When I tell people what I do for work with I usually get the following reactions:
1. Oh wow. Librarians, they still exist? (Polite answer: Yes. We still exist. Existential question I guess.)
2. So what do you actually do all day? Read books? (I wish!)
3. What's the difference between working as a librarian in Sweden and the US? Unfortunately, I don't have a snappy comeback to that one. But let's try to answer some of the other questions.
I graduated in 2010, with a degree in library and information science. My first job was as a substitute librarian at a public library in a wealthy suburb outside Gothenburg, the second biggest city in Sweden. Fresh out of school, I was excited to put all my brilliant ideas into practice. Soon I realized being a librarian is not anything like being Belle in "Beauty and the Beast", happily swinging from shelf to shelf on a fancy book ladder picking out the most wonderful books. Even though that would be truly amazing. The harsh reality of budget constraints, patrons with a wide variety of needs and demands, and a rigid organization was a rude awakening.
There is so much to love about working in a public institution - the inspiring, passionate colleagues, the opportunity to plan free events and programs, and the joy derived from reading to all types of people (from a first grader to an adult with limited eyesight). The thing I loved the most about public librarianship was that I was able to interact with people from all walks of life. Whether it was with children, senior citizens, people with mental illnesses, newly arrived refugees, or new parents, it was such a privilege to be an important part of people's everyday life and routines.
My relationship with public libraries is a complicated love story. For me, the down side of the profession was that sometimes it felt draining, as if I could never do enough to give the community what it needed and deserved. After working in public libraries for six years, I craved a change of pace. Despite my commitment and passion for public libraries I had a nagging feeling that in order to develop and grow, I needed to challenge myself.
Sweden has a growing immigrant population and I wanted to focus on something that could benefit my local community and help develop my career. While trying to figure out what type of experience I wanted to focus on, I found myself thinking about the work I did with a mother tongue collection at a small public library. The target audience included a population of children, teens and teachers who wanted to read books in languages other than Swedish. My goal was to expand the collection to include twenty seven target languages and encourage their love of reading. It was such a thrill to present books in Dari or Somali to a group of unaccompanied refugee boys, who were so visibly excited to find their language represented. It was a gratifying project because I knew I played a role in making a positive impact in people's lives.
How does one work with a multilingual collection? I sought to learn more about selecting and purchasing books in a variety of languages, cataloging these titles accurately, promoting the collection and -- since a library is always way more than just a collection of books -- how to work as a librarian in an international, diverse, and multilingual community.
First, I researched international schools and institutions in the New York City area and and contacted several. The International School of Brooklyn (ISB) intrigued me with its immersion program, and how invested in diversity and global awareness the school is. ISB is an IB school with a French and Spanish immersion program with classes from Nursery to 8th grade. One of the primary reasons I felt drawn to ISB was their librarian, Maria Falgoust. Not only was she was full of enthusiasm, I could see how deeply committed and dedicated to the community she was. I decided to go with ISB. To acquire a trainee visa, you need a sponsor organization and the American Scandinavian Foundation helped me immensely. They were really supportive and helpful in every way.
I dove right in the beginning of the school year! The first months were incredibly busy and there was plenty of information to absorb and process. It started with learning over 330 students' names and faces in addition to the 70 teachers and staff! Maria introduced me to the IB pedagogy and curriculum, the collection (10,000 volumes!) and library program. While learning ISB's school culture, I was simultaneously adjusting to my new country. To say the least it was a tad overwhelming. I’m proud and grateful for every single moment: the author visits, the lessons, and the workshops I’ve been a part of, not to mention every student I've met.
During recent months I've learned so much about international school librarianship. I’ve collaborated with teachers to catalog books on projects, cataloged books in French and Spanish and organized workshops and events. Some of my highlights include hosting the acclaimed French author and illustrator, Hervé Tullet. He kicked off the school year with a huge, hands-on workshop. Despite being one of the hottest days of the year, our students from nursery to 5th grade happily, collaboratively painted together. Our next big project involved organizing a multilingual book fair with a new vendor (Book Culture) in a new location (our new gymnasium) while also spearheading a Literacy Week for students and a workshop for adults (about Diversity in Children's Literature) Our most recent major project (just before the winter break) involved packing up the library, located in a storefront two blocks from the main campus and moving it to an amazing new space called the Learning Commons on campus. The new location is spacious and centrally located, allowing us to collaborate with teachers and expand the collection.
Circling back to the third question; the difference between working in the USA and Sweden. In my experience, the basic practice of being a librarian is fairly similar wherever you are in the world. The main cultural difference is the idiosyncrasies in how we perform these practices. I've observed that there are more discussions about the age appropriateness of books in the US than in Sweden. In my past experience, I can only count on one hand when I've told parents or teachers that the book chosen by a child might not be appropriate. It's illuminating to see how different traditions and value are reflect in the way we live. That is only one small example of many but ultimately I believe there are more things that unite librarians than divide us, no matter if we work in school libraries or public libraries.
Regardless of where you work, librarians all share a strong core of spreading the love of literature and the joy of reading, teaching and sharing the importance of research skills, empowering patrons, and reaching out to the community.
By Josefin Skoglund
Trainee at The International School of Brooklyn
Bio: Josefin Skoglund is a Swedish a librarian in Brooklyn by day and an illustrator by night, or whenever she can find the time. Here's her Website.