May 01 2001

Working Internationally: Getting There, Being There and Coming Home

Published by rachel at 8:56 am under careers

by Sam Werberg

After finishing my MLIS in 1997, I left Austin, TX to spend three years in Fes, Morocco working with the Peace Corps as a University Librarian. Based on this experience and my preparation for it, I would like to share a few tips about working internationally.

Getting There: Deciding to Go, Identifying Opportunities, Applying, and Getting Ready

As I was finishing up my MLIS, I decided that I would look for a librarian position overseas. For me, it was the right time, both in my personal and professional life. Timing will undoubtedly be the most important factor for many librarians in deciding to go abroad, but the world is not as big as it once was. It is now easy both to keep in touch with loved ones and to keep up professionally while overseas. As for me, the world was waiting, and I had some library skills to put to work!

After deciding to go “somewhere,” I began to identify opportunities. A career office is a great place to start, and many of the top library job sites regularly post overseas positions. The challenge, however, lies in the fact that some organizations with ongoing library positions only post their jobs on their own sites, so you have to keep your eyes open for opportunities. Some of the agencies I looked at were the Peace Corps, United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and the Fulbright program. (See resources at the end of this article.)

All of these groups have postings on their web sites, but make sure you get enough background on the organization to understand all of the requirements. Some, such as the Fulbright, may offer nine- to twelve- month projects, while others require a two- to three-year commitment - - or longer. Each organization will have a very specific application process, and you will need to supply multiple copies of your work papers (resume, CV, transcript, reference letters, etc.) and personal papers (passport, birth certificate, medical records, etc.). Also keep copies of all your completed applications, especially the ones sent overseas.

When actually applying, if you are intent on going overseas, avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket. This may mean not only identifying and applying to more than one overseas job, but also keeping an eye out for U.S.-based jobs should things fall through. Overseas jobs can be much more contingent on outside factors than U.S. jobs, or at least contingent on factors that we never consider here in the U.S. If you have been accepted to a U.S. government position overseas and a war breaks out in the country you are supposed to go to, chances are you will have to change your plans. Political turmoil, unrest or even forces of nature can change the situation enough to give the sponsoring organization second thoughts. The point — have a back-up.

When it comes time to get ready to go, do a simple needs assessment. It cannot hurt to know the local language ahead of time, but, if you do not, you can at least be ready to learn. In Morocco, the official languages are Arabic and French, but the most common spoken language is a dialect of Arabic. I used a simple phrase book to teach myself the Arabic alphabet and some basic greetings before I left. The Peace Corps is very good about emphasizing the importance of language, and the two-and-a-half month training period in the capital included four hours a day of language classes. If the country you are headed to is not English-speaking, most organizations will either offer language training or require you to know the language ahead of time.

A little knowledge of the cultural and historical aspects of your host country would also be a welcome asset. Whether you stay for a month or a year, your host country will have a different society, with a different religion, dress, food, gender relations, and customs than you are used to. Getting work done comes from cooperation, and cooperation comes from understanding.

Finally, if at all possible, try to find out which technical skills are needed in the situation you are entering. Is there a specific software program that you could get familiar with ahead of time? In Morocco, I found myself having to do a bit of basic navigation in MS- DOS while at the same time needing to be able to troubleshoot the latest Windows software. The specific library package we used was UNESCO’s CDS/ISIS package, which has a good deal of documentation. You may also need to familiarize yourself with international classification schemes, such as UDC (Universal Dewey), or with locally-developed ones.

Being There: Assessing Needs, and Being Local

You will need to understand how to undertake a full needs assessment, but, in this case, you will particularly need to identify partners among either the staff of the library or the community it is meant to serve. This is no different than in the States, except that your ability to assess the real needs of the community will depend, not just on your library skills, but also on your language, cross-cultural and sociological skills.

By being local, I do not mean going native — although when in Rome, my belief is that you might as well eat Italian food. In this case, I mean seeing the local needs through the local perspective. An Internet connection, for example, may be a boon to our information services in the States, but if no one is available to provide training or to maintain the machine, it can be distracting. What kind of expertise, insight or training can you provide that is not otherwise available?

Coming Back: Remaining In Touch, Looking For Work, Bringing It Home

No matter how long your service, project, or work contract lasts, you will eventually need to think about coming back to the U.S. (unless you have caught the “travel bug” and immediately head off somewhere else!). With the Internet, it is much easier to keep track of job opportunities, either through online postings or e-mail discussion lists. Do not forget to keep up with issues and events in your specialty, whether through a library association magazine or online publication.

When looking for jobs back in the States, you will want to have references available from both your current overseas position and your previous stateside positions. Sending an interesting postcard, letter or pictures to your U.S. references cannot hurt. Plan ahead before you go and bring your contact lists, as well as copies of your resume and reference letters. Even from a short-term overseas position, you will want to get at least one reference letter to present to future U.S. employers. Also, do not forget to get copies of any other documentation of your work, such as project reports, pictures, or presentations.


Peace Corps
United Nations
World Bank

Other International Job Postings:

Sam Werberg currently resides in New York City and works as a research consultant at FIND/SVP. He specializes in research in technology and telecommunications and can often be seen muttering to himself in Arabic.

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