Teaching Librarians How to Innovate in the Digital Era to Drive Student Exploration and Learning

A Fulbright Specialist Goes to the Kyrgyz Republic

Three smiling women stand shoulder to shoulder.
Three smiling women stand shoulder to shoulder.
Dr. Mega Subramaniam (center), stands together with two of her Kyrgyz colleagues.

Mega Subramaniam is on a mission to engage underserved youth through libraries and digital learning. The associate professor at the University of Maryland in College Park is passionate about helping librarians use design thinking techniques and digital technologies to re-envision how libraries can engage and serve youth patrons in the 21st century.

In the Spring of 2019, Subramaniam took her expertise to the Kyrgyz Republic as a Fulbright Specialist in order to train librarians from a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds how to better engage with youth.

“In an increasingly divided world of haves and have-nots, libraries play a critical role in leveling the playing field for youth learning,” she says.

At the request of her host institution, the Library at American University of Central Asia, Subramaniam provided on-site training and resources to approximately 70 librarians from around the country during her two-week grant.

In Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, she led workshops focused on upskilling librarians to use design thinking to create and manage new learning experiences and programs for young adults.

It was an assignment she was well prepared for.

“I have spent the last decade re-envisioning the library’s role in fostering the mastery of emerging digital literacies among young people,” says Subramaniam, who is also the Co-Director of the Youth eXperience (YX) Lab at the iSchool College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.

As Subramaniam puts it, the core of the YX curriculum promotes engaging young stakeholders to co-create their own learning experiences.

In other words, instead of the traditional model in which librarians are expected to be all-knowing experts, Subramaniam teaches librarians how they can help students drive their own learning and exploration in addition to leveraging outside experts.

Five women are seated at a table with arts and crafts materials.
Five women are seated at a table with arts and crafts materials.
Librarians at one of Subramaniam’s workshops experiment with creating tactile representations of a connected learning program.

Reflecting on these workshops, Subramaniam says she really enjoyed finding creative ways to change mindsets about how to effectively serve youth. Using bags of materials typically destined for the landfill, she challenged a room of librarians from across the country’s capital to develop a tactile representation of a connected learning program for their library. Connected learning programs link young people’s personal interests with meaningful relationships and real-world opportunities, such as career development and civic engagement, to ignite their passion for learning.

“They really got into it,” recalls Subramaniam. “I knew this would be useful, but I didn’t know it was going to change the way they think.”

Overall, she found librarians across the Kyrgyz Republic very receptive to the idea of student-driven learning. “They were quite relieved that they don’t have to be the expert in everything. I helped them understand how to transition to be a good facilitator,” Subramaniam explains.

Subramaniam also met with the nation’s next generation of librarians at the Bishkek School for Humanities, the Kyrgyz Republic’s only school for library studies. She spoke to a group of undergraduate students about trends in library science and education, in addition to research-oriented topics like how to measure impact.

“I was so pleased that these very, very young people are going to be future librarians,” says Subramaniam. She also delighted in what she described as “greater gender balance” among library science students there compared to the United States.

Two smiling women stand next to each other with their arms around each other.
Two smiling women stand next to each other with their arms around each other.
Dr. Subramaniam stops for a quick photo with her host institution counterpart, Dr. Jyldyz Bekbalaeva, who is the Library Director at the American University of Central Asia.

“The next generation of librarians in the Kyrgyz Republic is very enthusiastic, open and represents both young men and women,” she says.

“It’s great that so many of them want to go back to their communities to serve at libraries where they grew up.”

Subramaniam also discovered that librarians in her host country often create informal partnerships with local industries that can help libraries fulfill their role as community hubs.

For example, at a library in the northernmost region of Chuy, the library director shared with Subramaniam how she accidentally got help from a brewery owner, who secured fields for the librarians to organize a community soccer tournament.

“Libraries are more than books,” she says. “They are trusted institutions in the community.”

Subramaniam is now thinking about how partnerships like this could work in the U.S., especially in under-resourced rural areas. She says her experience as a Fulbright Specialist not only enhanced the capabilities of library staff in her host country, but also helped her learn how to improve library training programs here in the United States.

Based on these experiences, she is now developing case studies of “unlikely partnerships” that she observed in the Kyrgyz Republic’s rural communities that could be useful for libraries throughout the United States.

Examples include partnerships with local carpenters to teach youth woodwork or with local hairstylists so young people could learn the art of hair braiding.

Six smiling women stand shoulder to shoulder; behind them is a wall with a television.
Six smiling women stand shoulder to shoulder; behind them is a wall with a television.
While visiting the Kyrgyz Republic as a Fulbright Specialist, Dr. Subramaniam had the opportunity to visit library facilities around the country to learn more about how they engage youth.

Subramaniam was also inspired by the natural inclinations of Kyrgyz librarians to focus less on acquiring material “stuff” for the library, and, instead, focus more on serving the community. She plans to infuse this idea in her library training.

She now wants to bring students from the University of Maryland to the Kyrgyz Republic and is developing a new study abroad program in library sciences. If approved, it will be the university’s first faculty-led program to Central Asia.

“I genuinely believe in the ideals of sharing knowledge and teaching people in diverse contexts,” says Subramaniam.

“The more I share my skills and experience around the world, the more I am able to reflect on the diversity of challenges faced, which further strengthens my own research and teaching endeavors,” she adds.

The Fulbright Specialist Program was established in 2001 by the U.S. Department of State and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) to enable U.S. professionals and scholars to work on short-term projects overseas in conjunction with local host institutions.

For more information about the Fulbright Specialist Program or to apply, please go to: https://fulbrightspecialist.worldlearning.org/the-fulbright-specialist-program/

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