When the nonprofit organization Online Computer Library Center called up William Kopycki and asked him to lead a training session for Iraqi librarians in Amman, Jordan, the Middle East Studies librarian didn’t hesitate. Kopycki immediately got on the phone with colleagues from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to ask for their help training 13 Iraqi librarians in computerized cataloging techniques—the first instruction of its kind to be taught exclusively in Arabic.
The Iraqis proved to be eager pupils, but ultimately, Kopycki notes, the interaction was about more than passing on information. “The reason I like doing these things is because it’s a way to get to know librarians from different parts of the world and hopefully build on opportunities for future cooperation,” he says. “ At the end of the day we’re all librarians.”
Q. Was it difficult for the Iraqi librarians to get to Jordan?
A. Just getting the people out of Iraq from three different geographical places was the challenge . . . Everyone had to come to Baghdad and then take a plane to Amman. They flew out on Air Serv, which is a non-governmental organization that provides air service in different hotspots. They’re just small planes. They arrived in two batches. When they fly out of Baghdad, they take off in a corkscrew direction to avoid any potential anti-aircraft fire.
Q. What was the training like?
A. The actual training site where we all stayed was the American Center for Oriental Research. It’s basically where the archeologists stay when they come out to do their digs. They had recently gotten a network server specifically for this training that we were about to do. Keep in mind, of course, the Internet for Iraq is still very new. There were some people who clearly had never used a computer before, and the Internet in particular, because the connection isn’t always reliable in these areas or had only been introduced in the last couple of years. Some of them were quite adept at doing email and chatting and others were still hesitant.
Q. Was there a language barrier?
A. No. Sometimes it was interesting for some of the Kurdish people because they have their own language and their Arabic was not necessarily as good as people from Baghdad, so sometimes things had to be explained in a different way.
Q. Do these Iraqi librarians have computers at their home libraries?
A. None of the libraries had any existing online computer catalogs. They were not using the same standards that we use to create databases for their own library holdings. Some of them still had a card catalog. Others had hand lists. The overall theme of the course was, “How do you get from [a hand list] to computer. What are techniques, standards that have to be followed?”
Q. What are the conditions of the Iraqi libraries?
A. It seemed to vary. The condition of Iraqi libraries in general has been pretty sub-par and there’s lots of documentation to attest to this. … Because of the Internet, the way in which libraries operate has completely changed and these librarians were just starting to get a sense of how much it had changed. What was really enlightening was after the actual class sessions would take place, we’d just sit around and talk about issues facing libraries. The problems they face are the same ones we do, to a certain extent. The group was an especially enthusiastic bunch. They genuinely wanted to get as much as they could out of it and out of us.
Q. How was this different than other trainings?
A. It was different because in Morocco they were about to get their automated system, so they were in the right mindset. What we taught them, they were going to implement it right then and there. We brought them the Arabic translation of the Dewey system, which is slightly modified to accommodate things like religion and literature. Those are the things that they can use right away. Some of them were already using them, some were at least familiar with their existence.
Everything we tried to bring in had some sort of cultural relevance, something that they could relate to or at least immediately identify with.
Q. Any unexpected challenges?
A. Finding places to print out things, all these little details that you can’t really conceive of happening while you’re here because you don’t know what sort of situation you’re walking into. That was the real learning experience and it reminds you that you always need a sense of humor, because these things happen—it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s always important to travel with a sense of humor and expect the unexpected and to learn how to deal with it. Like, when the internet connection suddenly shuts off in the middle of class, or the wireless network goes down for the count, what do you do? The show’s got to go on.
Originally published on October 6, 2005