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We’re delighted to welcome professor emerita Louise Robbins to the site today to share her experience of developing UW-Madison Libraries’ global partnership with Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. Her perspective on building an academic library from the ground up is fascinating, and offers a wealth of opportunities for new librarians from UW-Madison.
Louise S. Robbins taught at UW-Madison SLIS from 1991 to 2011 and retired as Professor and Director Emerita. She was previously librarian at East Central (Oklahoma) University’s Linscheid Library and at Byng School, where she was also a reading specialist. Her research has focused on the history of libraries in the McCarthy period, with particular focus on censorship and intellectual freedom. Her book, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship and the American Library (Oklahoma University Press, 2000) has won both the Willa Award from Women Writing the West and the Eliza Atkins Gleason Award for the best book in library history from ALA’s Library History Round Table. Her articles have appeared in Library Quarterly, Libraries & Culture, the Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, and the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Her 1998 article “‘Fighting McCarthyism through Film': A Library Censorship Case Becomes a Storm Center” was named winner of the first Donald G. Davis award for the best article published in library history in the preceding two years and received the ALISE research article award. Robbins is a volunteer trainer with the Evergreen Education Foundation, which supports rural public and school libraries in China. She has lectured at Zhongshan University, Guangzhou, China, and in Korea, Japan, and Kyrgyzstan in addition to consulting in Kazakhstan. She is past president of ALISE and winner of the Service to ALISE award. She has been named both Librarian of the Year in Wisconsin and an Oklahoma Library Legend.
News: Tell us a little bit about your career as a librarian. What led you to your work with global partnerships in the library world?
Louise Robbins (LR): I became a librarian after a stint as a reading specialist. I decided it was easiest for youngsters to learn to read if they found things they were highly motivated to read–and I had found libraries important to me as I was growing up. In fact, as a 9-11 year old living in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia, in 1953-55, I managed to keep learning even when I had a case of “stay-home-from-school-itis” by reading my way through the United States Information Agency Library.
News: Why Khazakstan? How did this partnership come together in the beginning?
LR: Why Kazakhstan? The President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan decided he wanted to develop a world-class research university on a Western model and the group he put together to make it happen put out a call for proposals. Professor Uli Schamiloglu of UW-Madison’s Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia got permission to make a proposal and UW was selected as one of several partners to help get the university started. We proposed to help start the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS). Because I had traveled several years ago to Kyrgystan as a guest of the State Department to attend a conference on Libraries and Civil Society and had talked to Uli’s students about it, he knew of my interest in the area. So, he invited me to be the first consultant to work with the brand new library. Initially, my Libraries and the Global Knowledge Society class collaborated with the first librarians hired at NU to develop the opening day collection for SHSS. It was a great experience, talking by Skype and building a collection even before there was a curriculum–quite a feat. The students did a great job!
My first trip to Astana, in addition to meeting with librarians and some faculty and administrators at NU, I was asked to speak to a gathering of academic librarians at the National Academic Library. It was a great experience.
News: Why do you think it is important for libraries like those at University of Wisconsin-Madison to reach out to libraries in other parts of the world? What do you see as the greatest benefit to partnerships like this one with NU?
LR: I think we have some expertise–and some values–to share with such libraries. For the students who were able to participate, I think it was valuable as a learning experience–we have no idea sometimes what obstacles others overcome to provide library services. Or how challenging it is to start a library from scratch. I think we can always learn from others–sometimes simply by seeing ourselves more clearly.
News: How do you see this partnership growing in the future?
LR: This is a hard question to answer. I think NU librarians have a good handle on what they need. Their task is complicated by bureaucracy we can’t help with. If we can provide some moral support or professional education, that may be all we can do at this point. I know that some NU librarians would like to come to school here, but there isn’t much we can do about that other than consider their applications along with others.
News: What would you love to see happen at NU in the next year?
I would love to see some SLIS grads go and work a year or two there. Unfortunately, the pay isn’t too good–but the learning experience would be great!
News: What has been the most memorable / exciting aspect of your work with Nazarbayev University libraries?
Being in on the beginning of something is very exciting. When I first went, there were few books and no signage or decor. Only one floor was functioning and there were only about 8 staff members. There are now two floors open, decor and signage are great, and there are about 20 staffers, a number of them MLS librarians. They have a lot of electronic databases, and a pretty good–and growing book collection both paper and ebooks. They provide a full range of services.