Expat Life Survival Guide 1: Doing research

photo of man standing near high rise building
Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

I recalled the ‘euphoria’ of landing the job – as an expat librarian in the Middle -East. I remembered sharing this with my wife, and she reminded me that it was kind of long overdue – apparently, she had wanted us to move abroad after getting married. Well, better late than never.

Back to the topic. Before making the BIG move, do your research, extensively. My wife even got on board to find more information about the place, the people, the climate, etc. Know what are the dos and don’ts of the area, the cultural aspect of the region – this includes social and work culture. Take note of the climate as well. (Get ready those skin cream if needed). It would also be worthwhile to know specific administrative rules, policies, and procedures: such as applying for the driving license, buying a car, registering kids to local/international schools, making that doctor’s appointment for health check-ups, etc. The information obtained will help you and your family prepare your mindset so that you and your family won’t come in ‘blindly’ and get a ‘rude shock.’

Don’t forget to reach out and network to those who had been there and done that. For me, I was fortunate to re-connect with a friend who was working in the region at that time. I conducted an informal ‘reference interview’ with the person. It was a fruitful session. There were surprising answers to questions which I thought are quite straightforward. One of the most important lessons that I learned was to ensure that before you sign on that dotted line, make sure that these 3 things (among others) are covered for you and your family: medical coverage, housing or housing allowance, and your children’s education.

Here’s a quick list of information sources that I’ve used:

  • Human expertise
  • Books esp “How to” guides
  • Magazines / Journals
  • Travel Guides
  • Social Media such as Blogs, Twitters, Facebook
  • Websites – Governmental websites
  • Newspapers

Life as an E-Resources Librarian in an International Graduate Research University based in Saudi Arabia

Disclaimer: The following is my own personal account as a Singaporean Expat living in Saudi and may be different for others (usually based on their country’s passport *wink*).  I have been working in the library field for close to 20 years.

Before proceeding further, I’d like to thank my wife for sharing this journey with me and being my pillar of strength when the going gets tough.  Moving from a first world country,  you will need to have the crucial qualities such as patience, perseveranceresilience and a Can-Do / Never Say Die spirit.  Why those traits?  From my experience here, I’ve encountered many challenges and obstacles along the way that if you don’t possess at least one of those, you’ll probably just let everything go and leave.  You need to have an open mind.  Turn challenges into opportunities.  Like Denzel Washington said “Fall Forward“.  Understanding and respecting local cultures and communication norms would be very advantageous as well.

It began with Access and Digital Services Specialist which later turned out to be Electronic Resources Specialist.  The ride was initially bumpy filled with sweat, tears of joy/sadness against a backdrop of a dynamic work landscape.  Fast forward 7 years later, I won’t trade the valuable experience for anything less.  Life is full of tests and tribulations but in it, are lessons that money can’t buy.

I moved from Singapore to join a newly established Graduate Research university library based in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia way back in late 2009.  I remembered the first time I stepped into the library; and bumped into the then library director, Joe Branin.  He was a warm, cordial and knowledgeable man; full of advice.  He made me feel at ‘home’ in my new surroundings. The very first Uni Librarian has since passed on. RIP Joe. You made every obstacle into an opportunity as reflected in the saying “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”   Richard Bach, (Illusions)

Being the Electronic Resources guy, I had the chance to work with various equipment: the main ones are: iMac, MacBook and my trusty iPhone – all provided by the university.  I ‘expanded’ that equipment to include IoS and Android devices.  Such is the support that I got over here.  One of the reasons why I got all those stuff is that I need to ensure that our e-resources work / behave well on all computers as well as mobile devices whether Windows, Mac, iOs and Android.  I get ‘fan-mail’ every once in a while when one of the e-resource titles don’t perform to expectation.

One of the things that you need to understand is to learn about the norms and work culture over here especially when locals are involved.  Working in a multi-cultural team is sometimes perplexing and needs adjustments at many levels in terms of expectations and understanding the knowledge and expertise of each team members.  Sometimes, a staff may be at a disadvantage due to his/her ‘indispensable’ status in a department especially  when he /she is so used to multi-tasking in their country of origin.

For example,  a staff who is good at his or her work may be held back in the trenches.  The Boss may feel that by having this individual around would be useful in getting the job done and done well where other staff fail(s) to deliver.  On top of that, the individual may be asked to ‘mentor’ other group members as they are not apt in their area of work.  This may be good for the Boss but not for that individual who will have to put in ‘double or triple shifts’.

Like most universities, this place is a flat organization.  Perhaps, any dissatisfaction with regards to promotions is quelled by trips abroad for conferences,  international paper presentations and of course not to mention the most important deciding factor is the remuneration perks.

To excel as an E-Resources Librarian, you need the key professional competencies as outlined by NASIG:

Life cycle of electronic resources:
(Pesch, 2009)

You need to have knowledge on this.  I picked it up on the go over here.  Because of my background in Reference work and Web usability, the learning curve was gradual. Being in the electronic resources field also meant that I need to keep abreast of any technology changes.  I also have to be alert and stay on top of things (work-wise) so that they don’t fall thru the cracks.  In terms of “sharpening the saw”, I was fortunate that the library is supportive in my trainings which included attending a number of overseas conference(s). On top of that, I immersed myself in the numerous literature available on the subject matter.  Till today, I am still learning and would continue to learn.  At times, you will need to learn, unlearn and relearn.  You have to be honest with yourself.  It’s OK to admit not knowing some stuff on electronic resources management.  Take steps to address this by attending webinars, asking peers, read some books on the subject matter and so forth.

Last but not least, you sincerely want to make the organization that you work in to be successful and not just mediocre when compared to international standards. To achieve this reality and not just a mere figment of our imagination, everybody’s efforts and contribution counts regardless whether they are locals or expats.  After all, most of us are motivated to work and aim to ensure that the workplace would be successful and stand shoulder to shoulder with our peer universities.  However, the practice of promoting duds; those who do not have the RELEVANT expertise or experience should be stopped as such negativity would only slow down or worse impede , the vision of any university and bring down the morale of those who are passionate and good in their work.

Do you ‘stamp’ books for a living? (Kerja abg ‘cap’ buku ke?)

I used to get lots of questions on what I do as a librarian.  Did I ‘stamp’ due dates on books; how many ‘stamps’ did I make in one day and so forth.  At times, it made me feel like ‘stamping’ their foreheads with the book rubber stamps.  However, I realize that it’s not all their fault as librarianship wasn’t a glamorous job compared to doctors, pilots, engineers etc.  Furthermore, back then, there was not much publicity about this profession.

facepalmSource:  https://flic.kr/p/eAcKKB

I had to explain to them that some of my major tasks back then revolved around these activities:

  • answering questions whether via email/in person/phone from our users
  • assisting users in their research process
  • manning the Reference Desk, alone (for almost 4 hours either in the morning or afternoon)
  • conducting training sessions for students/staff/lecturers
  • maintaining the library’s website
  • exploring new technologies
  • learning how to use electronic databases
  • assisting users on how to search and retrieve relevant results from these databases
  • promoting library resources: ‘roadshows’, poster exhibitions, thematic books displays etc
  • conducting freshmen orientation

We were also made to

  • shelve books to get a sense of how the books were arranged
  • initiate projects to improve workflows/procedures within department
  • do volunteer work
  • conduct research and write papers
  • sit in committees

Fast forward 20 years, my responsibilities have evolved.  Not all have changed though.  I still handle questions coming in from emails/phone calls/in person.  Sometimes, I do conduct training sessions for faculty members, students and researchers.  I shall elaborate these changes in my upcoming posts.


Those early days … in the library

I started my career in librarianship in this library.  That was more than 20 years ago.  I remembered walking into the building, anticipating what the first day was going to be like.  I was fresh out of university and was eager to jump into the unknown.  I had read about librarianship in the newspapers and spoken to some who had worked in the library field.

Reference Desk: (Picture:  https://flic.kr/p/58Vj8z ) – a typical example.

Reference desk
One of the first thing that I was introduced to was the Reference Desk – one of the most important places in the library (besides the computer lab).  That was where my Reference and ‘People Interviewing” skills were inculcated, cultivated and developed.

One of my tasks at that time was Newspaper scanning and indexing.  I scanned our local newspapers and indexed them according to a pre-defined subject headings.  All of these were done at the Reference Desk.  Sometimes, I had users staring at me (some giving me cursory looks) as if I had nothing better to do 😛  It took me awhile to understand why they did that 🙂

Another important skill that I had to learn fast- Reference Interview.  It’s essential to know what the user needs.  Mastering this skill would help you to be more efficient and productive in handling desk/email questions.  It also helps in reducing frustration for all parties involved.  An example of user interaction at the Reference Desk:

User:  Where can I find information on  dinosaurs?
Me: Ah yes, we got lots of them in this section …. (Got up from my seat, scuttled over and grab a few books. Showed them to the user).
User: Thank you, actually, I’m looking for T-Rex .. do you have any information on them?
Me: Yeap … hold on …. (and off i went to get some more books)
User:  Aha, but I’m looking for when did T-Rex became extinct and … and ….
Me: ???

FrustrationPicture URL

Reflecting back, it would be much better for me to ask probing questions to get a better understanding.  Well, one of the those lessons in the School of Hard Knocks 🙂

I recommend these 2 books for people who would like to learn more about reference work:

On another note, it was also important to learn from the Pros.  At that time, I learned my tricks of trade from the more experienced Reference Librarians.  Those who had many years behind them in the field.  Began by asking them questions, loads of them.  Observed how they answered the questions, how they handled difficult users while keeping their dignity intact.  (You will be surprised by the questions received at the Reference Desk)  I  shadowed them.  Being humble and inquisitive were the keywords at that time.  To those who have helped me during those ‘trying’ times, I thank you. (You know who you are).