Reflections on Rwanda

By Alison Harding-Hlady

In February 2020, after four weeks of work and 33 hours of travel (thanks to a delayed flight and a missed connection), my colleague Karl-Xavier Thomas and I returned home to Canada from Africa safe and sound, full of stories and insights to share with our colleagues (and families and friends) about our assignment with the Rwanda Archives and Library Services Authority (RALSA) in Kigali. The question I am asked most often (after “How was the food?”—everyone wants to know about the food) is, What did I bring back to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) from the experience? The purpose of the assignment and my goals were pretty clearly defined (to provide four weeks of training on bibliographic description and cataloguing), and I think that all involved would agree that the objectives were met and the assignment was a success. The lasting impact of this opportunity on me and my work is a little less tangible. Of course, there are all the benefits of travel, and living and working in another place, even for a short period of time—broadening your understanding of the world, seeing new perspectives, and appreciating in a new way things that you have come to take for granted.

Professionally, I saw many other benefits as well. I really had the opportunity to improve and refine my skills in training and teaching. While I have participated in the formal and informal training of many colleagues over the years, this was the first time I had to develop a curriculum and learning plans, and spent such a concentrated amount of time delivering instructions. I learned to adapt as I went, identifying newly discovered needs and incorporating them into the plans. Patience and flexibility are always key! I also developed a new understanding of the cataloguing tools and standards that I already use every day. When you are teaching someone else how to use something, you really have to stop and take a step back, and you get a better picture of how that thing is constructed and how the different parts fit together. It was good for me to go back to basics and refresh my fundamental understanding of the tools and concepts. This will help me as I return to my “everyday” work of cataloguing.

A colour photo of people gathered in a conference room.

Delivering training on the Dewey Decimal Classification system to librarians from across Rwanda. Photo credit: LAC

Living and working in Rwanda, even for a month, was a life-changing experience for me, personally and professionally. It was a major challenge, taking me out of my comfort zone in so many ways, but it will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am proud of the work that I did, glad that LAC is an institution committed to these kinds of partnerships and the development of the library and archival professions in Canada and around the world, and so grateful to have had the chance to share my knowledge and expertise with fellow librarians in another country.

To learn more about this special assignment, and to get an overview of the training that my colleague and I gave the RALSA staff, I invite you to read my previous posts: Ready for Rwanda! and An update from Kigali!

A colour photo of a group of people gathered around a table.

Our going-away party with staff at RALSA on our last day in the office.


Alison Harding-Hlady is the Senior Cataloguing Librarian responsible for rare books and special collections in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada. Her blog articles depicting her work trip to Rwanda were written before the COVID-19 pandemic context.

 

An update from Kigali!

By Alison Harding-Hlady

In February 2020, my colleague Karl-Xavier Thomas and I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, where we are both guests of the Rwanda Archives and Library Services Authority (RALSA). As we approach the end of our second week in Kigali, it is hard to believe that our time is almost half over! After months of preparation, we have packed so much into the first two weeks. RALSA invited us to train their staff of three librarians and four archivists in best practices and international professional standards. A small but mighty staff, they are keenly aware of their responsibilities and obligations as the national library and archives, and anxious to implement the best standards they can, not only to properly manage and describe their own collection, but also to provide guidance and assistance to other memory institutions across Rwanda. Representing the library side, I have been focusing on cataloguing (my own specialty), but I am also answering questions and helping them to develop policies on everything from administering the national ISBN program to digital rights management to generating the library’s social media content. It has been interesting for me, coming from a large institution where different aspects of our collection and services are managed by different sections and large teams, to see a handful of people striving to do it all here. They are ambitious and incredibly hard-working, and every day I admire and respect them even more for what they are trying to accomplish.

A colour photograph of archival materials on bookshelves.

Part of RALSA’s archival collection. Photo credit: Karl-Xavier Thomas

As part of our work here, RALSA has also invited librarians and archivists from across Rwanda to attend a four-day conference in Kigali, where Karl-Xavier and I will be giving the same training we have delivered over the last two weeks to a bigger audience. It is an opportunity for us to meet and make connections with many of the professionals working in the field in this country, and for them to learn and develop their skills so they can better serve their clients and collections. Although I have always felt that my work has value and have always been proud of what I do, it is special to be able to see the immediate impact of my knowledge and expertise. I really do feel that I am making a difference here, helping professionals across Rwanda learn to better describe and provide access to their collections. These are lessons that they will be able to continue using long after I have returned to Canada.

Another interesting activity that was part of the cultural exchange was participating in Umuganda, the countrywide community clean-up day. This takes place on the last Saturday of every month and is mandatory for all citizens between the ages of 16 and 65. People gather in their villages and neighbourhoods to work on a project that improves their local community. The idea is to make things a little bit better each month than they were the month before. The day that we joined in, people were clearing brush from around newly planted trees, and digging out a drainage canal that was overgrown with weeds. Following the work, the members of the village gathered for a meeting where news and reminders were shared, and members of the community were able to raise issues of concern. I was struck by how respectful the tone of the meeting was, how all members felt free to stand and express themselves, and how they listened to each other and reached solutions together.

I feel that what we are accomplishing here is in the spirit of Umuganda, in a small way. We too are bringing what we have to share, contributing it to the community, and leaving things a little bit better than they were before.

A colour photograph of an office building.

RALSA is moving to a custom-built facility next year, but it currently operates out of several rooms on the top floor of this office building in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo credit: Alison Harding-Hlady


Alison Harding-Hlady is the Senior Cataloguing Librarian responsible for rare books and special collections in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

 

Ready for Rwanda!

By Alison Harding-Hlady

In a few days, I’ll be leaving Canada for a very special assignment in Kigali, Rwanda. A few months ago, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Rwanda Archives and Library Services Authority (RALSA) to provide training in professional activities, international standards and best practices. Along with Karl-Xavier Thomas, an archivist at LAC, I’ll spend a month living and working with the staff of RALSA.

I was honoured and thrilled to be chosen to represent the “library” side of LAC, and I’ve been hard at work for months preparing for the trip. I’ll be sharing expertise with RALSA’s librarians and have been asked to focus on bibliographic description—that is, cataloguing and classification. As a cataloguing librarian who has spent her entire career developing these skills (16 years at LAC and counting), I couldn’t agree more that these are the fundamental building blocks of librarianship. All other library activities—making acquisition decisions, serving researchers, answering reference questions, digitization projects, exhibitions, conservation, and more—depend on a well-organized catalogue with clear, detailed descriptions of every item in the collection. You have to know what you have and where it is before you can do anything else! Although it’s sometimes dismissed as boring, I would argue instead that cataloguing is often misunderstood. A fascinating, vibrant and ever-changing field, the work is always focused on the goal of providing the best possible access to the collection. Every day brings a new challenge, and new opportunity to learn, as every item that we catalogue requires research and thought, to understand how best to classify, describe and connect it to other parts of the collection. It’s this philosophy, and the tools needed to achieve it, that I hope to share with my library colleagues in Rwanda.

Over the four weeks that I’m in Kigali, I’ll be tackling such topics as the international standard for description (RDA), how to create and use name authorities, different classification systems, navigating the public and staff view of the integrated library system (ILS), and more. A lot of time will involve hands-on work, cataloguing books together and discussing the challenges and intricacies of each individual item. There’s always a challenge, even in what seems like the most straightforward book to catalogue! My goal is that at the end of the four weeks, RALSA will have all of the tools needed to provide access to their collection and to support all of the important and valuable work by RALSA in Rwanda. And even after I return to Canada, I’ll always be only an email away and can continue to act as a support and resource!

So the training materials are almost all prepared, the vaccination shots received, the tickets booked, the suitcase packed. There’s an enormous challenge before me, but it’s also the most exciting opportunity of my career so far. The pressure’s on, both in developing four weeks of curriculum and instruction, which is not part of my day-to-day job, and in the international travel (22 hours and three flights, here I come). But I’m confident that I can rise to the challenge and do LAC proud. The opportunity to share my expertise and passion for librarianship and cataloguing with new librarians in another country is an exciting and inspiring one

A colour photo of a woman with a suitcase outside a building.

The author with her suitcase, ready to go!


Alison Harding-Hlady is the Senior Cataloguing Librarian responsible for rare books and special collections in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.