(Preface: I wrote some of this as a reflections document for “proceedings” that the Nazarbayev University Library is publishing about my week there. Then I started rambling on. Apologies for any typos, I hate proofreading).
I’m using this paper to document some observations I had in Kazakhstan, not only to share with Kazakh librarians, but also with my colleagues and friends in the United States. Everyone in the U.S. is fascinated by my trip and they have also asked me to document what I did.
The first thing I should mention is that I had no pre-conceived ideas of what to expect in Kazakhstan. I’ve spoken to many people in the U.S. who have no idea where Kazakhstan is (Americans are bad about geography), much less what it is like. And because of that, no one gave me advice or caution about my trip. There was a February 2012 article about Astana in National Geographic Magazine that made me curious about where I was going, thanks to all of the new architecture, but still did not help me as to what I should expect. The article talked about how Kazakhstan was using its oil money to try to align itself with the West, similar to what some of the Persian Gulf oil states have done. When I was invited to come to Nazarbayev University, it struck me that it was a new university wanting to provide a more western style education.
After over 24 hours of travel that went surprisingly smoothly, I arrived exhausted, and got online, which convinced friends back home that Kazakhstan was connected. The next day, the three librarians from the U.S. were given a whirlwind tour of the city, that included stops at Bayterek, the Presidential Center of Culture (museum), and a couple of shops. It was also my first introduction to Kazakh food, with horse specialties and fermented horse milk. I can be an adventurous eater, but I drew the line at horse. My first impression of Astana (the capital) was that it was a rapidly expanding city with lots of construction going on. Yes, many of the government buildings and monuments were architecturally over the top, but I imagine someone visiting Washington DC for the first time would feel the same way.
The nation of Kazakhstan is just over 20 years old, having split from the Soviet Union. In 1998, the president moved the capital from Almaty to Astana for various reasons, and Astana has been growing ever since. The president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, claims he did this because Almaty had little room for growth (it was against a large mountain chain, similar to Denver) and was prone to earthquakes. Many believed he moved the capital as a way to threaten Russia, as Astana is geographically closer to Russia. He also appears to want to put his mark on Kazakhstan, and creating a new capital is definitely one way to do that. The president has been very involved in building the new capital, working with architects and developing the street plan. He seems a bit of a micromanager to me. He also has a bit of a personality quote. There were a ton of books about him, things named after him (including Nazarbayev University), and although the capital is not named for him, it is assumed it will be renamed after he dies. He definitely paints a rosy picture of himself and his country, and that was the impression I had as well. However, Kazakhstan ranks high for government corruption and freedom of the press, so things aren’t perfect. He won reelection last year with over 95% of the vote, and from conversations I had, people seem pretty content as living conditions and salaries have gone up.
I also had the impression that many things were built in a rush without quality in mind and were already crumbling. And I noticed that although the middle class is growing and is doing better, the gap between the middle class and the rich was huge. Typically, that isn’t a good thing, though we’re getting that way in the U.S. too. Also, because all power has been consolidated into one person, there is some concern what will happen when the president dies (he’s in his 70s), and that may be limiting the growth prospects for the nation. I also talked to a man on the way home who was setting up farm partnerships between Wisconsin and Kazakhstan, who was originally supposed to go last year, made it as far as the Astana airport with a visa, but was turned away because the election was about to take place and they were concerned that foreigners would meddle with the voting. Hm.
The goal of the trip was to have American librarians come and do professional development in order to reinforce what the librarians have been told about how academic libraries are run in the west. The secondary goal was to get the staff to think of themselves as professionals, as librarians are not considered that in Kazakhstan and they do not feel they have enough autonomy to make professional personal decisions or decisions about how the library should be run. Many times during the week, I answered questions in the form of “because we’re professionals, we make our own decisions about that”. In Kazakhstan, the library degree is an undergraduate degree, and has suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union, where it was much more rigorous. After our visit, many staff wanted to get an MLS, either in the US or through a distance education program, and the library there is trying to find ways to pay for it, and bring the librarians up to the standard in the US.
Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday were spent conducting professional development activites at the Nazarbayev Univeristy Library. The University is on the edge of town and is brand new—this is the first academic year. It currently has about 1,000 students but is expected to grow. There are difference buildings for the individual colleges, all connected by a large atrium, which gives the feeling of it being one large building, similar to some community colleges in the U. S. There is also a separate dormitory and plans to add additional dormitories and spaces on the main building. Since Kazakh secondary schools only go through 11th grade, all students have a 1-year prep program to make the equal academically to western education. There are several schools, focusing mostly on the sciences and engineering, business, education, and social sciences (mostly economics and foreign affairs). Each school is partnered with a university in the west, such as the University of Pennsylvania for education and the University of Wisconsin for the social sciences, and they are on the calendar for where their curriculum came from. So, one college (I believe it was engineering) is based on the British model, so those students were taking final exams while we were there. The schools on the American model still had a couple of weeks of classes. The University is also working on developing a medical school in cooperation with Duke, which is supposed to open when the first class graduates. Medicine has traditionally been an undergraduate degree. Also, the government routinely pays for its best students to go to graduate school in the west. They did this for undergraduates too, but now that they are building this new university, it replaces the need to send students abroad for a top-tier education. All tuition is paid for by the government.
Nazarbayev is interesting because everything is in English, which was quite different from the rest of Kazakhstan, where Russian was dominant, with Kazakh being the second most common. The government wants to transition to having Kazakh be the main language, but recognizes that this will take a long time. Knowledge of English is said to be what will help Kazakhstan be more western, though few people spoke it outside of the University. Almost all university faculty came from the UK or the US, and about a third of library staff was American. The other library staff spoke good English, and many had spent time in the west.
Some observations I made of the library: it was very Western. I think any US university library that was only a hear old would be very similar. There was a large computer lab, tables to study at, and a small circulating collection as the emphasis is on electronic resources. There is a blended reference and circulation desk, and the collection is managed through an RFID system. However, there were a few notable differences. They asked students to scan their RFID card upon entering the library s that they library could keep track of usage, similarly to how, in the US, we check the gate count. But in the US, that data is anonymous, and it would be a big privacy issue if we could tell who came into the library and when. Another difference was that there were multiple copies of every book on the shelf, partly because that is the way it was done in Russia, and partly the bureaucracy to order books from the west was so much, that they may as well order multiple copies in case one gets lost. Also, about lost books: the head of public services is financially responsible for each book that is lost that cannot be connected to a student. Ouch.
Overall, the staff was very well informed as far as library issues. My focus was on digital services librarianship (my job position), and we covered a wide range of topics, including electronic resources acquisitions and access, digitization projects, institutional repositories, and next generation library search products. Other than next generation search, the library staff was very knowledgeable about all of these and wanted to pick my brain to learn more about them. They are frustrated by ebook availability, DRM, and the inability to work with e-readers, just like we are.
One thing that kept coming up was the issue of library policies. In Kazakhstan, it appears the policies are dictated on a national level, which meant everyone was interested in American policies. It was difficult to explain that we don’t have policies on a national level, though some organizations covering library issues do have guidelines, such as the ACRL Information Literacy guidelines. In the US, libraries create their own policies based on their environment and the needs of the user. I can point people to the policies at the University of Illinois library, but they are somewhat unique to our environment. When I visited the National Academic Library on Wednesday, one woman wanted me detail what is needed to hire a new librarian, such as how many reference questions do they have to answer to justify their job. I really didn’t have an answer, because we develop new positions based on so many variables including workload of all librarians, skills needed by the library, and the funding we have available.
Another issue that dominated the week was textbooks. Every fall, we have a lot of activity by students, especially international students, wanting to check out their text books from the library. In order to give everyone a fair chance of accessing a textbook, the library asks faculty to put both printed and electronic materials “on reserve” for the class. That way, they can download the electronic information and use the textbook in the library for a couple of hours. In Kazakhstan, the library buys all the copies of each textbook and distributes them to the students. When we visited an older university, the Eurasian University, their library was pretty much a storage location for textbooks. Because the visiting libraries talked so much about the differences in textbook allocation, at the end of the week, librarians from across Kazakhstan decided to write a resolution asking that universities can be exempt from the policy that libraries are in charge of textbooks. The argument was that Nazarbayev would like to give a textbook allowance to students as a way of further encouraging the western model of higher education. However, some librarians were suspicious that doing this would severely cut the library’s budget.
I also spent some time convincing the the Nazarbayev University IT department that they needed a proxy server since remote access of electronic resources is an expected library function. It was a similar conversation as what would happen in the US: the librarian trying to explain to IT that their users need a particular services, and IT not wanting to do it because of the resources needed and security concerns.
On Wednesday, we visited the National Academic Library for a big symposium. The morning was spent with them announcing their selection of a book for their “one nation, one book” program. From what people talked about, the selection was one of those books you’d be required to read in school, but not actually enjoy it. But many famous scholars were at the library to talk about how the book had impacted them. In the afternoon, the American librarians spoke about our topics and then there was a panel discussion by the younger librarians on staff. If it wasn’t in Russian, I would have thought I was at ALA; they were concerned about the same things young American librarians were concerned about: the generational divide, the stereotype, and the need to be understood. The National Academic Library has about 20 librarians in their 20s. The library itself is composed of many smaller reading rooms devoted to a specific area, such as digitization, serials, popular reading, American culture, etc.
On Friday, we visited the Eurasian University for a symposium aimed at University Librarians from throughout Kazakhstan and Provosts. It was no surprise that most of the provosts did not show up. We also had a tour of the campus, which was similar to an urban university in the US.
Over the weekend, I messed around Astana and did some shopping. One highlight (I guess) was Khan Shatyr, which is a mall that is also the world’s largest tent. It was a mix of global stores, and included a Gap, which was very similar one in the US, just more expensive. There was also a food court with KFC, Hardee’s, and Baskin Robbins, which were very popular there. One surprise is that McDonald’s has not made it to central Asia yet. Khan Shatyr also has a water park in it and a couple other rides, so it was pretty crazy. I also tried to visit the aquarium, which is famous for being the aquarium that is the furthest away from tidal water in the world, but it was swarmed with toddlers and had a long line. Suspiciously, sushi is the trendy food right now.
Again, I want to thank the staff of the Nazarbayev University Library for sponsoring my week in Astana!
Oh, and if you have any other questions, let me know.