We recently sat down with Ed Van Gemert, Vice Provost of Libraries and University Librarian, to discuss his trip to Astana, Kazakhstan this past June. During his week-long trip, he presented at the Eurasian Higher Education Leaders Forum, where he met with colleagues and higher education experts in an effort to create a platform for dialogue to discuss the most recent issues in education.

The interview provides Van Gemert’s enlightening and thoughtful perspectives on the UW-Madison and Nazarbayev University partnership, the Eurasian Higher Education Leaders Forum, and the value of consulting to, and learning from institutions with cultures different than our own.

Van Gemert on the history of the Nazarbayev University partnership

Ed Van Gemert at Nazarbayev University
Ed Van Gemert at Nazarbayev University

First and foremost, I want to give credit to my UW-Madison colleagues who have helped develop the partnership over the past few years. Among others, Louise Robbins, Professor Emeritus and previous director of the UW-Madison School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), [as well as] Andy Spencer, Victor Gorodinsky, and Cat Phan from [the Libraries], who have visited Astana and have contributed to the partnership these last 3-4 years. Andy visited and consulted in the area of acquisitions, Victor in the area of cataloging, Cat in technology, and Louise Robbins in the area of library policy and development.

I should also mention the coordination and direction provided by the Division of International Studies. We work closely with Cynthia Williams and with Virginia Martin, who help coordinate the partnership and make sure expectations in the contract for each party are understood and met.

Nazarbayev University Library staff have also visited UW-Madison. Last year, Aliya Sarsembinova, the Director of Nazarbayev University Library, and another of her staff visited for a week and shadowed my work, came to numerous university meetings, [and] visited the Libraries to get to know how we do our work here. Prior to that, several Nazarbayev Library staff visited, particularly in the area of technical services. This coming fall, there will be another staff person coming to attend SLIS to take instruction on institutional repositories and digital libraries.

We are now in the fourth iteration of the contract and UW-Madison continues to consult Nazarbayev University in the areas of arts, humanities, social sciences, and libraries. There are other institutions around the world, including the University of London and MIT, which consult in other areas of higher education with the university. Currently, they accept 500 students a year and are beginning their fourth year [as a higher education institution] in the fall. They are also starting graduate programs in a number of other areas.

On the goals of the visit

Participants at the Eurasian Higher Education Leaders Forum
Participants at the Eurasian Higher Education Leaders Forum

I was invited by Aliya Sarsembinova to speak at the Eurasian Higher Education Leaders Forum held at Nazarbayev University, as well as to participate in a national press conference with international university presidents, and me representing the library. I agreed to attend because I was very interested in learning more about the partnership and the work that we have been doing, and wanted to support the efforts of UW-Madison and the work that our colleagues had done. The question posed for the press conference was “what makes a university successful?” Of course, I contributed that “there are no great universities without great libraries.”

My first presentation [focused on the] mechanics of strategic planning, including the process involved, timelines, commitments required, need for sponsorship and ownership of the process, transparency needed, documentation, and data collection. The second presentation [focused on] administrative organization, or in our case, administrative reorganization. The third

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accessibility and universal design. I am the chair of the ARL working group on accessibility and universal design, and I was able to cite a number of North American research projects and work that has been done at institutions to comply with accessibility and universal design. Accessibility and universal design is differently interpreted and understood outside of North America and Western Europe. Central Asia recognizes they have work to do in this area. The presentations were all based on my experiences as Vice Provost for Libraries, and I believe were very well received.

Overall, I enjoyed the conference. It was great getting to know colleagues, particularly Russian directors, and to establish an international colleague group.

On preparing for the visit

I was apprehensive [to go on the trip]. I’m not Russian speaking, and I was slightly daunted by the significant time change. I had not travelled that distance in one trip. I’ve been to Russia before- St. Petersburg, and I’ve been to the Baltic, but that was the furthest I had gone in one trip. It takes about 36 hours to get [to Astana]. It takes a while for the body to adjust to an 11 hour time difference.

I [also] don’t claim to be an expert in Central Asia and I don’t speak Russian or Kazakh, but I did want to find out a bit about the history of the region before I went. Along with speaking with folks who had been there, Andy suggested that I read the Martha Brill Olcott title, The Kazakhs, which was written in the late 80’s just before the breakup of the Soviet Union. It’s primarily a social science treatment and speaks to collectivization and the various five-year plans that Stalin and Khrushchev had in place. The book that I found to be most interesting was In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins; a more modern treatment. I read it while I was there-I would go out and have my day and go back and do a little bit of reading, and sure enough it verified some of the things that I was seeing.

On the Kazakhstani Culture

I found [Kazakhstani] culture to be absolutely fascinating. It’s a [primarily] nomadic culture with very few urban areas. Russian is the principle language in Kazakhstan, and Russian people are the majority population, so there is history in terms of policies that [the Soviet Union] had implemented years and years ago. The Kazakh language is now being taught in K-12. Astana itself, the capital of Kazakhstan, meaning “capital” in Kazakh, is very fascinating. The architecture is eclectic, reflecting a wide variety of architectural styles.

Transport Tower; Astana's Ministry of Transport and Communications building
Transport Tower; Astana’s Ministry of Transport and Communications building

But far and away the highlight of the week for me was getting to know the Kazakh people that I was able to interact with. These folks, primarily library staff, were wonderful, kind, gracious, and very well educated. They spoke multiple languages, including Russian, Kazakh, and English, if not more, which is impressive. One interesting thing about Nazarbayev University specifically, is that many of the faculty and administrators come from the West. Some library staff members have also worked in universities in Western Europe and in North America.

Ed Van Gemert with Nazarbayev University Colleagues
Ed Van Gemert with Nazarbayev University Colleagues

I also had the good fortune of travelling with Kyle Marquardt, a Political Science Ph.D. candidate from UW-Madison. He was conducting field research in Russia and Central Asia, and specifically, on the Nazarbayev partnership. He was not only my translator, but helped me understand the culture throughout the trip. We would get together for breakfast, coffee, or dinner and he would help me understand some of the nuances of the culture-it was remarkably helpful to have a travel buddy who was so knowledgeable, not only the language, but the history and culture of the region. Without his help, I would have definitely had some gaps in knowledge and some misunderstandings. I owe Kyle a debt of gratitude; he really helped make my trip more successful.

On the current Nazarbayev University partnership

Ed Van Gemert with Jim Agee, Deputy Director of the Library at Nazarbayev University, in front of Astana's main shopping mall--built to resemble a traditional yurt
Ed Van Gemert with Jim Agee, Deputy Director of the Library at Nazarbayev University, in front of Astana’s main shopping mall–built to resemble a traditional yurt

One of the real bright spots of the partnership is [Nazarbayev University’s] use of the Wisconsin TechSearch. They originally wanted to develop an Interlibrary Loan agreement with UW-Madison Libraries, but it’s difficult to get materials in and out of customs internationally, and I didn’t see how that was going to work. We ended up arranging a customer relationship with the Wisconsin TechSearch, which is a document delivery service affiliated with the College of Engineering. They set up an account where they can purchase article delivery and the information they need. Faculty there appreciate and value the service.

They are [also] very interested in continuing to hold [professional] conversations, in fact Leslie Moyo, our Associate University Librarian for Public Services, is setting up teleconferences for our public services staff to speak with one another. Areas of interest include access and user services and institutional repositories and the digital library.

On the importance of developing global partnerships

There are several reasons [these types of partnerships are important]; number one is that we just have so much to offer. We’ve got such depth and expertise in our staff. The expertise is needed and appreciated by others. And then secondly, there is much for us to learn as well. The value of understanding different cultures, our collection development that we have done over the years, and the languages that we teach reinforces the fact that we are a world class university. It’s also very important for us as librarians to have an international perspective.

I learned far more than I gave on this trip. I think, even though people told me the presentations were incredibly valuable, by giving those presentations, I learned a lot. The feedback was helpful for me to better understand my own institution and the way in which I work. Plus to have the advantage of learning a little bit about how Russian universities work and how Kazakh Universities work was invaluable. It’s really both the giving and the taking.

On the future of the partnership

Some of it is dependent on how long [Nazarbayev University] will need or want these formal western connections. It’s hard to imagine, given the professional relationships that all of us have now made with the Nazarbayev staff, that there wouldn’t be at least some sort of an informal arrangement, moving forward. Andy’s made connections there, Victor has made connections, Louise developed strong connections, and the director and I are colleagues now. I think that the relationship is going to continue with the staff at Nazarbayev. Like I said, when you do that, you end up learning more than you think.

The Libraries News & Events staff would like to thank Ed Van Gemert for spending time with us to discuss this fascinating visit to Kazakhstan. For more information on the UW-Madison Libraries and Nazarbayev University partnership, check out the Kazakhstan Series News stories.