Thinking Outside the Borders – By Connie Forst
If you want to go fast, go alone.If you want to go far, go together. ~African proverb
Thirty-two librarians from around the world came together near
Champaign, Illinois, from November 7-10, 2006, to participate in a unique international leadership institute focused on meaningful cross-cultural communication about libraries and leadership. In its second year, Thinking Outside the Borders: Library Leadership in a World Community was sponsored by the Illinois State Library and the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
I consider myself very fortunate to have been one the Canadian librarians to attend. Librarians from Argentina, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, South Africa and the
United States, who represented entry-level to senior management positions in their respective institutions, spent the course of the Institute learning from each other. Our time together was spent at the Allerton House and Conference Centre, located west of Urbana-Champaign near Monticello,
Illinois, where its’ regal gardens and peaceful setting provided a stunning backdrop to our discussions.
Thinking Outside the Borders was a chance for me to challenge my thoughts about leadership, not only within my own borders, but to examine cultural biases as well. I learned so much about other libraries and librarians from around the world. The line-up of speakers reflected the international focus of the program. The speakers included: Mary Ann Mavrinac, Chief Librarian, University of Toronto Mississauga, who spoke of the Campbell Leadership Descriptors; and Carol Brey-Casiano, Director of the El Paso Public Library in Texas and past ALA President , and Ujala Satgoor, from the University of Pretoria in South Africa, spoke on what it means to lead in an international library world. Professor Harry Triandis, from the
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, increased our awareness of strategies and skills for cross-cultural communication and Tom Clareson, Program Director for New Initiatives (PALINET) from
Pennsylvania, brought our focus to thoughts of disaster preparedness. Barbara Ford, Director of the
Center and Carol Brey-Casiano both spoke on issues surrounding library advocacy. Ms. Brey-Casiano’s top ten steps in being a good leader include: find a good mentor, learn to follow, be visionary, be a good servant, take risks, take care of yourself, maintain a positive attitude, never turn down a leadership opportunity, learn to motivate people effectively, and keep your sense of humour.
While listening to Ujala Satgoor speak I had goose bumps. Her perspective from
South Africa was riveting. Her presentation along with Sandra Rios Balderrama, a consultant from
Arizona, brought to awareness the need and recognition for diversity and multiculturalism in libraries and in our communities. Participants were asked to list behaviours that annoyed us that may be culturally related, and then to list which behaviours made us feel better in dealing with those situations. These exercises allowed us to create a list of desirable leadership traits that crossed cultural boundaries. A few of the common traits that our group came up with were: integrity, honesty, taking risks, being fair, strong values, emotional intelligence, flexibility and diplomacy.
We also used a role-playing game called Pamoja to understand different cultural values and how that influences interactions. This lively game allowed participants to interact, share information in different ways, and to see things from another perspective. One of the responsibilities among participants was also to create a international partnership project with one other library. The idea behind this was that the two institutions involved it would serve to maintain some long term ideas and continue the institute beyond the time being in
Illinois. The projects were vast and ranged from exchanging information and expertise, to exchanging staff and creating sister libraries.
Our days were full. As we shared meals together and our sessions together in the evenings we told stories, learned about each other’s countries and libraries, and, in some cases, talked well into the night. The institute was a way for us to network with librarians from other countries and to see how we can help each other as we face similar issues across borders. When we looked at the question of what elements, characteristics and values are necessary for a leader to be effective in a global, multicultural and cross-cultural environment, there was no simple or easy answer. Our own leadership, as leaders within our institutions and communities, evolves and continues to grow over time. I came back from the Institute with enthusiasm, questions, and optimism. While my day to day focus may be local, my experience from attending the Institute definitely stretches beyond and causes me to think outside of those borders. Thinking Outside the Borders was an amazing experience and it is one that will guide my leadership path for many years to come.