Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA)
Posted on January 30, 2003
By Kristen A. Graham
VOORHEES - They traveled from Russia in hopes of finding information to help build libraries back home - and in search of warm weather.
Well, at least the five librarians visiting South Jersey this week got the information.
"When they got up this morning, they looked out the window and said, 'It looks like Siberia outside,' " said Bob Flanagan, a chief librarian of the Camden County Library and host to two of the Russian visitors.
Still, Marina Sergeyevna Danilova didn't mind. "Librarians here talk so much about the information technology," she said excitedly in English. "It's great, a big help. It's our future. We have a lot of technology now, but still, America is ahead of Europe."
Danilova - one of the guests of honor at a luncheon yesterday at the Voorhees branch of the Camden County Library - began her library career 16 years ago.
At that time, the Soviet Union's grip on her city made information dissemination virtually impossible.
"Everything," she said, "has changed."
Now, patrons may borrow freely, and books once censored by the government are no longer out of bounds.
"It was not like that before," Danilova said. "Many materials were forbidden - the library had them, but the people couldn't use them."
What impressed her most during her latest trip?
It wasn't the tour of Philadelphia's main library or the meeting with Camden County Freeholder Riletta Cream.
The plans to go country line dancing were nice, as was the scheduled trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But what really wowed her and her colleagues was the taste of American culture they received.
"It's the people," she said, motioning to the candlelit room with fresh flowers and a banquet table groaning under the weight of homemade goodies prepared for the Russian librarians by their Camden County counterparts. "They're so nice and friendly and hospitable."
Lyudmila Yevgenyevna Kovaleva, a librarian in Khanty-Mansiysk, nodded and leaned in close.
"I like how they treat their houses," she said a little shyly.
Spending a week living with people whom they sometimes struggled to communicate with, people who may be unfamiliar with their culture, was an eye-opener for the group, Danilova said.
"America is so diverse," she said. "People here are so tolerant, trying to understand other cultures. This is not the same in Russia."
Called Open World, the program that brought the librarians to South Jersey is the brainchild of James Billington, current Librarian of Congress. A specialist in Russian literature and history, he has made it a priority to bring Russian professionals to the United States.
"They're trying to get ideas about things they can take back," said Claudia Sumler, director of the county library system.
Sumler said she was surprised by the interests of the librarians, which were not much different from those she hears often in her own system.
The Russian librarians were especially interested in finding funding to help young adults connect to libraries creatively.
"In America, we're grappling with the same issue," Sumler said. "So we're all sort of stumbling together."
Still, the Russian librarians expressed amazement at some of the resources at their American counterparts' disposal as they zipped through a tour of the large Voorhees branch.
When Flanagan led them into office space for the Literacy Volunteers of America, a group that works with the library to offer tutoring to speakers of other languages and the illiterate, the questions came fast and furious.
"How does a person get in that program? How much does it cost? What do you have to have to qualify? Citizenship? Green card?" said Kathryn Stachejko of Bellmawr, translating Natalya Viktorovna Yermakova's rapid-fire, incredulous Russian.
"It's free. They call up and meet people at different places in the community. No, they don't need those things," Flanagan said.
Kovaleva smiled as Yermakova launched into another excited burst of Russian.
"She does not believe you," Kovaleva said, and laughed. "This is a wonderful program, a wonderful place."
Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 856-779-3927 or firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com.
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[Reprinted with Permission]