Stepping into International Librarianship with Librarians Without Borders

Stepping into International Librarianship with Librarians Without Borders
by Alison Peters


I am having more fun in library school than I ever imagined possible. A wonderful conundrum that is making it a challenge to reach the endgame (graduation), but which is allowing me the opportunity to participate in exciting LIS experience after experience, learning and growing all the way. Fall 2014 was no exception. I participated in my first ever internship with the group I just cannot say enough good stuff about, Librarians Without Borders, or LWB for short & sweet.

LWB is a group of enormous-hearted, passionate, thoughtful, intelligent, and extremely well-organized volunteer LIS professionals, students, and people who love libraries but work in other professions, all coming together to provide library assistance to underserved communities who need it. The nonprofit organization was formed in February 2005, by students, to address and tackle information inadequacies with the belief that  “access to information is vital in supporting learning and literacy, reducing poverty, empowering citizens, and building healthy, strong communities.” Their vision was and is to “build sustainable libraries and support their custodians and advocates – librarians.”

Today, Librarians Without Borders is a busy non-profit run by a volunteer executive team, board of directors, and library science students in six universities in Canada.  And in 2014, LWB joined forces with San Jose State’s i-School to offer a service-based, learning-model virtual internship program.  As the first US-based interns, three of us students working towards a master’s in library and information science worked as program and communications assistants with Melanie Sellar, Founder and Co-Executive Director, and Erika Heesen, Membership Director. My role with LWB was to partner with co-student Maryanne Daly Doran and delve into LWB’s communications strategies and social media platforms. Step one was to research social media best practices for nonprofits like LWB so that we could make suggestions on how to engage existing and new followers through various platforms: Facebook, LWB’s blog, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Step two involved learning all about LWB’s projects and community partners. Step three was to take our newfound knowledge and run with it, providing daily content for LWB’s social media sites, and writing about the group and their community partners in outside publications.

But all of our work was merely to pave the way for LWB to engage their followers with news of LWB outreach and events, and to create new support in the LIS community and beyond for this internationally-focused nonprofit organization. In their Canadian home country, LWB partners with LIS student committees, teaching and providing library assistance by way of the very effective service, or project-based, learning method. Through direct, hands-on experience – no classrooms, textbooks or lectures – students engage directly with communities. The three fundamental elements are service, learning, and critical reflection. Students engage with community partners to truly understand their needs and set goals for service activities that will help meet those needs. The service activities are connected and relevant to LIS curriculum so that students are learning and developing their LIS and professional knowledge as they meet the goals and give back to the community. And finally, through more traditional scholarly activities that document their service work (discussions, presentations, articles, activity logs) students reflect upon and deepen their comprehension of LIS principles as they step back and take a look at everything they have learned from helping to further the goals of the partner community. LWB partners with groups who “present real, unmet needs in a community that are brought forward and executed in collaboration with members of that community.” The emphasis is on community-based projects that are related to LIS or information services that will provide the learning opportunities for students. And, as the LIS world is increasingly virtual, the projects can be local (Canadian) or internationally based.

Three partner-programs in Ghana and Guatemala comprise LWB’s primary focus. LWB’s first international program began in 2009 with Miguel Angel Asturias Academy in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, a country where 75% of the population lives in poverty. With LWB’s assistance in design and implementation, Asturias Academy now boasts a successful lending library system, with 300 K-12, mostly indigenous, low-income students impacted each year by library outreach days, lending instruction sessions, and just the excellent benefit of books at the ready.

In Chajul, Guatemala, LWB partners with Limitless Horizons Ixil, whose Saber Sin Límites (Limitless Knowledge) Community Library opened in 2010 as the first and only community library in Chajul, serving over 1400 community members. LWB’s continuing goal with Limitless Horizons is to engage the community, and promote and support strong community libraries, education, and lifelong learning. LWB’s annual service trip to Guatemala is one of the highlights for volunteers, and they are preparing for trip number six, to be undertaken in Spring 2015. LWB volunteers visit both partners, Asturias Academy and Limitless Horizons, learning about each community, meeting with school and library staff to share knowledge and ideas related to library and literacy development, and have the pleasure of hosting library days and storytime activities for children in the community.

And moving into Africa with Librii, LWB provides research and LIS expertise to the burgeoning group that plans to bring their pilot community library to Accra, Ghana in 2015. Librii’s libraries are built for the 21st century and with the specific community they will serve in the forefront of the design process. In Accra, the library is a repurposed shipping container that will have full internet access to digital resources, educational services and books. LWB will continue to assist Librii with collection development, and activities for the community to learn and enjoy the library created just for them.

In Spring 2015, LWB’s Melanie Sellar, the service-based internship program guru, brings the learning model to SJSU, with a course titled Examination of Global Library Issues Using Project Based Learning. In this virtual course, students will “choose from a variety of projects of the type that Librarians Without Borders tackles regularly,” to establish a conceptual foundation of service-based learning; then students will “undertake small group investigations of a specific issue derived from an authentic community context of LWB.” Using LWB’s partners as learning examples, some of the student projects might include “investigating alternative funding models for libraries, proposing means of supporting local publishing in indigenous languages, or devising virtual training programs for library staff.” Like the internship, it is real-world project experience that will not only increase student’s knowledge base (librarianship, international library issues), but also give them that much more preparation for tackling the LIS job market.

This internship experience was all about encouraging professional development and fostering aspirations. Working with two dedicated LIS professionals, who also manage a successful nonprofit on the side, LWB furthered my career development by showing me the world of international librarianship, working with underserved communities with literacy and librarianship. One of the reasons I wanted to take on this specific internship was to challenge myself to think outside the basic social media box, to learn about international librarianship and what it takes to run a nonprofit, and help LWB along the way. As very happy interns, we helped increase LWB’s membership numbers, tapped into unused social media accounts, and prepared a plan for LWB to continue to engage and share knowledge with their communities. LWB followers now expect educational, informative, thoughtful content from the group on social media regularly. And I am very proud to have helped LWB get there. The service-based learning model has truly come full circle.



Alison Peters has a BA in English, an MFA in creative writing, and one day soon will reach the ultimate word-aficionados trifecta by obtaining the LIS degree. She cannot tell you her favorite book; that would be like admitting to a favorite child. But for a good time, she would recommend Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Aside from being a great read, it glows in the dark. To connect, please click here.