Editor’s note: Rick Luce will hold a Director’s Chat to discuss budget issues on July 7 from 10-11:30 a.m. in the Jones Room. All employees are encouraged to attend.
As many of you know, I recently returned from externally funded visits to China and Egypt to discuss collaboration and to participate in initial planning for a program for sub-Saharan Africa’s librarians and IT professionals based on the Frye Institute. My observations and experiences overseas, as well as the very real effects of the economic recession on the Emory Libraries, our country and the world, have led me to some reflections I’d like to share with you.
If you attended my talk on June 24, you know that discussions with our colleagues in China are already bearing fruit: Le Xiaoqiu, an associate professor and ICT developer at the Department of Information Systems, the National Science Library (NSL) of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), will be a six-month Fellow sponsored by CAS. Le’s Ph.D. is in geographic information systems; he has been working on an application for embedded user desktop search tools. Le is expected to arrive at the Robert W. Woodruff Library in September and will work with the Digital Systems Division, as well as with other divisions, e.g., with the Services and Content Divisions, on projects such as an integrated library systems Unicode implementation and our GIS efforts.
This exchange is one small example of the potential for collaboration among Emory’s and China’s libraries. The larger picture includes digital library programs and Emory Libraries’ support for the joint biomedical engineering Ph.D. program recently launched by Emory, Georgia Tech and Peking University.
On my visit to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, I observed firsthand the importance of this beacon of freedom to the people of the Middle East. “Bib Alex” is the one public place where women in the Middle East can read whatever they want, uncensored by anyone. Internet access to Arabic sites and sites from the west is uncensored (and it is the world’s only backup site of the Internet Archive, ensuring “disappearing” Web sites can be found). It is a safe place for all to learn. In addition, Bib Alex has undertaken a massive project to digitize Arabic texts to share with the Western world, which could open doors to greater understanding among the major cultures and religious faiths of the world. Anyone can order a digitized PDF text by telephone, which is reproduced and bound on an Espresso Book Machine and picked up at the library. These books are so treasured by Egyptians that they are often given as birthday presents. The library itself is the number one tourist destination in Alexandria, drawing more than 1.5 million visitors annually.
While at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina I worked as part of a multinational planning committee to explore establishing a professional development program for librarians and information technology (IT) specialists in sub-Saharan Africa. Among those attending the meeting were 23 representatives from 14 African nations, as well as representatives from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At the end of our meeting, the sub-Saharan librarians said to us that this was the first time anyone had asked what they needed to ensure succession planning, growth and preservation of their libraries for the future (rather than arriving with an answer already in hand).
Several attendees noted the desirability of inviting alumni of the U.S.-based Frye Leadership Institute to communicate and work with their African counterparts, with an eye to building an international community of leaders for the next generation of information specialists. The two-day meeting was organized by Stanford, the Council on Library and Information Resources and Emory, and funded by grants from the Hewlett Foundation and from Sun Microsystems.
Upon my return, I received additional details from Emory’s Ways and Means committee regarding the massive cuts and planning assumptions for FY ’11 that the Emory Libraries must develop to help the university withstand the economic recession. Many of you have shared suggestions and ideas for cost containment and ways of working more efficiently and collaboratively, both with your supervisors and with me. I appreciate your resourcefulness, active participation and your concern for the well-being of your colleagues as we wrestle with difficult and challenging decisions.
I’m struck by the juxtaposition of the challenges we face here at Emory: the strong determination of our colleagues in China to “build 100 Harvards in China by the end of the century” and their willingness to fully fund our first exchange student; the safe haven that Bib Alex provides anyone who wants to learn without prohibition; the gratefulness of the sub-Saharan librarians for an opportunity such as an African Frye Institute; and here in the United States, the fact that so many Americans consider libraries a key to their survival during these tough economic times. The New York Times has called upon its readers to share via its Web site their personal strategies for weathering the recession. Libraries are mentioned in 16, or 8 percent, of the first 200 suggestions, as a free source of knowledge and entertainment, at a minimum.
We know our work is essential – as a bulwark of education in China, a haven for personal intellectual freedom in Egypt, and as a source of all those plus inspiration and courageous inquiry here in the United States. We also know that it is easy for our work – and our existence -- to be taken for granted. Even in the midst of this great recession, Americans just assume their libraries will be there for them.
We must use the difficult choices the current economic recession has forced upon us to prioritize. We must find the best and most efficient ways possible to continue to work toward our strategic vision and goals, and support our university home and scholars worldwide in the process. But we also need to join with our colleagues in educating the world about the realities of our funding challenges – and the risks the world faces without us.