April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Newly Minted School Librarian Starts Her Career—in Nigeria

I was sitting in an airport, waiting to board my flight to Abuja, Nigeria. The next day I would begin work there as a librarian in a K–12 international school, and the curriculum coordinator just happened to be on my flight.

Kate Davis with her library staff, Mr. Wisdom and Ms. Tolani, in front of the library.

“Have you seen any recent pictures of the school’s library?” she asked.

“No, actually. I’d love to see some!” I responded.

I excitedly focused my eyes on her phone screen, which displayed not shelves and books—or even walls—but a gutted space, with knocked out walls and a huge hole in the ceiling. I was confused. This could not be the library that I had seen pictured on the school website.

It was. School was starting in two weeks and the library was not expected to be operational for at least another month. I realized that I was going to start my career as a school librarian without a library.

An Adventure, with Autonomy

Why would someone move across the world—from the U.S. to Nigeria—to work as a librarian in an international school? I taught in Asia and the Middle East from 2008 to 2014, so moving abroad again was always an option. When I graduated with my MLIS from the University of Denver in March 2017, I immediately began the job application process, hoping to stay in the United States (specifically West Palm Beach, FL, where I grew up). But none of my other job applications resulted in an interview. I interviewed with the American International School of Abuja (AISA) at the recommendation of two friends who work there, and I was offered a job.

At first, I wasn’t sure I would accept it—was it worth the move? I know that when my family and friends heard I was moving to Nigeria, they would presume I’d be working in a rural area with no electricity. AISA is actually a well-funded, western-style school. Each classroom has a SMART board and all the students get an iPad or laptop computer. The library is usually a cozy place, with computers and even a maker space.

In fact, it was the amazing library space that first attracted me. I was told I would have autonomy over the library, as well as the scope of my position. I would also have two library assistants to help me run the space and teach classes. The jobs that I was applying for in the United States did not offer that kind of independence. As a new librarian, I appreciate having the time, space, and resources with which to experiment and transform our school library. Job satisfaction was worth the move to me.

Working abroad would also help me get out of debt quickly. Most accredited international schools cover the costs of housing, round-trip flights, and health care. Many offer interest-free loans to help new teachers buy a car or other big-ticket items needed to get settled. Some schools cover other expenses, such as utilities and storage fees (for things back home). I calculated that I could be debt-free after one year working abroad, whereas it would take me several years if I stayed in the United States.

The final, significant reason that I decided to take the position was to have a first-hand experience in a new culture and a new country. Living abroad, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to fight “the danger of a single story.” I wanted to learn about Nigeria not from books or news stories, but from the local residents who were willing to share their culture. While living in Nigeria, I also hoped, and still hope, to visit other African countries and learn about their cultures.

Living here does have its challenges. The power often goes out, so I need a back-up plan for any lesson that relies on technology. There is not the same sense of urgency to complete tasks here as there is in the United States, so an ability to “go with the flow” is required. Also, shopping for American creature comforts is hit or miss, so I brought a year’s supply of everything that I could not live without, including 10 pounds of my favorite coffee. I was prepared for these issues.

No library? No problem!

The school library-in-progress at the American International School of Abuja.

However, being a library-less librarian threw me for a loop. After the initial shock, I did what most librarians would do—started exploring how to work around this gap. Where were all the books stored? Could we put them in carts so that students could access them? Could we get mobile technology to check books out? Preparing for the first week of school involved coordinating with the library assistants and school administrators to sort out our options.

This was a trial on many levels. Not only was the situation challenging, but I was new to the school and did not know whom I should contact about storage, carts, technology, etc. Many administrators were also new, so they did not have a lot of answers for me. Outside of school, I was a newcomer to the country and did not know where to turn for resources. I needed to jump into action, but as a fledgling school librarian, I had no past experiences to draw on. I had many questions and very few answers.

Deep breaths followed.

I decided to change my approach for the start of school. With no physical materials to focus on and no library to work in, I decided to visit classrooms and focus on fostering relationships across the school. This proved to be a great way to connect with teachers before classes began. I talked to them about their plans for the year and how I could best assist them. I spoke with the elementary principal about having a library class embedded into the school schedule, and she readily agreed. Suddenly, I had 13 library classes to plan for the first week of school.

The AISA school library opened for business a month after the start of school.

Just getting started

I recently completed my first week as an international school librarian. I loved every busy minute of it. Not only did I visit every classroom in our elementary school, but I’ve also already taught lessons on using primary and secondary sources in four middle school social studies classes. I’ve enjoyed introducing myself to the students and learning more about their personalities. I asked them for their ideas on how to improve the new library space. Many want a library pet. Some asked for more whoopee cushions to surprise unsuspecting patrons. I will see what I can do.

I love that the students are from all over the world and speak dozens of languages. I cannot wait to pull from their personal experiences and facilitate conversations on global citizenship. There are also opportunities to engage with local students in less affluent schools, so that my students can actually put theory into practice.

As I look back, I am thankful that I was put in a situation that forced me to bond with teachers and other staff members. This was invaluable for future collaboration. Otherwise, I would have focused so much on preparing the library’s physical space that personal connections might have been overlooked until later in the school year.

If this first week is any indication, my first year in Nigeria as a school librarian will be an amazing experience—with or without the library.

Kate Davis is a first-year teacher librarian and the recipient of the 2017 Freedom to Read Foundation Gordon M. Conable Scholarship.

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  1. Sounds like you have a great attitude! I hope you continue to update us on your experience.

  2. Melissa Reynolds says:

    Your adventurous nature and selfless attitude are an inspiration to not only your students but to people everywhere. More over it’s an even bigger accomplishment as a woman to push yourself and trail blaze it for others like you. Thank you for your story. Look forward to seeing how you and your library flourish.

  3. It will be an amazing adventure and actually it will be really great for you to be able to “shape” the library as you want it. I taught overseas for 9 years and have been back in the States for five- but I’d “take off” again if I could find a librarian position overseas- way to go!

  4. You are a dreamer, an optimist and an inspiration to me Kate. You are doing wonders around the world and touching so many people’s lives. We need more Kates in our world to give us hope and give us another perspective of the world. This is what’s it’s all about! Keep adventuring and doing amazing things! Proud of you!

  5. Kate,
    We’d love to feature your MG readers on an upcoming podcast! Please email us at: bookclubforkidspodcast@gmail.com.

    Kitty Felde
    Host/Executive Producer

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