I am in Sumy, Ukraine. I spent last night at a beautiful lake watching some ducks get excited about the nuts my translator was feeding them until it started raining. The night before there were fireworks and nobody can tell me why. Over the past week in Izmail, and now in Sumy, I have learned too much to even begin trying to make a blog post. There are two interesting translation issues though, that I think are informative and I want to discuss. I think they are interesting because I didn’t even think about the possibility when I was writing up my focus group and interview guides. Both of them are related to the people involved in the library. Who is the library user and who is the librarian?
When I first started doing my focus groups in Izmail I used the word “patron” to refer to a library user. This seemed obvious, as that is how one refers to the library user in many library journals. I didn’t even think about the word. However my translator continually translated library patron as шеф (shef), or chief, patron, or supporter of the library. When I wanted to ask about the library users, my translated asked about the library financers and I kept having to backtrack until I finally began using a word that both the translator and I understood to mean the library user: читатель (chitatel’) or reader. In Ukraine, the primary function of the library user is to read; he or she sits in the reading hall, or takes books from the lending library and then reads them and returns them. The focus here is on what users do with the library. Whereas, the word “patron” for library user, makes the library user into a library supporter. I had never thought about the reason that we use the word patron, and how odd a choice it truly is in English for library user. Why we use “patron” I do not know. For public libraries it may be because the library is funded by taxes and in a way the library users are also the ones that pay for the library operations. Whereas this is not always the case in Ukrainian libraries. While I thought it was obvious who a library user was, that is a person that uses the library, I’ve realized how much more complicated it is.
The answer to the other question “Who is a librarian?” seemed obvious to me. A librarian is someone who has been trained as and works as a librarian. When I was creating my scenarios to discuss with the library users and the librarians, this is what I had in mind. I figured there would only be a couple per library and I would interview them. I ended up having accidental focus groups with the librarians instead of interviews. In the United States there are different levels of library workers: the staff that does not have an MLS, MIS, or MLIS, and the staff that does. Librarians can get tenure in academic libraries, but they need to have this training to do so. A librarian can only be called a librarian once he or she has obtained the degree.
This is not so in Ukraine at all. The work for librarian translates roughly to “he that works with books.” And this is what you need to be a librarian in Ukraine. So where I make the distinction in my head between a staff person who may assist library users and a librarian, this distinction is completely foreign to Ukraine. But what does this difference mean? For one I think that we have a more hierarchical structure to our libraries in the United States than they do in Ukraine. For another I think that we put more emphasis on university education than on on-the-job learning in the United States. Librarianship has always seemed to me the kind of field that would benefit from an apprenticeship structure.
Neither of these differences show Ukrainian or American libraries to be better or worse than the other. I think that they highlight different mindsets. I don’t know what exactly it means that the term “library patron” doesn’t translate or that a Ukrainian “librarian” is anyone who works in the library. I don’t think there is one meaning. Still, this cultural translation is one thing that has been fascinating to me during my entire trip.