MHC Librarian Helps Out in Kosovo

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 12:27
Posted: October 4, 2006

Brian Kysela, library systems manager at Mount Holyoke's Williston Library, got the chance this summer to try his hand at setting up a university library information technology system from scratch. Under the auspices of the Institute for Training and Development (ITD) in South Amherst and the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) program, he traveled to Pristina, Kosovo, for a week in early August with three other librarians from the Pioneer Valley to help expand the facilities of the University of Pristina Library. Up until a year ago, the University Library had been part of the National and University Library of Kosovo, which is primarily an archival collection. Coming from a well-established and technologically savvy college library like Mount Holyoke's, Kysela had an eye-opening experience.

ITD obtains government grants for training and development work abroad and enlists the help of appropriate professionals to carry out the programs. ITD has worked before with MHC, sending librarians with Stephen Jones, professor of Russian studies and chair of European studies, to Georgia. This ITD program was originally designed to bring staff from the National and University Library of Kosovo to the United States for four months of training, which included internships at the Five College libraries, so they could set up a more useful and accessible university library in Pristina, complete with the same integrated library system that has just been adopted by the Five Colleges, ALEPH. "But this plan ran into difficulties," said Terry Plum, director of the Simmons GSLIS program at MHC. "Librarians in Kosovo are paid very little. It is a daunting task to set up a university library when there are no models." Recognizing the need to jump start the project, ITD and GSLIS used remaining grant funds to send a group of frontline, Five College librarians to Kosovo to help get the University of Pristina Library's facilities up and running. There was a special emphasis on technology.

Kysela and his fellow librarians Terry Plum; Rebecca Henning, a catalog librarian from Amherst College; and Pam Skinner, a reference librarian from Smith College, arrived in Pristina on a Monday and left the following Saturday. Kysela's work centered around securing public computer workstations, training the university library technology staff in Linux, and setting up a university library Web site. While Kysela worked on getting the library's server technology going, the other librarians helped organize a reserve book department, a reference service, workflow and cataloging for the reference and reserve books, and licensing online databases for all higher education institutions in Kosovo. "It was a tall order for the short time we were there," Kysela said. "We got a lot accomplished but it was frustrating, too, for a lot of reasons," including jet lag, language barriers, and at times a clash of cultural norms. "They worked on a more leisurely European schedule that we do. They took lots of coffee breaks."

Kysela was thrilled at the opportunity to travel to Kosovo. "It was great," he said. "I've traveled in France, but I've never been to a country like that before. It was otherworldly." The disarray of Pristina, the largest city in Kosovo, was evident everywhere Kysela and his team went. Although the city was peaceful, he said, "It felt to me like what the Wild West must have been like. It was hot and dusty. There was a lot of military presence, but it was chaotic. There was no sense of a central authority." Before the war, the city's population was approximately 200,000, according to Kysela, but the war forced refugees to seek safety in the city, and its population swelled to half a million or more. Most of the city's buildings were destroyed during the war, and the existing infrastructure is not sufficient to support the increased population. "The electricity would go out at least once a day," he said, "usually at dusk when people started turning on their lights."

Despite the chaos and stagnant economy--Kosovo has an unemployment rate of 60 percent--Kysela found the people remarkably generous and open. "They've been through so much, but they weren't bitter about it. They seemed to enjoy life and what they were doing."

Terry Plum and Julie Hooks Davis of ITD intend to re-form the team, and Kysela and the other librarians hope to return to Pristina early next year to continue their work. "Brian's open source skills are particularly valuable in a transitioning economy," Plum said. "We were lucky to get such good librarians for the team. With some more luck, our final visit on this grant will help the Kosovor library staff set up a functioning university library." According to Plum, it is possible that the team of librarians will be in Kosovo just as the UN is deciding upon the fate of the protectorate. "Once security has been established, education and access to information will play the central role in the development of a democratic society," he said.

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Institute for Training and Development (ITD)