In January of 2007, I had the opportunity, through a grant from the United States government, to travel with a group of librarians from the U.S. to Pristina, Kosovo to assist in the establishment of the University Library. This was during the time when Kosovo was still not a recognized country, due to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the years of civil war that followed in that region. The United Nations was a large presence throughout the country, stationed to keep order and protect the citizens of Kosovo.
Prior to our arrival in Pristina, the grant had allowed a group of young, eager librarians from Kosovo to come to the United States for 16 weeks, in order for them to take classes in library science, as well as work several days a week within our academic libraries, so they could understand how libraries of higher education operate in America. For these emerging librarians, it was an eye-opening experience. Not only had most of them suffered through the years of war, but they had watched as their libraries and archives were destroyed when their country was invaded, and thus a great deal of their cultural identity was lost. War is destructive on so many levels, and one of the first victims is often the record of the people who have lived in the country being invaded.
What was amazing to me, as I worked with these librarians during their time in the United States was their enthusiasm and energy. They absorbed the information we gave them like sponges and one could see that they were amazed and excited by all they were learning. The differences between the libraries they were used to in their country and those in ours was astounding to them. I would not understand why until I actually was standing on the ground in Pristina.
Our group arrived in Kosovo on an early, frosty evening in January. We were taken to our hotel and were met by several of the librarians we knew, one being my friend Urim Sallauka. Our mission while we were there was to help establish the University Library, which was distinctly different from the National Library of Kosovo. The University Library was to be the country’s first academic library. But I had no idea how an academic library in another country could vary from what I was used to in the United States.
During the time we spent in Pristina, I worked exclusively with Urim, assisting him with understanding the new ILS that was being set up, and helping him train staff. I was amazed by several things, one being that the library did not have open stacks. This astounded me – closed stacks in an academic library? Another tidbit Urim shared with me was that although the library opened at 7 AM every morning, students would start to line up at 5 AM just to get a seat for the day. I did not believe him, so one chilly morning he and I went to the library at 5 AM, and to my amazement the line of students waiting for the library to open wrapped around the building. It was in that moment that I realized how deep the thirst for knowledge went, as well as how fortunate I was in my open-stack, free-to-any library back in the States.
The work I did while I was in Kosovo instilled a hunger in me to work with international libraries and librarians, to open information up to all who seek it. It also illustrated the damaged that can be done when one group wants to wipe out the cultural heritage of another and made me want to do what I could to protect items from harm whenever civil unrest occurs. Urim and I have stayed in contact through the years, and his story is probably the best illustration of advocacy and lobbying for libraries that I know.
Urim eventually left the University Library of Kosovo to work at the American School of Kosovo Library. In 2008 he became the Director of the AAB University Library, the largest private institution in Kosovo. Since becoming the director he has expanded the library from one small branch to three large ones: one in Pristina, one in Gjakova and one in Ferizaj. Each semester, Urim gives presentations to students on library resources, librarianship, database searching, seminar papers and theses. He has expanded the collections of the libraries enormously. And his library, much like the libraries in the United States, is a lending library where students can check out books, thus avoiding the early morning line around the building two hours before it opens. It is obvious that his time in the United States affected his outlook on how libraries should assist their patrons, and the popularity of his establishments is evidence of this.
Additionally, he has been invited to numerous conferences outside of Kosovo to talk about what he has done within his institution and how his focus of getting students the information they need is key. He is one of the strongest proponents for library advocacy and lobbying I have ever known and it is a privilege to call him my friend. After spending time in his war-torn country, hearing his stories of what it was like to grow up hiding in the mountains, and watching him blossom into a talented librarian whose focus is to make information accessible, is amazing. I am motivated by him daily, and am so very thankful I have had the opportunity to not only work with him, but to have him as a great colleague. We all need librarians such as Urim – those who lobby and advocate for their libraries at home, as well as abroad. He is tireless in his passion and I, as well as others I tell his story to, can only be inspired by him.
–Molly Brown, ILN Content Officer