An international student-librarian's perspective on diversity in library space

By:  Shu Wan, Student, University of Iowa

Shu WanMy name is Shu Wan and I am originally from China.  I’ve been enrolled as an MLIS student at the University of Iowa for almost one month and I have already served as an ArchivesSpace assistant in the Department of Special Collections of the UI Libraries for over one year. Initially coming to Iowa to pursue an advanced degree in U.S. history, I had no idea of library job before getting this assistant job. It was my first interaction with the library profession. As the only foreigner among students and staff working in the department, it is certain that I always feel alone and anxious.

Owing to my unique background and experience, my understanding of the issue of diversity in the library profession may be unique from other contributors to this blog, who may belong to racial minority groups but grew up in America. I encountered great difficulties in communication with my colleagues, who are not prepared to work with international student employees. Thanks to my patient and merciful supervisors, Lindsay and Jenna, I could survive my first library job and have not lost it so far. To help other ALA-student members who have similar background and encounters, I will share two useful lessons about how to efficiently communicate with your American bosses.

The first lesson I learned is to maintain frequent communication with your supervisors. My first month in the department was full of frustration and disappointment. Owing to my unfamiliarity with the ArchivesSpace system, the progress of my work in migration of heritage data from the old system to the ArchivesSpace was very slow. Disappointed with the slow progress, I consulted with my supervisors frequently for numerous problems I encountered in my work and always received informative and helpful suggestions from them.

While working on the blog post, I checked my Hawkmail (the official email system of the University of Iowa) and it was shocking to find that I sent over 150 emails to my supervisors for every (tiny and trivial) problem I encountered within my first month of working in the Special Collections. What a large number! I want to express my gratitude to my supervisors for their patience. Thanks to all their suggestions, I finally became a skilled user of the ArchivesSpace.

In addition to maintaining good communication with my supervisors and colleagues, the second lesson I learned in the Special Collections was an efficient method to overcome language barriers: if I could not articulate my ideas and concerns in colloquial communication, I would write down my concerns and send them via email. As mentioned earlier, English is not my first language, so my Chinese accent strongly affects the quality of my communication with American colleagues. Of course, it is unfair to require them to struggle with my accented oral English, though they really show deference for me. With the aim of improving the quality of my communication with them and avoiding miscommunication, I always email my concerns and reactions after or before our face-to-face talks. This is also the reason why I sent too many emails to my supervisors.

The two lessons I took in the Special Collections probably seem shallow for readers of the blog, who mainly consist of the library professionals, but they are very important for international student-librarians like me.