Building the future, book by book: Library services in Afghanistan

Dr. Rebecca Miller on being a library consultant in Afghanistan and the promotion of libraries and literacy throughout the world

Map zoom-in on Afghanistan.
Image by Erika Wittlieb from Pixabay

Introduction

The brother of the late celebrity chef Fatima Ali once said his sister wanted to use her cooking talent to show people a side of her native Pakistan that was different from the violent images they saw on TV. It is a goal a person from Afghanistan might understand well. Mainstream news stories portray Afghanistan in the scariest of terms: bombing, terror, war, massacre, violence against women. The danger and the violence are undeniable. But focus only on that and you might miss that Afghanistan is also the birthplace of Rumi, one of the most famous poets who ever lived; renowned photographer and artist Rada Akbar; physician and award-winning novelist Khaled Hosseini (of The Kite Runner fame); pioneering soccer player and activist Khalida Popal; and acclaimed poet-writers Khaledah Forugh and Reza Mohammadi. You may not think about Sharbat Gula, the Afghan refugee whose penetrating gaze on the June 1985 National Geographic magazine cover is so unforgettable that Generation Xers like me still remember it 35 years later. And you might never notice the jaw-dropping beauty of the country itself, the infinite stretches of mountains and undulating valleys that overwhelm the eyes, even if – like me – you only get to see them in photos.

In her piece “What You Didn’t Know About the Real Afghanistan,” human rights campaigner Maya Pastakia talks about the things that stood out most to her during her time in the country: mouthwatering cuisine, deeply hospitable people, irreverent humor, sports mania, and – my personal favorite – the “rock star” status of the poets.

Here’s something else you might not have heard: library service providers, though sparse, are trying to gain ground. Idress Siyawash and Freshta Karim are working to get books in the hands of Afghanistan’s children. The Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU) is steadily digitizing primary documents related to Afghan culture and history, making these works accessible to a wider audience. ABLE, the ACKU Box Library Extension project, encourages literacy by publishing books in Dari and Pashto and sending them to rural areas.

Library consultant Rebecca Miller has spent over twenty years practicing librarianship in different parts of the world. She earned a maitrise in linguistics from the Université de Stendhal 3 (Grenoble, France), a master’s degree in diplomacy from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, and master’s and doctoral degrees in library science from the School of Library and Information Management at Emporia State University (Kansas). She worked in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2017 and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, advising on library and archival matters.

During a class I took with her two years ago, Dr. Miller discussed the work of distributing books and promoting literacy in Afghanistan. In late April, we caught up with each other remotely – I in the United States, she in Germany –  and talked in depth about her professional experiences.

This is an edited version of the full conversation.

ST: You’ve been in the library field for over two decades now. What got you interested in librarianship as a career and how did you end up doing international librarianship?

RM: Libraries have always been a part of my life. My mother is a big reader. And so, as a child growing up, we visited the library a lot. We would go, I guess, maybe once a week or so, get books, you know, do programs at our public library. I remember going around as a child to all the different branches in our town because my mom was always like, “Let’s go somewhere different.” Then, in junior high, I had a student’s assistant class and that was with the junior high library. I helped shelve books and that kind of stuff. And then, in university, my second semester of my freshman year, I got a job working in the university library.

Open books with purple, blue, green, and red spines, stacked on top of each other, cascading backward
Image by moritz 320 from Pixabay

For my entire time that I was a university student I worked in a couple of different jobs in the university library: in technical services, in public services. It was a job, but it was a good job, you know. And, then, after graduation, I moved abroad [to France], then when I came back, I got a “real” job, I guess you could say, at the library. At one point, I was talking with some colleagues and they were saying, “Well, you know, there’s this university from Kansas, that’ll come up and does the master’s of library science program in Nebraska, as an extension kind of program.” That university was Emporia State University based in Emporia, Kansas, and so I thought you know, well, why not? My undergraduate degree was actually in French. Not a whole lot you can do in French, so I thought, well, you know, I like working in the library at the university, and maybe I could use this to leverage my French degree and get into librarianship, with a focus on languages, be a reference librarian in languages, that kind of thing.

Map of Western and Eastern Europe
Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

The library school that I went to at Emporia State – the School of Library and Information Management – we had a couple of librarians who had a very international perspective. They had worked on organizing conferences and things like this, and I’d helped out with that. Then during my Ph.D. time, as I was taking classes, I was helping with those as well, so I was able to organize some conferences in Bulgaria. We did a conference like every two years in Bulgaria. So, I was organizing those, and that was really interesting. Then when it came time to choose a topic for my dissertation, you know, I had some ideas. I was interested in cross-cultural diffusion of information, so diffusion of knowledge, really. And so my advisor said, “Well, remember this lady who came to one of our international conferences and the project she’s doing? Maybe you can work with that.” And that’s what ended up happening.

Miller’s library work has taken her to Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Afghanistan.

I ended up, for my dissertation, looking at this partnership project. It started with libraries in Colorado, and then libraries in Iowa joined, and they were partnered up with libraries in Bulgaria. This was, you know, early days of the Internet and things like this, and Bulgaria was still in development stages. They were starting to try to get into the European Union, and so there was a lot that needed to be improved with the libraries and whatever. And so the idea of the partnership project was that the librarians in the United States would share knowledge about Western ways of doing librarianship with their partners in Bulgaria, and then the partners in Bulgaria would share their experiences and their perspectives with the librarians in the United States.

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A street in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Mariusz Godlewski from Pixabay.

It ended up being an interesting subject, and since my overall interest was in diffusion of information, diffusion of innovation, it really fit in kind of nice. And so I worked with them, and went to Bulgaria for data gathering, went to Iowa and Colorado for data gathering, wrote my dissertation and just seeing how librarianship all over the world is really the same – just like everything else, right? I mean, being human is just the same, no matter where you are. We all have the same problems, we all have the same desires and things like this. And I thought that was interesting, and so it really started the ball rolling then about international librarianship for me.

The year before I graduated, I got a position at the University of Kentucky as an assistant professor, so I moved there. I didn’t really have an opportunity to teach international librarianship there. Then I got accepted to the Patterson School, which is based out of the University of Kentucky. The Patterson School is for international relations and diplomacy, international commerce, these kinds of things.

“Libraries are sources of information, which is the foundation of knowledge – and knowledge is power.” – Rebecca Miller (from the BiblioDev website)

Prior to that, while I was a professor, I was looking into librarianship in Macedonia, which is next to Bulgaria, just kind of seeing how is librarianship done in other places. Once I got into the Patterson School – it’s like a year and a half long program – so in the summer in between, my practicum was in the embassy in Macedonia, in Skopje. And when I was there, I was working in the public affairs section. They have what they call American Corners, which are like little libraries, remember? I think we talked about them in class, even.

ST: We did.

RM: So, I was doing projects to try to support the American Corners and working with them, and that was really interesting to see. They’re sort of like a type of special library, right? They’ve got a very specific purpose, and a specific kind of public that they serve, so that was interesting.

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Ohrid, North Macedonia. Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay.

And then I graduated and I was trying to get work in international development, thinking maybe I wanted to join the Foreign Service and what not. What ended up happening is that one of my classmates from that Patterson School was Afghan, and he kept sending me job announcements and stuff like this. And finally there was one that actually looked interesting, working with a research organization in Kabul. So, I thought, OK, it’s just a six-month thing, you know, if I don’t like it, it’s only six months, and still it could be interesting. And they ended up offering it to me, and I ended up agreeing to it, and that’s how I ended up in Afghanistan.

I ended up going there in late 2012 and did my six months, and one thing kind of led to another, I ended up in another organization, another research organization, and then at the American University of Afghanistan.

ST: I just want to delve into that a little bit more. Can you talk about the type of work you did while you were there [in Afghanistan] and some of the partner organizations you worked with?

RM: The organization where I had my first job was called the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, AREU, and this is like a nongovernmental organization that does studies. It does research on Afghanistan; it does primary research. It conducts surveys, it conducts qualitative research, and it also happened to have one of the libraries in Kabul, like a research library. So that had been started by a New Zealander who had been in Afghanistan since – oh gosh, I think he was there like 2008, 2011, or something like that. So when I was working for that organization, that was one of the things I did was some capacity building with the guy who was running the library because, if you remember from our class, the quality of libraries in Afghanistan is pretty low, and nobody has any degrees, there’s no education, there’s no professional preparation for librarians, so to speak. So I was doing professional development with him and looking at the library in this organization. That was great.

Rows of houses sloping down a mountain in Afghanistan.
Rows of Houses in Afghanistan. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

One of the most important people that he introduced me to in terms of getting involved in the library scene there was the folks running the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, ACKU. So I got to know them a little bit and their mission and what they’re doing. Then after the job with AREU ended, I got another job with a small, private research company, and I worked part time for them, and then I had like a part-time contract with ACKU also, to do like an assessment of ACKU, how were they doing with outreach, with their collection. They are most known – and, rightfully so – they are really the only institution in Afghanistan that provides online access to resources. And they have this enormous digitization project where they want to digitize all of these publications, books that have been published in Afghanistan and overseas, and digitize them and make them available. And so I was giving them some assessments on how that was going and ideas for the future with that. So that was really interesting. I’m still on the board of directors with them. They’re suffering a bit now, because the United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan, which means that money from USAID is drying up, and stuff like that. So it’s tough right now. It’s kind of a struggle for them.

ST: Yes. I had heard about changes, but I hadn’t thought about how those changes would impact libraries specifically. 

RM: Yeah, it’s really kind of hard to watch this stuff happen. Because also, American University of Afghanistan, they are a big recipient of USAID, and so that money is drying up too, so who knows what’s really going to happen with them.

Also, through the guy from AREU, he introduced me to the librarian at that time at American University (AUAF), and so I got to know her, and we talked a bit. Then, in between, she left and somebody else came on board, but then he only stayed for a year. So then she introduced me to him, and we were talking, and then at one point he called me and he said, do you want to apply for this job? And I was like, “Oh, OK, maybe so.”

The Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU) offers online access to numerous primary resources on Afghanistan culture and history, including photos, legal documents, and literature.

I applied for that and started working with AUAF then as the librarian. AUAF also has one of the best library collections in all of Afghanistan, actually. The books there are all in English; you know, it’s a university library.  So that was really kind of interesting also, the sort of problems you face there with getting books in, managing textbooks, doing bibliographic instruction with the students, managing the library, that was interesting as well.

ST: For those of us who’ve never been to Afghanistan, could you just describe briefly the country’s geographic layout and how the various libraries are funded and distributed throughout the country?

RM: Afghanistan is in, more or less, Central South Asia – it’s kind of sandwiched in between Central Asia and South Asia. It’s surrounded by Pakistan, so Pakistan to the south and the east, Iran to the west, Tajikistan to the north, and then it also has a little tiny border with China. Afghanistan has this little like appendix that kind of hangs out up in the top northeastern part and that touches up to China. And Uzbekistan is also on the border. Of course, it’s been part of the Silk Road, so it’s always been kind of a crossroads of trade passing through it, and just a lot of history in that area, too.

Map zoom-in on Afghanistan.
Image by Erika Wittlieb from Pixabay

It’s been governed – well, I should say invaded by – it’s been invaded by India – it used to be part of India. It’s been invaded by the English, it’s been invaded by the Soviet Union, it’s been also now invaded by the United States, so to speak. But the invaders always fail. They never stay.

It’s got an interesting mix of people and cultures. It has two official languages. Dari and Pashto are the two official languages. Dari is an Indo-European language and Pashto is more like an Indic language. So Pashto is more like languages that you find in India. But besides those two main languages, it also has like 26 minority languages, so it’s quite diverse, really, inside the country. A lot of influence from Iran, a lot of influence from Pakistan to India. It’s a pretty diverse area. The capital, Kabul, is in sort of the eastern side, kind of eastern-central side. The other major city is Herat, which is in the western side close to Iran, and then Mazar-i Sharif which is in the north, closer to Tajikistan. And then there’s Kandahar, and Helmand, down in the south which is closer to the Pakistani border. So, yeah, it’s kind of spread out all over.

Afghanistan was part of the Silk Road, a set of trade routes that connected the Middle East and Europe to the Far East and China from 130 A.D. to 1453 A.D. (History.com editors, 2017)

The government is obviously quite weak these days. They have kind of a central government system where power is held inside Kabul and provincial governors are appointed by the Kabul government. They’re not locally elected and often mayors are appointed, they’re not locally elected. So they have a real centralized government system. And this matters, because the libraries in the towns, they rely on central funding from the central government. Public libraries fall under the Ministry of Information and Culture. University libraries fall under the Ministry of Higher Education. School libraries fall under the Ministry of Education. So they are kind of spread out. And then their funding really does rely on the central government. Obviously then, they aren’t well funded. They don’t have money to spend on anything, so usually their collections are quite old, unless people donate things, but people don’t.

Afghanistan landscape: tilled field of land, blocked off in patches, with trees and mountains in the background
Afghanistan landscape. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

One interesting thing that I don’t think is unique to Afghanistan – I think this is really common in developing nations, at least the ones I’ve seen anyway – is that these kind of community libraries pop up. So, somebody wealthy in a community will say “Oh, you know, the public library is horrible, and it’s corrupt, and it has no funding, so I’m gonna start my own library for my community.” And these can be quite small, they might just be for a neighborhood, for example, books inside somebody’s home or little business, little shop. But sometimes they can be a bit bigger and really kind of service a district instead of just a neighborhood.

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Aerial view of Afghanistan. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

But I always found it interesting how like, you know, as I got to know people over there, people would approach me and they would say “Oh, I wanna start a library, you know, I have a thousand books, and I want to make them available to people,” and so on.  So I would say, “Why don’t you support your local public library?” and they would always say, “No, no, they’re corrupt, I don’t want to deal with them, I want my name on a building.” They were usually more interested in talking about building buildings than they were about actually doing anything for providing information to people. I would always say, “That sounds great. Why don’t you go back and think about – if you come up with a proposal and a vision, and where do you see this going, and whatever, I’m happy to help you talk some more about that.” And then, nine times out of ten, I would never hear from them again.

ST: Well, as you talk about that it makes me think about some of the philanthropic efforts in other areas of the world. Interesting.

RM: There’s a lot of people there that, their heart is in the right place, and they want to do stuff, but – I don’t know. Another big hurdle that I always saw over there is that people would come up with an idea, and they would want to implement it, but they would want all the credit themselves. They didn’t want to partner up with other people in their communities in order to really realize something. Whenever I would talk to them, I’d say, “Why don’t you work with the local government to improve your library? Or why don’t you partner with say, like, this community organization or this school?” They’d be like “Oh, no, that’s, too much work” or “Those people are always corrupt,” so, like I said, nine times out of ten, nothing ever happened.

“[S]omebody wealthy in a community will say ‘Oh, you know, the public library is horrible, and it’s corrupt, and it has no funding, so I’m gonna start my own library for my community.’ And these can be quite small, they might just be for a neighborhood for example, books inside somebody’s home or little business, little shop.” – Rebecca Miller

But there are some examples where people do have an idea, people do have a plan, and they do make it work. One of the success stories that I’ve seen so far –  I haven’t really been involved in this, but I’ve been watching them – is a library bus system that this young woman started in Kabul. [Note from ST: This service is called Charmaghz and was started by Freshta Karim]. She’d gone to university in England, and she came back to Afghanistan, and she says, you know, I want to start a library bus system so that we can drive around to the districts to the poorer districts in Kabul and at least have a place where kids can go and read a book and their parents can come.

“For us Charmaghz, its shape as a walnut, its literal meaning as four brains explain the philosophy of our work which is to create an opportunity for critical thinking.” — From the website of Charmaghz, a mobile library service in Afghanistan started by Freshta Karim

ST: Like a bookmobile.

RM: Yes, exactly, a bookmobile, that’s the word. I was thinking bibliobus, but, yeah, bookmobile. And she has made it happen, because she partners with people. She is not afraid to go talk to the district governance. So, you know, Kabul is divided up into different districts. And so she goes and she talks to the district governance, and she says, listen this is what I want to do – and I think she has three buses now. She might have four, but she started off with two. So people donated two buses, she got books donated, she got people to help out with renovating the bus and equipping the bus. She started off with volunteers, but I think now she’s able to actually pay the guys who drive the bus around. She has a couple of coordinators who go with each bus to read to the kids or to show the kids what to do, how to handle books.

Cross section of a walnut, sides of nut meat facing out.
Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

She has also partnered with one of the most successful startup companies in Kabul. It’s like a software company, actually, and they sponsor the buses, they pay for internet inside the buses. She’s been quite successful. She has special guests come in, she’s really done a lot. So this is one person that, you know, she’s not doing it for herself, like so many others do, she’s doing it for the kids of Kabul. She doesn’t care if her name is on these buses or whatever. All she cares about is that kids have an opportunity to have books. She educated herself on how to manage checking books out so kids can take books home. She’s really done a really good job of making this thing happen in such a dangerous place, actually, for this.

ST: So can you talk about how libraries are used in Afghanistan, because I think that would be something interesting. I was reading the survey that you did on libraries, and one thing that I thought was interesting was that book reading was a popular activity in the Afghanistan libraries that you surveyed but checking out books was not. Can you provide some insight into why book borrowing might not be as popular in Afghanistan as in some other countries and some other differences or similarities that you noticed?

RM: Well, I think the number one reason why checking out books is not such a common activity there is because, in order to actually check out a book, you need a library card and, in Afghanistan, you have to pay for the library card. Because again, going back to the lack of funding for the public libraries, they have to charge their patrons. So, the cost of a library membership, it varies from city to city. But, for most people, it’s out of reach, they can’t afford it. But going to the library and using the library is free. So they’ll go to the library, they’ll sit, they’ll read, and then when it’s time to go home, they’ll leave the book. And they’ll go home and they’ll come back at another time and read some more about it. So taking books is often just a financial question, you know, for that reason.

I don’t know exactly, I don’t have any evidence specifically for this, but I would also hazard a guess that some of it is again depending on where you live. If you’re living in a city in the South or a city in the North where the Taliban are active, you don’t really want to be caught with a book. Some libraries also just don’t allow books to be checked out. For example, ACKU they don’t allow their books to be checked out. All the books must be used on site, and this is because it’s hard, and it’s expensive to get books into the country and so, you know, a lot of their resources go towards that. And this is also why they work on digitizing as many books as they can, so that people can access them even from home.

“The cost of a library membership, it varies from city to city. But, for most people, it’s out of reach, they can’t afford it. But going to the library and using the library is free.” – Rebecca Miller

Having said that, still people do like to buy books. Booksellers are still pretty widespread, especially in Kabul, in a city like Kabul. Also in Herat, I saw them too. So, there’s one street in Kabul that has a ton of booksellers lining the streets and not like storefronts, not stores, just, you know, tents, and books set up on table, and what not. You can find a lot of random things there. But it’s mostly books that have been illegally translated and printed in Pakistan and then brought into Afghanistan. Although there is a local publishing industry also. There are local authors that publish things as well.

ST: Yes. And now isn’t there a project, the ABLE project – we talked about that project in class. They’re the one who’re trying to get those books in the languages of Afghanistan into the hands of people in rural areas?

RM: Yeah, so the ABLE project is part of ACKU, and it stands for the ACKU Box Library Extension, ABLE. And this idea came from the founder of ACKU to commission authors local authors to write books in fairly simple language about more or less everyday topics that people are interested in. And so they commissioned authors to write these books in Dari and Pashto. They don’t have them so much in any of the other languages, but basically Dari and Pashto. Then they publish them locally, and then they put them into these big gray metal lockers footlocker kind of things, and those are distributed around the country. It’s a collection of like 250 books. They’re not very big, they’re usually little like slim volumes, paperback kinds of things, but they’re pretty up to date and they’re written at about a fourth-grade reading level, most of them.

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Mountains in Afghanistan. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

So they get shipped out throughout the country. And the communities where these go, they have to first request them. It has to be like a community-driven thing. And the community then has to show where are they gonna keep these secure. Who’s going to be responsible for making sure that the box is locked when it’s not in use and whatever. So the community has to basically apply and show their plans for this, and then they are provided with the box. I’m sure many of the books go missing, which is fine – ACKU doesn’t really care about that. If more books are needed, you can have more sent out, and when they have a new title, they send out the new titles, so they try to keep fresh.

The adult literacy rate in Afghanistan is around 43%, but educational services are improving. (The Asia Foundation, n.d.; UNESCO Institute for Statistics, n.d.)

Maybe you remember from the discussion in class the topics of the books are things like backyard chicken farming and goat keeping and basic bookkeeping; basic computer science things, basic science, you know, science topics; things like home economic kind of topics, like hygiene and basic biologic things. But then they also have collections in literature, poetry. Afghans love poetry. So they always have poetry books in there.

ST: They have fantastic poets, too.

RM: Yes, exactly. So sociology topics, political topics – just a little slice of everything goes into that thing. So that’s out there as well. And then, a lot of people, you know, they get their information from the internet, from the radio. I think it’s important to bear in mind that the majority of Afghanistan, they might have a grade-six education. The men anyway. Maybe up to grade eight. For the majority of the country, there’s still very much an oral society. They listen to the news on the radio, they watch TV. They talk to each other. They don’t really, like, sit around and read. It’s more in like the larger cities where reading and being able to have the books is a sign of prosperity.

“Poetry is everything to Afghans, we hear and recite poetry from cradle to grave.” – Reza Mohammadi

I think the situation of libraries in Afghanistan right now, it hasn’t changed much, I don’t think it’s gonna change much. I think it’s gonna get worse because of the lack of funding and especially now, in these coronavirus times, you know, I think it’s really going to be tough.

ST: You know, when you reflect on your experiences in Afghanistan and the time that you spent there, what are the lessons that have stayed with you and that continue to impact how you practice librarianship now, for example, in Germany where you’re living and working?

RM: I think, you know, it’s the same thing that I learned when I was working with libraries on my dissertation, too. It’s always the same problems, it’s always the same challenges. How do you get materials? How do you manage the materials? How do you get the materials into the hands of the people in your communities that you’re trying to serve? It’s always the same questions and there’s different ways to respond to this. I mean, it’s just like culture, you know? How we answer the questions of life – the questions never change, right? How do we deal with birth? How do we deal with death? What are the major milestones along a person’s life, and how do we move from being a child into an adult? How do we get food? What do we accept as good food versus bad food? How do we take care of our health? It’s always the same question that different cultures have different ways of responding to it or posing solutions for how we deal with these questions. And you know that’s the same thing in a profession, especially in a profession like librarianship, which is a service-oriented profession.

“It’s always the same problems, it’s always the same challenges. How do you get materials? How do you manage the materials? How do you get the materials into the hands of the people in your communities that you’re trying to serve?” – Rebecca Miller

And I think that having seen in Afghanistan how people there respond to libraries, and how they interact with libraries – their conceptual framework, let’s say, of what libraries are about – I think you just need to take that on and say, OK, in Afghanistan it’s like this. Maybe it’s like this in the United States also, may it’s like this in Pakistan also, maybe it’s not, maybe something’s different. But I think one of the underlying things is – and I hope also that this kind of came across in the class – is that the questions are always the same, the way we answer the questions might differ a little bit, but often they’re going to be very similar, and we as humans, no matter where we are, we’re more similar than we are different. So I think my time in Afghanistan was just one more example of how that plays out.

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Herat, Afghanistan. Image by David Mark.

ST: I was just thinking about the experience of being in your class and how much it changed how I thought about librarianship. I think I shared that with you. What I wanted to ask you is, why is internationalism important for librarianship? I had a lot of time to think about that while I was in your class, but if you could just share your thoughts on that for the benefit of all my readers?

RM: Well, I mean, I think it comes to this topic that we’re talking about. When you understand that you might be a librarian sitting in Dodge City, Kansas trying to figure out how to get money to keep the library open for longer than 20 hours a week, there are hundreds of thousands of other librarians just like you, grappling with the same problem all around this world. The public librarians operating in Herat or in Mazar-i Sharif, they’re thinking the same thing. How do I keep my doors open? How do I get good staff? How do I anticipate what the needs of the community are when I have no budget for books and I’m competing with TV, with the internet, which now people hold in the palm of their hands?

Rows of white desks, dark blue chairs, wire baskets underneaths
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

It’s, like I said, it’s always the same questions, and I think if you come to realize that you’re not alone in this, that other people are also grappling with these [problems] and maybe they have interesting solutions – maybe the exact solution won’t work in your own community, but maybe it will give you some ideas for something. So I think having an international perspective on librarianship – to me anyway –  it helps me feel like I’m part of a big community. I’m a small part in a very big picture, but I’m one of the puzzle pieces, you know, I’m not alone. So for me I think, that even if you don’t go into international librarianship in any way shape or form after such a class, I think having a class in the general curriculum just kind of helps you feel how worldwide this profession is and how important it is worldwide.

ST: What would you say to someone wanting to support libraries in Afghanistan or any country outside of their own country? What’s a good way to start?

RM: That’s a really good question. It’s interesting because, on the one hand, you have the major donors. You have donors like, for example, USAID, which is tax money. You have donors also that are nongovernmental organizations, like The Asia Foundation, or there’s a program based out of Kentucky called International Book Project, and they’re working to get donated books or remainder books sent over. They focus on Africa primarily. But, you know, they’re not the only ones in the country. Look into your local community. Things like Rotary Club, even things like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, they have a very wide reach. There are ways in your own community, ways to leverage institutions in your own community or organizations in your own community to partner with and support through these organizations, through these connections, libraries in another part of the world.

“[H]aving an international perspective on librarianship – to me anyway – it helps me feel like I’m part of a big community. I’m a small part in a very big picture, but I’m one of the puzzle pieces, you know, I’m not alone.” – Rebecca Miller

ST: Perhaps even contacting some of these organizations that you mentioned that are operational in Afghanistan already.

RM: Yep, yep, yep. There’s a Rotary Club chapter in Afghanistan, in Kabul. I think there’s also one in Herat. And so they can apply for project funding and through that they can give funds to these kinds of upcoming community libraries or established community libraries. So that’s a way to do it. And I think part of it, too, is through these kinds of locally based organizations – you know they’re international but they’re, like, based in your own community. You can also get to know people from various parts of the world. You’d be surprised how many Afghan immigrants there are in the United States and where they are. I mean the two major groups are in Oakland, CA and Springfield, VA, outside of DC.

book-2598916_1920

You just need to start asking around and start seeing what’s going on. Especially folks like Afghans, they’re very community oriented. So once you find one and start to build a connection with them, they will be able to hook you up with a whole bunch of people back in Afghanistan. That’s easy.

Sometimes it’s going through established organizations like Rotary or Scouts, for example. Sometimes it’s just somebody you know in your neighborhood or in your community who is Afghan, who knows a bunch of people back in Afghanistan, who can kind of make something happen in that way.

Money is always the best thing. If you can contribute anything, I would say contribute money or contribute time in terms of raising awareness about what’s happening with libraries in Afghanistan or in the nation of your choice, because donating books is a tricky business. I think we talked about this in class, too.

ST: We did. I’m so glad you’re mentioning it.

RM: Unless you’re donating brand-new, recently published, lovely books, it’s just not worth bothering, because getting books into a place like Afghanistan is not easy. It’s hard, it’s expensive, and you really don’t want to waste your time and energy sending them junk. So I would say, donate your time, donate your money. Of course, you need to do your due diligence about where you’re donating your money, just like you would with any kind of financial donation.

“Keep doing what you’re doing. You are the future of this country.”

– The words of an Afghan woman to Idress Siyawash, founder of the mobile library service Ketab Lwast, (as quoted in Fusco, 2020)

ST: Do your homework.

RM: Yeah, do your homework. That’s probably the best way to do it. It’s hard to identify places that are worth your while. So in terms of doing your homework you want to look for things. So, for example, this Charmaghz bookmobile thing, the project and the founder have been profiled in major newspapers, they have an active Facebook group, they have photographic evidence of the buses and the kids and what they do and things like this. You want to make sure that whatever you’re donating to is actually like a “running” thing, and not just somebody’s idea. And then for other things, like for ACKU for example, they have, through a foundation that’s based in the United States, they have a 501(c)(3) foundation, so you can donate to that and help out in that way as well.

Sister Cities – that’s another one of those major organizations where, if you get involved – and you know practically every city is involved in the Sister City – if you want to get involved with that and bring it up and say, “Listen, I want to help the libraries. We should do a library project,” I think that would be amazing. I would actually say Sister Cities and Rotary Club are two of the best international organizations for doing projects to support libraries in other countries in the developing world. Often with Sister Cities, we think about the cities in the United States are paired with cities in Europe or cities in like China or Australia, kind of like developed world nations. But you’d be surprised, a lot of them are also partnered with cities in developing nations. You just don’t know until you start digging around.

References

The Asia Foundation. (n.d.). Afghanistan’s literacy challenge. https://asiafoundation.org/slideshow/afghanistans-literacy-challenge/

Fani, A. (2012, March 28). Daughters of Afghanistan: Literary voices of change. Frontline (Tehran Bureau). https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2012/03/poetry-daughters-of-afghanistan-literary-voices-of-change.html

Fusco, A. (2020, February 25). Bikes and books in Afghanistan: Improving literacy with a mobile library. American Libraries Magazine. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2020/02/25/bikes-books-mobile-library-afghanistan/

History.com editors. (2017, November 3; updated 2019, September 26). Silk road. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-middle-east/silk-road

Mays, J. (2019, January 26). Fatima Ali, fan favorite on ‘Top Chef,’ dies of cancer at 29. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/26/obituaries/fatima-ali-dead-chef.html

McCurry, S. (2002, April 2). The Afghan girl: A life revealed. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2002/04/afghan-girl-revealed/

Mohammadi, R. (2012, May 21). Afghanistan has poetry in its soul. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/may/21/afghanistan-poetry-in-soul-taliban

Pastakia, M. (2013, October 19). What you didn’t know about the real Afghanistan. news.com.au. https://www.news.com.au/world/what-you-didn8217t-know-about-the-real-afghanistan/news-story/577970e94c776b2e5294c097a1a19d2d

Poetry Foundation. (n.d.). Jalal al-Din Rumi. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/jalal-al-din-rumi

Poetry Translation Centre. Poets/Translators: Reza Mohammadi. (n.d.). https://www.poetrytranslation.org/poets/reza-mohammadi

Popal, K. (2016, July 25). From where I stand. UN Women. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2016/7/from-where-i-stand-khalida-popal

Shah, S. (2020, April 11). Bicycle libraries raise literacy rates in Afghanistan. The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/tag/ketab-lwast/

UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (n.d.). Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above) – Afghanistan. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS?locations=AF

UNICEF. (n.d.). Rada Akbar, Afghanistan. https://www.unicef.de/informieren/aktuelles/photo-of-the-year/contest-2015/honorable-mentions/-/rada-akbar/97432

Zucchino, D. (2020, April 12). The art exhibition empowering women in Afghanistan to fight for their rights. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/womens-rights-taliban-us-afghanistan-art-exhibition-a9430821.html

Organizations

ABLE (ACKU Boxed Library Extension)

https://www.dupreefoundation.org/able.htm

Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU)

https://acku.edu.af/

Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit

https://areu.org.af/who-we-are/

Better World Books

https://www.betterworldbooks.com/go/donate

BiblioDev analysis of Afghanistan libraries (by Rebecca Miller)

http://www.bibliodev.com/afghanistan

Charmaghz

Website

https://charmaghz.com/

Library on wheels brings joy of books to Afghan kids

https://apnews.com/cd412efcf3304035a0260dc7b1ec7ae8

The library bus in Afghanistan that is driving change – in pictures

https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/books/the-library-bus-in-afghanistan-that-is-driving-change-in-pictures-1.885652

International Book Project

https://www.intlbookproject.org/

 

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