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Program Seeds Library Skills and More in Rwanda

By: Diane Stirling

Rwandan librarians participate in a  training class
At its core, the library skills training plan developed for use in Rwanda is a classic “train the trainer” effort. In a fuller sense, it is a way to amplify public and academic librarianship throughout that African nation. In the ultimate outgrowth, the model is a means to boost library science technology and sow Information Schools in under-developed countries around the globe.

The concept, guided by Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) doctoral candidate Sarah Webb, aligned the interests and efforts of a number of library science professionals and their academic institutions both in the U.S. and in Rwanda. At the iSchool, that included Dean Elizabeth Liddy and Library Science Professor R. David Lankes. Cornell University’s Mann Library Director Mary Ochs, an iSchool Library Science alumnus, was also central.

In Africa, the leaders of the National University of Rwanda and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology; plus Rwandan librarians and students were involved.

Though her project culminated this year, Webb’s interest in training Rwandan librarians began in 2003. After earning her MLS from the University of Washington, she took a leave of absence from her Seattle public library job while the facility closed for a year’s construction. In the interim, she pursued an opportunity to live with a family friend in Rwanda to help a country in dire need of librarians.

For six months, Webb taught library classification and computer skills; helped start a library association; brought books to local schools and distance-education teachers. Her work’s positive impact defined her subsequent path. Rwanda lacked the middle tier of librarians and had limited ability to train them, she recognized. She entered the iSchool’s Ph.D. program in part to try to remedy that situation. She recalls conversations with Lankes, asking him, “What can we do for Africa’s librarians?”

When someone in Rwanda asked Ochs how they might access Cornell’s stellar collections to aid the country’s burgeoning agricultural economy, she contacted Dean Liddy to see how both places might assist. The Dean, whom Webb gratefully acknowledges “was fully behind the project from the start,” put Ochs and Webb together. Syracuse and Cornell have since funded two trips to the continent, where the pair did fact-finding, developed networks, and explored ideas with their counterparts.

Together with Lankes, Webb developed a curriculum model that brings several Rwandan students to the iSchool each year to MLIS degrees. Upon their return, those students train bachelor’s-level librarians. The plan fills the immediate knowledge gap, extends the profession’s reach through ongoing skills development, and uses information as a tool to move a nation forward educationally, socially and economically.

“Sarah has taken something that many see as somewhat traditional and used it in very revolutionary ways, well beyond building a professional system of education and a set of professionals to go with it,” Lankes observes. The project has the potential “for enormous impact on the country’s educational levels, on economic development, and in national strategy,” he believes.

Rwandan officials have aimed high in their goals. They are eager to install a library curriculum at Kigali and start an Information School at the National University. Now, implementation is appropriately in that country’s hands, including the search for program funding, according to Lankes. There still are roles for Syracuse and other supporters, however. “It takes a village to raise a project,” Lankes paraphrases, urging current students, alumni, library professionals, and anyone with contacts or resources in the country to get involved. “What makes this project work is when a group of people own the problem.”

Managing ongoing phases and replicating the program elsewhere would be her “dream job,” Webb says, though the key focus now is that “this is a really good thing to do for Rwanda.” She envisions a wider program eventually, adding experts from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School to help bring the template to more corners of the world.

While it developed the model, the iSchool won’t presume to impose its views at the local level, Lankes says. “We can bring the outside perspective, but the folks in Rwanda know best how to customize what will work for them, to bridge it to what they need.”

Webb agrees that the key to what is in Rwanda’s highest interests is “not to think in our box for their needs, but to think in their box.” What is “incredibly important” to remember about what has transpired, she acknowledges, “is that they asked, and we responded.”

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