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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bulgaria 10 years later

My first trip, a State Department grant, happened back in 1994. Nancy Bolt, then State Librarian of Colorado, teamed up with a former legislator in Iowa to arrange for a series of workshops and travel exchanges. Back then, Bulgaria was still throwing off the Soviet influence. Libraries had been tools of the state: a mechanism for the distribution of propaganda. Perhaps as a consequence, they did not enjoy a lot of public use or support.

There was also a parallel institution: the chistalistes. Think "culture center" - a place to celebrate the folk programs and activities of a country very rich in history.

The purpose of that first visit was to present a model of library as community information center. We talked about helping libraries begin to consciously collect and promote their collections to distinct market segments. We tried to encourage our colleagues to become not just passive distributors of state literature, but active, engaged, and visible "players."

But I don't want to suggest that our sole purpose was just to tell them to be more like us. We learned a lot from them, too, and found that librarians everywhere are united by more similarities than differences: we are motivated by the desire to serve, we love and promote reading, we work to make our communities better.

I spent time in Sofia, the capital, and then took a lovely bus ride through the Balkans to Dobrich, where I shadowed the very astute and forward-thinking director of the library, Elena Voeva-Yuzchenvo (who has now moved on to the leadership of an academic library) for a time.

The Bulgarians were then scrambling to join the European Union. They impressed me. Again, their history goes back past the Romans (although Roman ruins still endure there) to pre-history. I reveled in walking through their cobblestone streets, along rivers, past countless small shops. Their food is amazing.

I'm ashamed to say that over the years, I haven't stayed in as much contact with my colleagues there as I should have. All of us were busy.

But then I was invited back by the Bulgarian Library and Information Association to present a two day workshop on "community reference" -- which I pioneered with my former staff at Douglas County Libraries, and which they have written and spoken about across the country. (See my previous blog for more about "community reference.")

Bulgaria has changed. It seems far less Soviet and far more European than 10 years ago. A lot more people - young people in particular - speak English. Due to a favorable rate of exchange, it's very affordable. Sofia is still a wonderfully engaging and walkable city. The food is still great, the people are consistently gracious and interesting. Wifi is everywhere. There are a lot of shops, restaurants, hotels, and parks. 

Bulgaria has problems, though, too. First is a subtle demographic: a lot of young people abandoned Bulgaria for points west, in quest of both learning and wealth. That leaves behind some older folks who have begun to wax nostalgic about the unlimited medical care of the old Soviet era. Second is the problem of corruption: I gather it's fairly widespread, with ties to organized crime. Third is a kind of cynicism: after the Soviet collapse and the embrace of capitalism, people thought their lives would immediately begin to resemble those portrayed on American movies and TV. There is some sense of disappointment, even betrayal.

I talked with a lot of people in my week there. While not everyone agreed with this, one woman said she saw strong evidence of rising anti-American and pro-Russian sentiment. (Bulgaria is, by the way, just about half way between the Ukraine and Israel.) But this is what struck me: there are three ways, she said, that the US and Russia are the same. She said, 

1. You both think you're exceptional.

2. Neither one of you knows or cares much about the rest of the world.

3. Both of you feel free to invade any country you like, whenever you feel like it.

On the one hand, that's an awkward pairing. On the other, I see how she got there.

After the workshops, funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, I thought about the problems some of the directors had shared with me. Bulgarian libraries are seen as "the memory of the people." That's fine as far as it goes, and although no politicians would close a library, they don't invest in its success, either. So with very little funding (a fraction of what goes to even the poorest American libraries), it's hard to attract new patrons. They can't buy much in the way of collections, and there are no - not one - purpose-built public libraries in the nation. Instead, they are scattered across former Community Party buildings and other re-purposed structures, broken into a series of small rooms with too many poorly paid workers and too few resources of any kind.

While there, I was also interviewed by someone who works with a lot of children's publishers. There is widespread illiteracy in Bulgaria - a problem that may be getting worse. (This despite some very well-educated people, too, and lots of outdoor booksellers!)

Upon reflection, I wrote to my key contact in Bulgaria, the wise, vivacious, and extraordinarily dedicated Anna Popova, that although I enjoyed giving the workshop, I do not believe even widespread adoption of that strategy would really address the underlying lack of support of Bulgarian libraries. Instead, I recommended that they adopt something that I have come to believe, more and more, is the foundation of American librarianship: major outreach to children.

If you are not a library user, it takes a life transition to make you one. One of the most powerful transitions is parenthood. In the US, a third to half of our public library business revolves around children's materials. We provide free storytimes, then send families home laden with books. Study after study affirms the vital importance of a rich exposure to language to the brains of infants. As I've noted elsewhere, if a child between the ages of 0-5 can get 500 books in their home, it's as good as having two parents with Master's degrees, regardless of the actual education or income of their parents. This, in turn, affects everything from childhood health to earning potential and productivity. It's a modest investment that pays huge societal dividends.

Moreover, children's services is the most powerful recruitment strategy for libraries we have. It not only solves real and important social problems, it also establishes an emotional connection with the next generation. It is is essential to our survival.

While many Bulgarian libraries offer some services to children, there is nothing like the widespread all-out recruitment of the US. 

Can Bulgaria make that shift?

I don't know. Culture and history are powerful things. But I concluded this time, as I did the last time I visited, that Bulgarian librarians are up to the challenge. And they represent a significant asset to their nation.

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