Tuesday, 11 March 2008

And finally: lessons learned in Bulgaria

The visits to Bulgarian libraries were great, and they helped give me a bit of context for the real reason we were there: to talk to Bulgarian library directors about how we do things. Seeing a couple of libraries - even if they were unrepresentative of the whole picture - meant that we had some common ground.

There were 19 delegates from all over the country, including our friend Mr Belchev from Sofia. I'd never spoken formally to as large a group of chief librarians, let alone a group that (literally) didn't speak my language. We had simultaneous translation, so it was like being at the UN: everyone had earpieces and microphones.

I found the first day very challenging. I was nervous - I *look* nervous most of the time, but that's just a function of the pale skin and dark eyes, and I'm usually a Zen master - and as a confirmed introvert, it was a hard thing to do. Tom (who invited me along in the first place) knew this, but he also knew that I'm keen to push myself, and see how far I can actually go. I felt much more comfortable after the first day, mostly because I actually managed to get some sleep. I think I got better at presenting as we went on, but I'm teaming up with Tom for a full post-mortem next month.

Here's the empty conference room, featuring Kate (kick-ass chief librarian from Bristol) and Tom (world's greatest library consultant):

The dynamic duo

The group was incredibly formal at first, which probably didn't help. It may have been the translation, or the way that Bulgarian grammar forces sentences to be constructed (the translators told us that Bulgarian sentences are 20-30% longer than English), but everybody seemed set on a very rigid structure. We were markedly informal, and thankfully this seemed to catch on on the second day. My favourite moment was after a group exercise, when the library director from Plovdiv cracked a joke. After that, things were much less tense.

So I learned a fair amount about me, and how I handle situations like this. If I want to progress my career - and I do - I've got to get used to this stuff.

The most valuable lesson is that libraries everywhere do the same things. There was a programme in one municipality that did the same thing as our own Bookstart. They're all trying to keep up with technological advances, just as we are, and everyone looks to America to see what the next big library innovation will be.

But what's missing in Bulgaria is some connection between the individual municipal library services. There are 27 library directors. What's stopping them getting together avery few months, as a Society of Library Directors? I know SCL gets a lot of flak from certain quarters, but it's undeniably a great forum for bragging about what you've achieved and pinching ideas from other people.

I was surprised by what we have in common. Librarians in both countries are struggling to (re)define their context in the face of massive technological and societal change. As I've said, there's a huge amount of potential there: the Chitalishte have the right locations, but the municipal libraries have the resources. I'd lke to see a model that combines the best aspects of each type of library, and I'd like to see it work here in the UK.