Thoughts on Working Abroad as a Librarian, Part I: A Home Away From Home in Shanghai

by Beth Evans, Brooklyn College

To celebrate the Creative Commons launch of The Global Librarian, we're sharing stories and advice from five librarians who have lived and worked in countries around the world. Our first dispatch come to you from Beth Evans, Associate Professor at Brooklyn College. This series is co-edited by Ray Pun, Research and Reference Services Librarian at New York University Shanghai.

BethEvans2.jpgMy first international library experience took place about ten ago when the Brooklyn College Library partnered with a number of the campus libraries in the City University of New York (CUNY) system as hosts to five Russian librarians and an interpreter participating in the Open World Leadership Program. This same semester, our library director reciprocated for an earlier visit to the library of the Shanghai Jiao-Tong University in China by inviting their interlibrary loan librarian, Yelena Z., to come to Brooklyn.

Yelena Z. came for an extended stay, working in and observing our library for three months. In addition to speaking Mandarin, Shanghaiese, and English, she was fluent in Russian. Russia played a bigger role in the Chinese sphere of influence towards the end of the twentieth century than did the United States and studying English had not yet become the important skill it is now. Instead, Yelena Z. had been encouraged in college to major in Russian, and hence, had chosen for herself a western name evocative of the Slavic nations.

Yelena R., one of the visiting Russian librarians spoke no English, and was quite relieved to find herself living in my home with the multi-lingual Yelena Z. Our Chinese Yelena quickly took our Russian Yelena under her wing. She guided her through the events of each day during the week they were with us together, speaking what sounded to me like a perfectly accented Russian. We shared a whirlwind week touring libraries, dining out, and seeing the sights of New York City.

Less than a month after both Yelenas departed, one for China’s bourgeoning coastal city and the other for the Krasnador region of southwestern Russia, my husband set off for Guangzhou, China. This was the first leg of a trip that would take him to Nanjing in Jiangsu province, north of Shanghai, where he met for the first time our 13 month old son, L. L.’s arrival home cemented a permanency in our lives of ourselves as global citizens and stirred in me my own desire to explore.

BethEvans1.jpgThe opportunity to travel came in 2011 when I applied and was accepted to the CUNY-Shanghai Library Faculty Exchange Program. Travel to libraries in China promised to combine my professional interests with my personal desire to learn more about my son’s country of birth. I was hosted in Shanghai at the Shanghai Normal University and had many opportunities while there to visit other libraries in the city as well as to learn about the workings of the library at the hosting university through visits to various library departments. My trip was made most memorable by the presence of L. The hosting institution had generously allowed me to bring along my nine-year-old son. The Chinese librarians helped to arrange for childcare, but also invited L. to join us on special occasions. I extended my stay in China by two weeks in order to visit L.’s first home and to spend a week in Beijing. In total, I was in China for six weeks.

The CUNY-Shanghai exchange was the longest adventure I had ever had visiting another country. In Shanghai I lived with L. in a hotel-like residence for international faculty, and between our mini-fridge and hot pot we established enough of a domestic presence to make our breakfast in our room and call the place home. We frequented a small grocery store down the block, shopped for fruit at the street carts, and ventured forth to the western supermarket tucked appropriately in an upscale mall downtown. For four weeks it felt like L. and I lived in Shanghai. We had enough time to spend a good deal of the time living like natives – playing basketball on the college campus courts, shopping for everyday items at the local Walmart, watching students breakdance outside our residence hall at night – but we still enjoyed our tourist moments at the top of the Pearl observatory and strolling along the Bund. I had my place to go in the library each weekday morning, and I had my home to come home to each night.

Despite our having settled in and being able to make ourselves at home during our time in Shanghai, I knew that the experience my son and I were having was only a brief brush with what it would be like to live and work in another country. The librarians you will meet in the course of this web series had the good fortune to secure long-term positions in libraries far from home. Each will describe for you the delights and challenges of finding their jobs, practicing the library profession in another country, adapting to their new environments and fostering both personal and professional relationships in places where they were once stranger, but now found that they belonged.


Beth Evans is an associate professor at the Brooklyn College Library where she has worked since 1994. She has done a variety of jobs in the library, but her focus has been in reference and public services. She is proud to say she was selected as a Library Journal Mover Shaker in 2007 for her innovative (at the time) work with libraries and social networking. She began a blog about her time in China, which she hopes to return to one day (both the blog and China). You can read the beginnings of the blog here.