Be a librarian: See the world

For Annemarie Welteke, the only problem with her job as a librarian is the marketing:  she thinks the Navy stole her slogan.

“You know how they used to say ‘see the world, join the Navy?’” Saybrook’s librarian asks.  “I always think of it as:  see the world, become a librarian.  I know it’s not so common an experience, but really the job of librarian is much the same throughout the world.  Having worked in five different countries, I can practice as a librarian anywhere.”

Recently she had a chance to prove it, when – as the recipient of a prestigious Fulbright Senior Specialist award – Annemarie served as a peer advisor to the national library of Bahrain, and to the library of the University of Bahrain.

For anyone else, this might have been the opportunity of a lifetime.  But for Annemarie, it was one more stop in a lifetime of opportunities.

Annemarie’s career has taken her from Japan (three years) to Ethiopia (nine years) to India (one year) and to the U.S.  Here at Saybrook, she found her intellectual home – but of course she wanted to travel again.  


That’s what made the Fulbright Senior Specialist program the perfect outlet for her:  in fact, it might have been designed with her in mind.  Now in its fifth year, the Fulbright Senior Specialist award offers senior university staff  – people who could benefit from extended, sabbatical like, opportunities but who could never be given a sabbatical (Saybrook go without its librarian for a year?  Come on now.) – the opportunity to connect with peer institutions around the world for shorter durations.

In fact, five years ago, Annemarie was one of the first people considered for the award – which made it so frustrating that, for years, the timing just never worked out.

“When they publicized their pilot program, I said ‘this is great!’ and I applied and got on their roster,” she remembers.  She intended to go work with the library at Ashesi University in Ghana – but after a year’s preparation, her contact there suddenly left, scrapping the program.

Then Fulbright invited her to go work with a library in China, “but it was too short notice,” she recalls.

In February of 2007, she received another invitation from Fulbright:  they had an opportunity for a librarian in Bahrain – did she want to take it?

“I decided:  this is it.”

At the time, she had 42 days of vacation due her.  After getting back from Bahrain last month, she now has 28 hours.

She’d never been to the Middle East – and in Bahrain she found a culture blurring the boundaries between Western capitalism, traditional society, and Islamic faith.

“Bahrain, a Muslim country, is probably the most liberal country among the gulf state countries,” she says.  “In fact, it’s easy for someone like me going there because it’s not so different.”

Shia and Sunni Muslims are both represented in the society, she says, and Bahrain has an 85 percent literacy rate and a thriving tourism industry.  If you want to go out drinking until four in the morning, you’re in the right place.

Additionally “I found the practice of Islam to be very accessible to learn about.  The mosques were open to women, you just had to wear a black robe … unlike being out on the street, where people’s clothes were equally divided between western and Arabic, and the women were not totally mummified.  The cultural center at the national library was located next to a beautiful mosque, and they gave one hour introductory tours in all languages:  they were very educational, very open.  There was a beautiful museum of illuminated Korans that had been restored.”

She found her professional experience to be equally varied.

“I had peers in the University library who were not very different from those I would find here,” she said.  “The University of Bahrain had mandated that they were going to go online, and I was supposed to do an IT assessment and introduce online teaching.”

The IT work was all done in one visit – and Annemarie was impressed.  “I concluded that their IT department is on a par with any American university.  They were very knowledgeable, had foresight, and it was a very collegial experience to work with them.”

So she focused instead on helping them develop online classes, and there she found a receptive and engaged audience.  She used the course she teaches at Saybrook as a model, bringing her direct professional experience to a new context – exactly what Fulbright had in mind.

“I had 15 students, and we had very good workshop sessions on how to move from face to face to online,” she says.  “Then we went even beyond that, to how they could use RSS feeds, social networking software, on how they could integrate that into their library work.”

Her experience at the new Bahrain national library – which she describes in awed breath as “palatial” – was another story.

For one thing, she had fewer professional peers:  the national library only had two professional librarians on staff and the rest were new employees, mostly women in their 30s, being trained in a new profession.  They were generally tech savvy, but not “library savvy.”

There were also technical issues.

“The library was not completely networked when I arrived – they didn’t have the online catalog, the databases, the web in an integrated wireless network connected.  So I ended up just teaching how to search the internet,” she said.  “I helped them find useful online Arabic databases and websites that could be used to support searches beyond just a set of Google hits.  I must say I learned a lot myself about Arabic and Arabic websites.”

In total, she spent six weeks in Bahrain – “not just as a tourist, but engaged with people” – and by the end of her stay, Annemarie said, she’d met peers from across the Middle East.

“I met somebody from Lebanon, another librarian is from Syria, another from Kuwait:  that exposure, I think, is priceless.  I have now a very different notion of the Middle East.  It’s no longer just a desert on the map, it’s much more differentiated now.”

She encourages other administrative staff to apply for Fulbright Senior Specialist grants, and is deeply gratified by the opportunity to work in one more region of the globe.

“Of all the inhabited continents, the Middle East was the one I hadn’t gotten to,” she says.  “That and Australia.  I may make it to Australia yet.”