Lor on marriage: “Let’s not get New-Age-Hindu Here!”

“Bible Study Love,” by marynbtol

A few years ago:

I saunter up to an apartment building and a man rings me in. Inside, the apartment door is open; shoes lie scattered in a wood-paneled entryway. A large woman sits on the sofa,  and a short one introduces herself. Amy* then follows her infant son around the room, patiently picking up blocks as he scatters them. I serve myself tea and chat with the women, smile at their toddlers, nod to the married men with wives back in their home country. There are just two single women here: myself and Carrie.

We sing a few songs. And then Lorence* starts the bible study:

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord…”

His text is Ephesians 5:22-33, a contentious, 2000-year-old divine word Continue reading →

Data Files: getting information from websites with Kimono

Have you ever wanted to grab information from a website but found it time-consuming to copy-paste everything? Well, here’s your way around that!

A few weeks ago I ran across an extension of Chrome that lets you gather and transform information from webpages. Normally, this sort of thing requires some technical skill, but Kimono makes it easy for almost anyone to pull and reuse what’s posted online. Here, I’ll show you how to use Kimono to pull small sets of information from a single webpage in a structured form, either in RSS or Excel formats:

Getting the Data

Let’s suppose I’d like to get regular updates on news concerning Augusta, the state capital of Maine. Unfortunately, the Morning Sentinel doesn’t provide an RSS feed (that I can see) for just one town. I can narrow it down to get 100 articles about all of Central Maine each day… but who has time to read that?

1. So, I can go to Kimono Labs and Continue reading →

World Values Survey: Kazakhs and Americans

I’ve been taking a free course on statistical inference online, which mentioned the World Values Survey. For this survey, interviewers ask people about religious, political, sexual, community, and life values. I haven’t looked at whether sample size, selection, fear of interviewers, or bias may affect the results. I suspect there are some issues in that area: for instance, Kazakhs were asked if elections are fair and if officials take bribes, while Americans were not. However, it’s still a great survey to use for thinking about social values, especially if you’re already familiar with the cultures and histories involved.

Grandmother in Kazakhstan, by Scott Koch

Below, I’ve cherry-picked data and paraphrased liberally. “Lies, damn lies,” and all that… In other words, I’m listing a few interesting differences (e.g. 2/3 of Kazakhs think something, but only 1/2 of Americans agree). But in 500 other instances, Americans and Kazakhs agree rather closely. So please don’t cite these extracts until you look at the full data yourself!

Kazakh and American Perspectives on Life

What’s important in life? Kazakhstan America
Family is very important 92% 91%
Friends are very important 48% 54%
vs… Friends are not so important 12% 5%
Work is very important 62% 36%
Religion is very important 22% 40%

Kazakhs and Americans both value family strongly. Kazakhs are more willing to verbalize that work is important to life (perhaps because good careers are harder to find in a still-developing economy), while American culture leads us to say we value friends and religion just as much. As we’ll see below, religion is a more active part of family life in Continue reading →

Баня парит, здоровье дарит: a morning at the Keremet Banya in Astana

March 21st, First Day of Spring

Annie calls at 10am, and I roll over to pick up the phone.

“Banya, at 10:45, you coming?”

“I… maybe,” I say, gravelly-voiced. “Call you back in five.”

I contemplate the possibilities. Sleep in and lounge around having coffee all day, or undertake an awkward naked Russian bathing experience?

Because it’s the spring holiday, I decide on the latter. SMS: I’ll be there.


I’ve lived in Kazakhstan for three years, yet this is my first “banya experience,” as the expats say.

Banya is a Russian word that simply means bath. In Mongolia, our “banya” was just a small building in the town center with private shower stalls, because most locals had no warm shower at home. More often, the post-Soviet banya is a group experience between same-gender friends or family members. I’ve met a few ardent fans: the colleague who voluntarily hangs out in northern Siberia in the winter (!!), as well as my bubbly housemate, Zara.

This morning, I walk into Zara’s room and ask if she’ll go with me. She’s on the sofa watching TV and tapping her tablet screen in search of spring fashion photos on Vkontakte.

“It’s Friday!” she reprimands me. “Muslims don’t go to the bath on Friday!”

Her view Continue reading →

Scholarships for Kazakhstan citizens to study abroad in Europe or America

I’m often asked by young Kazakhs how they can study abroad, and I don’t have an easy answer. It’s a long process and sometimes you have to apply again and again to get funding to study in America or Europe. I left Kazakhstan a month ago, and decided not to post this article—but then yesterday, someone Facebook messaged me to ask about studying abroad!

(Admissions photo by Don Shall, on Flickr)

(Admissions photo by Don Shall, on Flickr)

So, I will share what I know. Below are ideas on how to find and apply for scholarships to study in America or Europe. Continue reading →

Playing with God and Stalin on Google NGrams

I’ve just finished browsing Uncharted, by Erez Aiden & Jean-Baptiste Michel (2013). In this book, the authors describe how they convinced Google to create the Ngram Viewer. This is a great tool that lets you analyze word frequency across millions of books. It’s a powerful set of data that you can play with fore free–so try it out! (If you get confused, this guide will help.)

For instance, here’s a graph of how often cool professions are mentioned in English-language books over time, demonstrating, if nothing else, that experts get referred to with a toss-away label such as ‘the anthropologist’ far too often:

Continue reading →

Employment Numbers for Librarians and MLS Graduates

Librarian, by Joachim S. Müller


Many thanks to Rob for walking me through pivot tables and filters for analyzing large Excel files, specifically using a 460,000-row file of data on 2013 US employment by location, industry, title, and salary averages. You can find this yourself at www.bls.gov/oes/#data (select “All Data” and “XLS” to download).

For my librarian friends, I checked out the data on librarians, which comes up in four main classifications:

Number of Librarians, by State

Looking just at state level, it seems the five U.S. states with the most library staff are the large and intensely populated states of California (28,000), New York (26,000), Texas (20,500), Illinois (18,500) and Ohio (18,300). I’m a bit surprised Florida isn’t in the top five.

The five states with only around 1000 library staff either have low total population or a widely dispersed population: North Dakota, Alaska, Hawaii, Delaware, and Montana. Neither set is representative; I should really analyze librarian:population ratios, which hover around 6:1000 to 11:1000 (so say, 8 librarians to 100 people). But I’ll set that aside. Looking just at the top five states for total library staff:

Top States, by Number of Librarians California NY Texas Illinois Ohio






Library Assistants






Library Science Teachers






Library Technicians






Grand Total






Note here that California and Ohio have a 2:1 assistant:librarian ratio, and NY, TX, and Illinois all have around a 1:1 assistant:librarian ratio. Assistant roles often don’t require a library degree, while librarian roles typically do, so this suggests a high number of unskilled positions relative to the number of skilled positions.

Placement Rates

Further, it’s interesting to juxtapose this with the 2013 self-reported graduation and placement rates for librarians from MLS programs (download the data via link here). Although only 80% of library schools participated in the survey, they reported graduating at least 6100 new librarians in 2013. Using grads by program location as a rough proxy for grads within the state, I find:

  • California: 600 graduates trying to join a workforce of 9200 existing librarians (SJSU, UCLA). That’s high, but SJSU has many out of state folks in the program as well.
  • New York: 400 grads to 11,000 existing librarians (CUNY, underreported)
  • Texas: 800 graduates to 10,000 librarians (UNT, UT Austin, TWU)
  • Illinois: 300 graduates to 6500 existing librarians (UIUC)
  • Ohio: 230 graduates to 5770 existing librarians (Kent State)

6100 grads to 1500 placements shows that most aren’t placed. I don’t know how this stacks up compared to placement from other non-technical and creative BAs and MAs. For the 1500 who did find work, it was in the following subfields: Continue reading →

On Fieldwork with Missionaries

My first encounter with missionaries—like that of so many children—involved presents. A Christmas bauble from Burkina Faso, given out to each child at a small church in Ohio. A stick of Juicy Fruit from the American woman in a burqa, for answering the Why Jesus Saves Us question.

Growing up as an evangelical, I knew that missionaries were Out There, Doing Stuff to Save People–and stopping by once in a while to ask our parents for money and give us presents.

Ornaments, by Manda Vixen

Then, in my late teens, I had the chance to live for a summer with missionaries in Eurasia. There I met men and women struggling to stay afloat. They were strong-minded, socially unsettled, persistent, desiring of change — and slow to make converts. Our relationship didn’t last, but I took away a strong picture of Missionary in my mind.

I’m not interested in being a missionary, but after that experience I decided to study them. So, after a year of academic articles and grad school conversations that were critical of the impact of missionaries on society–staying ironic, detached, hipsterish–I returned to Eurasia to study them for real. Interview people, observe them… and perhaps come down from on high and zap these people for their imperializing sins.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

First Fieldwork and Representations

“I’ve been doing this research on missionaries,” I told a colleague after returning from the field. “And I’d like to continue…”

“But then you’d have to be around missionaries,” he responded, grinning over his pint of beer.

I laughed… but inside I was thinking… Continue reading →

Shymkent Beer

I recently went with friends to spend a week in Shymkent, the largest city in Kazakhstan. It’s known as the “Texas” of Kazakhstan for its wild ways, large desert landscape, and sprawling population. I’ve made a video/photo montage with Kazakh music, if you’re curious:

And, well, Shymkent Beer is simply one of the best produced in Kazakhstan. Check minute 4:16 of the video to hear the Shymkent Beer song in Kazakh! It basically says, have fun, drink up Continue reading →

How a city falls…

I’ve just returned from a trip to south Kazakhstan over the May holidays. Above is my favorite photo from the trip, a shot of the hillside carved away at the ruins of Otyrar.

If you imagine a nice big mud-brick roundhouse with strong cross-beams… and then see the house compressed under the earth over 800 years with the wooden beams rotting away over time… I think you’ll see what we have here. Archaeology is really cool!

(Below are partial reconstructions to help you visualize, and you can see many more pictures of the beautiful nature and culture in Kazakhstan on my Flickr!)


5 Things to Know When Taking a Librarian Job Abroad

Below is a guest post I wrote for Hack Library School; please leave your comments on the post there


When you’re worn out by your studies and dreaming of your future post-MLIS life, many library students start to imagine what it would be like to travel somewhere far, far away. With a beach, ideally, and palm trees, and a small waterproof hut for our books and technology. If you’re looking outward to the rest of the world for library opportunities, the first thing I’d do is to encourage you to go for it! If you’re looking, Heidi Dowding has shared a great list of international LIS job sites to get you started, Chris Eaker lists some more, and Laura Sanders overviews the international school experience.

Boats on river in Astana, Kazakhstan.

In any case, after you’ve applied and started getting interviews, there are several things to keep in mind.

1. The Job Titles Aren’t the Same

I’ve covered this before on my blog: titles layer differently in Asia than in a western institution. A senior manager may sit at a desk and lend books like astudent assistant would in an American library; a general director may manage thelibrary director. I’d always recommend you submit an application first and ask questions later if they’re interested in you. You may want to inquire about the meaning and place of your title in the hierarchy, so that you don’t take an ‘assistant’ role that actually involves substantial team management, or a ‘management’ role with ten people who directly watch and give instructions to you!

2. The Workplace Culture is Different

Workplace culture, as I’ve suggested in other places, is a tricky concept. But I don’t find culture mostly in food or clothes – I see it in hidden assumptions about life in the library. Working in Kazakhstan, at times beliefs peek out from underneath a conversation, suggesting that professional women still need to have a child to be fulfilled; that everyone needs to be watched by a supervisor at all times; that long hours are more important than what you do with those hours; and sometimes that promoting local culture is a primary goal of libraries. If you work abroad you’ll be an “expat librarian,” and many of the frustrations we face come when we’re not prepared to deal with differences in implicit expectation, values, and beliefs. It’s helpful to come to work prepared to listen closely and accommodate your colleagues’ assumptions, as well as to share your own background assumptions about the library in a respectful way. Just because you learned an attitude towards work in library school in Chicago doesn’t mean it’s “right” for your new workplace in Shanghai.

3. Your Responsibilities May Differ

Here in Kazakhstan, a core part of the librarian’s role is sometimes to closely guard an inventory of books and ensure that no book is ever without your supervision. Libraries are silent places of study – I have fond memories of my former boss standing up to announce “shumno, rebyata!” (“quiet, kids!”) when whispering commenced among university coeds. In centers of library training like America, Europe, and Malaysia/Singapore, you may have learned to give specialized research or education support. When moving into places like the post-Soviet Union, you could find most of your time spent in counting books, or back-dating and filling out checkboxes on a form. Do go for the interview – but ask carefully about the responsibilities and what percentage of your time is likely to be spent on which tasks. Again I’d emphasize that it’s worth it to go abroad, but your career trajectory and tasks may be *different* from a US-only library career track.

4. Your Job is to Provide Training

Chances are, if you’ve been hired from a ‘developed’ country to work in a ‘developing’ country, part of your job is to provide professional development to local colleagues. This may be the case even if some of them have western MLS degrees and are just as experienced as you. Sometimes the argument that ‘locals need training’ is the only way management can be persuaded to hire foreigners that would add diversity to an already strong team. Most countries (including our own) require incoming workers to be ‘highly skilled’ and have restrictions on hiring any skilled expatriate workers who could take a job from a local; showing you have some niche training that you can share with others may be of help.

5. Contracts and Benefits May Be Flexible – or Surprisingly Inflexible

It’s common in post-Soviet workplaces to have mandatory set hours: contracts may state that you’re working five or six days per week, 9:00am-6:30pm, with an hour and a half in there for lunch. However, the reality may be that you skip your lunch and stay until 7pm, you come in on the weekend for a Saturday spent raking the lawns, or everyone takes a leisurely breakfast and tea break during work – it’s hard to tell beforehand. Sometimes vacation days or bonuses can only be takenafter the first year of work. A good question to ask in a Skype interview is whether they’ve had other expat librarians work with them, and if you can contact those people; or if there have been past misunderstandings with expats and what you could do to avoid that. A question like this may give you a good clue to likely areas of tension, and allow you to sign up for your first post-MLIS job aware of the cultural differences – and ready to enjoy life abroad!

Comments? Your own experiences? Leave them here