Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Libraries, Mongolian Style

One of my more interesting opportunities this year involved visiting the library of one of the universities here in UB, as well as the  Ulaanbaatar Public Library, and talking for a few hours with Begzsuren, a librarian and IT Manager for the  public library.

The university library (and libraries in general) are organized by department.  Thus, for example, the Languages library may be a room on the 2nd floor of the library building, while the Sciences library is a room on the 3rd floor.  And I do mean room.  Each room consisted of maybe 20 floor-to ceiling shelves.

Students go to the circulation desk, tell the librarian what class they are taking, then she tells them what book/s they need, and pulls them.  Students check them out, but only for in-library use.  They are not allowed to take them home.  In addition, the vast majority of the collection is textbooks, often old and often photocopied.  While the entire building had wireless, and there was an entire row of new-looking computers, they weren't actually connected to the internet, because they didn't want students going online.

A few of the computers had CD-ROM's of old textbooks.  There was one wi-fi laptop area that students could use with their own computer.

The Public Library was similar, though Begzsuren, an amazing man who really "has the vision" is working to change things; it's an uphill battle, however.  Mongolian libraries definitely have a culture of archival hoarding of resources.  Books are seen as a commodity and job security, with librarians the gatekeeper.  The various libraries do not share resources, even with each other, so forget inter-library loans!

This is truly unfortunate, as some of the libraries, especially in the western region, have important documents related to the nomadic tribes and cultures, but usually deny others (including visiting scholars) access to them.

In his own library Begzsuren, who had an internship with a public library in Maryland, has been able to bring about some change.  There are no free libraries in Mongolia.  Patrons pay a set amount to join the library, plus a fee per book if they want to take them home (for a 3 day checkout period).   I asked Begee about patrons using the self check-out stand, but he said they were checking out the books for in-library use.  One recent change Begee began is free book check-outs for children.  They still have to pay to join the library, but not to take a book home.

Now, western-trained librarian that I am, I was both amused and horrified by this parsimonious attitude towards librarianship....until Begee casually mentioned one thing. Shocked, I had to ask him to repeat it, because I thought I hadn't heard him right.  Librarians in Mongolia have to pay for any lost materials out of their own pocket.   Yes, you read that correctly.

Last year, the public library had over a million tugrik (about $800) in lost books.  They divided that among the five librarians, each of whom makes only about $250-300 per month.   I must say, if I had to pay for lost books out of my own pocket, I wouldn't let kids take them home, either.

I forgot to take a picture of the outside of the building when I was there.  I'll do that this weekend and post it later.

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