At CUNY, A Library Faculty Exchange with Shanghai

June 2, 2010 | News

No one could deny that international experience is invaluable to an academic career. It is why institutions frequently engage in negotiations and overcome barriers of language and culture to create global opportunities for faculty exchange. But when the exchange is with a country like China, some particularly interesting situations can arise.

–Irene Gashurov

Ellen Sexton, professor at John Jay College Library, enrolled in a Mandarin language class. Sexton is from Ireland and has studied European languages, but she was making slow progress. After an eight-week course she was just able to do little more than introduce herself and was resigned to communicating with her students solely in English. In the weeks before her departure she read Inspector Chen detective stories and checked emails from Liu Hua, deputy library director at Shanghai University. Hua assured Sexton that her sojourn in Shanghai would reap “a full harvest” and be a “complete success.”

On the other side of the globe, Pan Lan was getting ready for her exchange trip to Baruch College.  Selected by the Shanghai Normal Library administrators for her fluency in English and her well-rounded education, Lan was instructed to bring back American know-how of library procedures. At once excited to experience American culture and a little anxious, Lan polished her conversational skills by watching reruns of “Desperate Housewives.”

After ten months of intense negotiations with two of Shanghai’s major public universities—Shanghai University and Shanghai Normal University—CUNY launched the Shanghai library exchange program this April. The program aims to facilitate “American and Chinese library collaboration” and promote “positive international relations between the United States and China.” Two other librarians, Subash Gandhi, associate librarian at Queens College, and Ming Lu, associate professor of information science at Shanghai University Library, will participate in the exchange at Shanghai Normal University and Queens College later this spring.

The Road to Shanghai

The impetus for the program came from visits by CUNY faculty to China, where vast changes in society have taken place as the country has widened access to the Internet, particularly in the areas of business and education. Although limits to the freedom of communication persist, China is now second only to the U.S. in the number of papers it publishes in science and engineering journals. And as the Chinese government increases pressures on its scientists to compete with the West, it has made a huge investment in the sciences. Chinese academic libraries are the beneficiaries. They have been building their collections and seeking out programs to facilitate exchange of expertise with the U.S., which is still considered the leader in library innovation.  Shanghai University, meanwhile, has been conducting its own quiet diplomacy with CUNY for the last 30 years through a program of exchanges with CUNY faculty, though this did not include library faculty until just recently.

After one such faculty visit in 2008, CUNY librarian Zuwang Shen proposed an exchange program between CUNY and Shanghai University Library. Realizing the tremendous potential benefits of building professional contacts around the globe, University Librarian Curtis Kendrick enlisted Kenneth Schlesinger, chief librarian at Lehman College and a Fulbright fellow to Vietnam, to assist him with the design of an international library faculty exchange program. Together they secured initial funding from CUNY’s Center for International Service to launch a two-year program with Shanghai University.

At that time, Kachuen Gee, librarian at Lehman College, was traveling to a conference in Canton, China, and offered to discuss the plan with the library directors at Shanghai University. Soon Shanghai Normal University, the city’s top teacher’s college, heard about the exchange, and invited Gee to visit. The university’s director, Yu Kong, and deputy director Wu Zhirong, greeted Gee as an official emissary and seemed to consider the proposed exchange program a fait accompli. Gee, in turn, invited Wu to come to New York and discuss the program further with Kendrick.

Great Expectations

Director Wu arrived to New York with a Chinese-language contract. In his speech at the Library Association of the CUNY Institute on Library Leadership last October, Wu told the audience that librarianship in China has become a truly global profession, and that while Chinese academic libraries have achieved much in terms of technological innovations, they were now looking to the U.S. for leadership and direction.

Kendrick welcomed the opportunity. He said the two institutions shared many commonalities. Both were major public universities in two of the greatest cities in the world. Both were undertaking a major push to expand their science programs. “The U.S. and China have much to learn from each other,” he said. “Chinese libraries offer many technological advances that we’re eager to study and possibly adopt. But we believe that Chinese libraries, too, can benefit from exposure to American principles of access to information and perspectives on intellectual property standards.”

Details of the agreement, reached after lengthy discussions with CUNY attorneys, allowed the Shanghai university libraries and CUNY to exchange a total of eight library faculty, provide them with stipends, health insurance and the chance to examine and evaluate best practices. The CUNY Council of Chief Librarians agreed to grant leave to participating faculty and five campuses—Baruch, Lehman, Queens, Staten Island and York—offered to host the exchange scholars during the program. From the Chinese side, the new contract spelled out the particulars of the program in great detail, including not only their expectations of what CUNY librarians should teach, but also such fine-print requirements that Shanghai librarians be met at the airport and “escorted to prominent libraries and cultural attractions throughout New York City.”

“The Chinese were very specific in terms of what their librarians should learn and what librarians will bring back,” says Schlesinger, who coordinated the exchange. “A real spirit of cooperation drove this program. We realized going into it that it was more important to look at the big picture issues, and trust that the minor problems would be resolved along the way,” says Schlesinger.

Rewards Far Outweigh Snafus

Minor problems did indeed arise, but they were dealt with quickly. The first glitch involved Lan’s assignment to Baruch College. The only personal information Lan provided to CUNY in her dossier was her resume, and further attempts to reach her in China met with a “firewall.” “It was because of the English language barrier,” says Gee, who was pulled into handle some of the communication when Lan did not respond to emails or return documents. With little to go on, the program organizers at CUNY were left to infer her interests from her CV. Based on the fact that she held an MBA, they assigned her to Baruch College, which has a business focus.

Once in New York, however, Lan revealed to her host at Baruch, Chief Librarian Arthur Downing, that the real goal of her trip was in fact to study education library resources, not business ones. Downing scrambled to fix the situation, and lined up meetings with education faculty at Lehman College, Teachers College and Bank Street College. “We have to work out a better system of communication,” said Downing, but added that the rewards of the exchange far outweigh the occasional snafus.

A key reward was getting to know Lan, who has impressed Downing with her bold, unflappable personality. Her favorite topic of conversation with him is the city’s subway system, which looks antiquated compared with the brand-new lines in Shanghai. Lan has challenged him to fix the MTA. “She tells me she doesn’t understand why the subway system is so dirty or why it rides uptown and downtown and not cross-town. She wants me to do something about it,” said Downing. “What can I say to that?”

Then Downing stopped to reflect on the bigger meaning of the exchange. “This is an invaluable investment on the part of the university.” Indeed, if Lan’s lectures, with titles like “Research on the Information Commons” and “Obstacles to Building a Subject Portal” are any indication, Shanghai Normal Library is in the vanguard of information technology. The library is an information commons in the truest sense, because the number of electronic resources—digital collections, blogs, chat reference and document delivery—is transforming the way people study at Shanghai University. “Students in Shanghai don’t come to the library, they have virtual access,” says Lan.

Learning from Each Other

In her first talk, “Introduction to Shanghai Normal University Library,” Lan demonstrated how the library has been working to harvest metadata—data about data—from a range of electronic sources to create a search engine that cuts across disparate databases as if the data existed on a single central platform. “What Shanghai Normal is trying to do with even a few databases, few libraries have done,” says Jin Ma, Baruch metadata and cataloging librarian.

In China, Sexton hopes to learn of similar technological advances from her new colleagues at Shanghai University Library, where the collection includes science databases that CUNY considers too costly for its own collections. “China appears to be approaching levels of development that we associate with the West,” she says. “In the U.S. there’s the belief that freedom of information is essential for innovation and economic strength, so Shanghai University is a real laboratory for testing that hypothesis.”

In her first weeks in Shanghai, Ellen Sexton has discovered that her young Chinese colleagues have openness to outsiders and don’t shy away from discussing controversial topics like transparency or the Google incident. Rather, they talk about these things mainly from the perspective of what can be done to get around the roadblocks. The departure of Google from the mainland, for instance, has driven Shanghai librarians to seek Chinese-language alternatives, and Sexton has learned to follow suit. When she discovered that she couldn’t access her lecture on YouTube, she posted reading materials for her library students on the popular Chinese-language hosting site QQ instead.

Another great benefit of cross-cultural exchange is, of course, having fun in a new place. Sexton enjoys leaving the campus to hunt for delicacies at the noodle makers’ mini restaurants or food court malls. When her fledgling language skills fail her, she resorts to pointing. “Due to a combined inability to communicate what I want and recognize what I see, my vegetarian principles have been put on hold,” she says. “Fortunately the dumplings taste excellent.”

Shanghai is “impossible to pin down,” says Sexton. It’s a city where modern high rises stand alongside temples and endless bicycle paths and abandoned gardeners’ water pumps line the street. She lives in a hotel for librarians on Shanghai’s verdant campus, which was all farmland just ten years ago. While it’s usually peaceful, the student radio station broadcasts music over the loudspeakers three times a day, reminding Sexton that she is in communist China. “The radio adds a surreal element to being here,” she says.

Meanwhile, back in New York, during the first week of Lan’s six-week stay, members of the LACUNY hospitality committee took the guest librarian on a tour of Chinatown. It made Lan feel that she had never left home.  After a dinner of steamed dumplings and beef, the exchange guest pronounced the cuisine delicious but “good for Americans” because it was too sweet for Chinese tastes. At another library outing to a midtown deli, Lan sampled food that she deemed delicious but “too salty,” and declined chocolate cake for dessert, which she considered “for children.” She chose watermelon instead because it “makes you beautiful.”

Asked about her first impressions of New York, Lan said that she cherishes the opportunity to be here. “Conditions in China are quite different. What I learn here will be helpful to our collection development strategy.” Then she paused. “It’s not easy for us to get visas.”

“She’s done very well,” says Schlesinger. “She was jet-lagged, and many people in her shoes would have found the situation intimidating.” He added that, while he wanted Pan Lan to have an American experience, it was also important for her to have someone here who understands Chinese culture, so he asked librarians Kachuen Gee and Jin Ma to be her big sisters in New York. “I think she’ll have an enriching experience,” he says. “I want her to return home not only to share her new expertise but also generate enthusiasm about CUNY.”