear, the participants did have to pay to partake in the workshop: the fee was to pay for the costs of the materials, and also contribute to the Cambodian Library Association. In most (if not all) cases, attendees from both Phnom Penh and the other areas of Cambodia had their way paid by host institutions, which isn’t unusual or surprising, but also is important when addressing attendance and retaining participation. What about the training itself? How did it go? Was it smooth or choppy? It was my longest, most enduring educational moment yet, with two full days of concentration, summative evaluation thrown in there for fun, and lots of discussion. It was also me being the lead speaker/presenter (aside from maybe one or two moments of dialogue) presenting the material.

Sometimes the hardest part of instruction is being adaptive and understanding how needs change throughout the educational process. Whether activities take significantly longer than expected, or activities one has designed before the training started soon seem irrelevant or inappropriate, being able to change the process on the fly is important. And yet it’s not ideal, as a lot of the learners seemed to depend on schedule rigidity and being able to rely on what was to come in the curriculum. But at this stage in the instructional process, it’s hard to provide a training that is perfect and perfectly arranged. The broadness and lack of time for training was a major barrier: how to cram as much content in as possible without missing anything. And how to cover concepts adequately? If we learned anything on the planning and design end, it’s that 2 days is too short for a training of the scope we covered.

To cover (even on the surface) information literacy generally and in all its sub-components (research process, citations, resource discovery, analysis, etc) is nearly impossible to do well in just two days. I would argue, and Kolap and I discussed this after the training was over, that 5 days would be an ideal number. In fact, 2 days would be more appropriately for any single component (of the six or so) within the training we designed. You’re probably wondering about language. Several attendees did not know very much English at all, and despite the requested qualifications of the attendees, one did not know any English. Rather than having the entire training translated line by line, we relied on localizing translation to other attendees who knew English. This system is far from perfect, but is practical and thus effective for a lot of people. Going forward, Khmer instruction is going to be necessary.

Translating the materials and then having the training taught exclusively in Khmer should be a goal for the Cambodian Library Association in the near future, but will take some time and effort. For our training, there were several moments (especially during prompts of activities) where Kolap stopped me and spoke to the class in Khmer. There are those individuals who know both languages and have some experience as translator and some who have not much experience. You can tell by how concise the translations are. In the case of Kolap, she’s an effective translator who can get across ideas in a fast and direct way, which is extremely beneficial t he training participants. What’s more, we went with a “less is more” approach, effectively offering more translation help when needed on a one-on-one basis.

Successes and Failures

Evaluation has to occur on a qualitative level going forward. One thing I didn’t mention yet (but which can easily be seen when looking at the training materials) is our administration of a test to assess the skills of the participants. We had a pre-test and a post-test and both were the same. A couple notes: the pre-test was administered and the participants definitely did not have enough time to complete the test (the tests were seven pages and the average page reached was under 4). We extended the post-test time length and saw significant improvement with completed tests; however, we did not grade either test, and we did not even review the tests taken the second time. We did, however, go through the tests through a slideshow and had students provide the answers through the training.

One thing I would like to have seen was a test that addressed more of the theoretical and value-oriented IL content, since much of the workshop’s materials were driven by these ideas. Time has already been addressed and I’ll comment on it one more time: there needed to be more time for this workshop, as it was designed, and I would argue for smaller workshops, perhaps one day each, centered around specific IL concepts. Time for processing and engaging students through activities was extremely limited. I look back and I should have asked for a second homework assignment asking students to, on their own terms, reflect on the experience of the workshop and submit statements through a formal process.

All that said, here are a couple other points I should mention: 1) one of the students, someone I knew prior to this workshop through another project, created translations of information literacy and shared them on Facebook after the event; 2) a Facebook group for academic librarians saw a spike in membership after it was encouraged for all the participants to join the group; 3) the majority of the attendees had either a laptop or table to use and take notes with; 4) participants all created Powerpoints for the one group activity of the workshop; and 5) at many times I broke away from the material on the screen, and that is something I should have worked on, particularly making sure the Powerpoint was aligned in a literal sense with the content in the training booklet.

This post could go on forever, and as much as I’d like that, I don’t have “forever” to write this post. So instead I will end it here. A final couple of notes, though. First, any questions or feedback should be left in a comment on this blog or sent to me by email at gbem419 [at] uw [dot] edu. Second, if anyone is interested in getting involved with the Cambodian Library Association for a similar or completely different internship or volunteer experience (some of which may be achieved online and from abroad), email Kolap at kmao [at] puc [dot] edu [dot] kh. I can guarantee any help you provide will be invaluable to the library universe Cambodia and unforgettable to you.


Photos from My #Cambodia Information Literacy Training This Past Weekend

Below are just some of the pictures from the very successful IL training I co-conducted with MAO Kolap as part of the DFW training program on information literacy I’ve been working on over the past few months. It was a great pleasure (though exhausting it was too) to engage Cambodian librarians and library staff over two days. I will be writing a formal response to this experience this coming weekend.

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Second Term, Second Grace

Greetings to all those who have been following my trek through Cambodia and the world of information. I have had a significant break, but the new academic quarter has begun and I am now on my way to new library opportunities. First and foremost, I have to confess that the internship with ODC has turned into a part time job with ODC. Secondly, I’m working part time at FCC doing marketing (social media management and newsletter/blog writing). Thirdly, I’ve been doing some freelance copy writing Fourthly, I’m taking three classes: Capstone, Information Literacy, and another Directed Field Work (DFW) internship. So it’s a busy life, and I’ll have to keep this update short.

The internship will be with the Cambodia Library Association. Under the supervising of MAO Kolap, who I have mentioned in the past, who is the librarian at PUC here in Phnom Penh, I will be creating information literacy instruction materials for library staff people. The media form these materials will take are as follows: booklet, digital slideshow, and in-person training. The latter will be done in March as a pilot that will be used on a test group before Kolap moves on to work with other audiences, including professors and students.

All in all, it’s still just as exciting being in Cambodia now as when I first arrived. While I feel I’ve learned a lot, I certainly haven’t learned anything, and would never consider myself an authority, but I’m slowly getting more and more experienced, in good ways and bad ways. One thing that will not be going on this quarter is the weekly blog post. Originally it was set to be; however, my academic adviser for this quarter, Lorraine Bruce, has advised me to focus my writing and presentation efforts on a static page that can be displayed to interested parties. I’ve come to grips with this idea and since I’m already wring so much for the project itself, it seems logical to keep the time on the blog to a minimum.

So that’s it. I’m going to keep it at that and direct you to check out the page on Information Literacy which will be displayed somewhere on this site in the very near future. If you have any questions or feedback, comment here or send me an email, if you know how to find me!

Internship Week 14: The Show Goes On


Last Friday was my last day as an intern at Open Development Cambodia. If you’ve been following this blog, then you know about my adventures as a library and information management dude, as a socializing outreacher, as a presenter at events, as an explorer and adventurer here in Phnom Penh. For those of you who don’t know much about my experience, the best way to get a good understanding is by reviewing the previous posts.

In short, as this is supposed to be a “Summarize and Profess the Future” post, I’ll do just that. First, the mandatory blanket statement: working with ODC was a fantastic experience. For better or for worse, the internship was quite short (at around 3 months in length) and could have easily been double that. But the timing seemed quite well, too, as my projects and daily routine were becoming routine. Had I continued on in the same liminal intern mode, I probably would not have achieved my potential (see below). And so I’m glad that it’s over. But I must not discredit the experiences, and there were so many, I encountered and learned through while in that amazing office. From learning about cultural norms and language, from learning about management and influence, from learning about the library and what it means to be “open,” from learning about the many, many challenges in political and social upheaval and difficulty, from learning about communication and teamwork and group membership, the experience with the project was powerful, important, and well worth it.

That’s not to say the internship was perfect, as nothing is perfect. There were some major goals I had, particularly around design, that simply were not met. Many of these goals were not failed because of me, but due to limitations in software, or a lack of resources to help support getting the work done. Understanding these unaccomplished tasks is extremely important and reflective of how many of my professional experiences have gone. We come up with friction and tension in our daily lives. Being a grad student in a realm of the abstract and ideas, at times the ideal solution to an issue, the answer that will make everything infinitely better, seems like it can be more obtainable than another circumstance, like a pre-grad-school job. But not being able to successfully complete a task or project in the ideal has been quite the learning experience. In a way, it’s numbed me to reality. Despite the “Ever thing/Anything is possible” way of life, we need to understand that in some cases there is reason for something to be not completed, something not to go full-way.

In other cases, there is compromise. For example, if ODC has one task that will have higher utility or impact the website or the way of life for researchers/visitors to the site more than, say, updating meta-data in the catalog, then that other task will take precedence. It’s okay to look at your own needs and put them behind others. This is what working on a single project is all about: figuring out the order and structure of the project as whole. In many ways, the ODC project, because it has no clear end-point, no clear ultimate goal, is beyond the scope of my understanding on Project Management (I wish my professor had taught about those types of projects, those that are persistent, for lack of a better word). But in many ways the word “project” is thus an inaccurate term, at least in the PM world, is it not? I’m not entirely sure.

Let me change tracks of thought and say this: despite completing the internship, I’ll be back at ODC in a couple of weeks. From January to June, I will be working 20 hours a week for ODC. I’ll be doing a lot of what I had been doing during the internship, except that it will be a paid gig (and one of my first paid library gigs, to be honest). So that’s quite exciting. I’ll be showing up also to train (hopefully, ideally) someone who will become the library staff person. This goal was part of my original TOR for the internship, but it was never accomplished because we (meaning me and other crucial members of the ODC staff) never focused on finding someone to work at ODC. There were interviews for a new editor position but none of the applicants appeared capable of being trained for the library position on top of all their expected editorial duties. So it will be time to escalate this task and truly get it done, complete, ready to bring about the positive change for when I no longer am in Cambodia. Other duties will include much of what I’ve already put into motion: a continuation of all general cataloging responsibilities, establishing relationships with other information centers throughout the city (which has already been put into motion), and generally improving the library’s design. But more importantly, there will be some major changes happening with the website (potentially a switch away from WordPress) in the future, and though it might not happen while I’m in Cambodia, the planning will happen, and having the library consultation (both through me and Margaret), will be invaluable. I honestly can’t see a data migration being anything but messy with NewGenLib, but maybe it will be easier and more imaginatively substantial than I can currently imagine. My one hope is to have the search interface augmented by a discovery layer in the next site, and maybe having a site that runs beyond MARC records will allow for a metadata schema that will be more specific to the needs of ODC.

In addition to working part time for ODC, I’ll be working part time for FCC, a local hotel and restaurant in Phnom Penh, where I’ll be doing blogging and marketing support. I’ll also to be doing another internship with Mao Kolap for the Cambodia Library Association: I’ll be working on information literacy workshops that can be taught to first library staff throughout Cambodia and then applied to students and teachers at universities. As if that wasn’t enough, I’ll be spending time working on two courses: my final project on the DPLA and one course on information literacy (which will support and will be supported by the internship).

In short, the first chapter of my time in Cambodia may be over, and the first of two major experiences with ODC may now behind me, but my time in Cambodia and my time with ODC is not yet over. And that’s very exciting, because I’m constantly learning, and constantly changing the more I live here. Maybe that’s apparent through these blog entries. Maybe not. But that’s for you to see and me to see later. About the future of this blog: I will actually use this blog for similar posts when my next internship occurs, as I will have similar requirements to fulfill. I expect the posts will be shorter because the internship will technically be shorter in terms of academic credit and total work performed. But you will have to continue to follow me to see for yourself how I approach it.

Internship Week 13: Put Your Presentation Where Your Experience Is

This late posting is coming due to me having a delightfully packed schedule over the past 7 days. Last Thursday I ended up hosting another poetry open mic at Java Cafe, which led to a late night on the town. Friday, being exhausted, I ended up rushing around after the internship hours were over, got an offer from the editor of the Advisor, turned down the AEC teaching gig (for a second time), and then went to an arts and crafts party at a bar near my current apartment. I ended up staying too late making this wonderful collage out of tour guide advertisements.

Over the past two days I had the pleasure of joining a group of around 33 artists, all Cambodian to some degree, on a writing tour at Chambork Eco-Resort, which is near Kirirom, between Phnom Penh and the coast. The experience was fantastic because it allowed me to gain access to an area of Camboda life and history that I have been reading about during my adventures as library interns at Open Development Cambodia: the forest. Development consists of many angles, and one of them is the removal of natural resources, and resources in general. Deforestation and forest cover change over time are two major elements of Cambodia that have been in the spotlight for some time now. ODC just released this widely-reported page to the masses last week. You’ll notice the links in the corner of the page directing to library documents, which were hand selected by me. I feel like an anonymous benefactor–albeit a minor one, but one nonetheless. In fact. since I’m on this tangent, I’ll just go to speak out and say that the work done in under two weeks to make that page and release it to the public was extraordinary. The efforts put in by all the teams–the mappers, the ITers, the editors, and everybody else–impressed me over and over again, and it makes me proud to be the ghostly figure working among the champions, offering murmurs of advice on design and language when I can.

Back to this weekend: visiting Chambork was an intense experience as it involved teaching writers and non-writers alike, many many elements of the poetic mind, including motion/transience, and observation/environment. The experiences afforded to me as an educator were extraordinary enough, but I found myself being educated by many people on many subjects. I was the only English language native there, and though there was a fantastic impromptu translator by the name of Say Mony, who works for Voices of America, around to help me out when necessary, I did have the language barrier as a mode of isolation and yet inspiration as well. We toured the location, we did a home-stay, and we taught village students about writing. The event ended in a trip to a waterfall (pic below), which offered fantastic escape from city life and all its distractions.


Many of the problems with academia (and bad internships, by extension), revolve around too much theory and not enough practice/application of the ideas considered in the classroom. I would argue grad school is the same way. It can even be “worse” or “more intensely disassociative” than undergraduate experience for those students who don’t push themselves to go out and apply their education to everyday life and every possible opportunity for learning outside of the classroom. I’m no longer the lazy student (though I am exhausted most of the time, these days), but I had to learn like many people at early stages to make the most out of my time with everything I have done (especially those things, like grad school, that cost a fortune). Visiting the eco-resort was powerful mainly because it wasn’t tied with ODC, but still applied to the presentations of ideas I have gotten since starting grad school and since being at ODC.


In addition to learning about deforestation, we had the chance to check out the local library, school building, and pagoda: essentially a trinity of information centers scattered across the grounds of the entrance to the jungle, and a few kilometers from the heart of the village. The spaces were each beautiful and each had their own sense of truth to them. Additionally, the library was very new. While it seems archaic (and perhaps, by Western standards, is, with its bamboo walls and shelves), the library is a fantastic example of minimalism and ultimate utility. It is a house of books, and is open every day. You’re not going to find an MLIS graduate classifying the shelves, but you will find a used mess of books scattered this way and that. The disorder brought a smile to my face as I contemplated what it means for a library to be used, and once again revisited the idea that libraries outside of the “developed” parts of the world are still used as great generators of knowledge and holistic education.

Lessons turn up in unexpected places, and usually they come through immense challenges. From sleep-deprived poetics training to trying and being a part of a huge group of Khmer-speakers, this weekend actually reflected, quite well I must add, on my ability to handle a situation of experience and “information specialization” here in Cambodia. I have one more week and I still haven’t talked about some of my other experiences. Officially the course of the “DFW” is over, too, but the internship’s contract is still going, so I will still report. And a special preview: over the next few months I’ll be working with the Cambodia Library Association on developing some information literacy training for library staff throughout Cambodia. This upcoming experience will be quite different and yet equally mesmerizing. I’ll most likely continue to post about it after a two-week break, so stay-tuned!