My colleagues’ projects in Africa and Astana

Instead of just talking about myself… I wanted to share a bit more about what two friends of mine have been doing recently. Ersatz Expat writes useful blog posts for new expats in Astana, and Alexandra Sutton has been working to promote entrepreneurship in Africa. Cool stuff, and you can read more below.

1. Ersatz Expat and blogging in Astana

Picture of Astana's winter frost, by Ersatz Expat

Astana’s winter frost, by Ersatz Expat

I still have a few more things to post about Kazakhstan, but I’ve moved back to the US for now. If you’ve been reading this to learn about Astana, check out what Ersatz Expat has written on the city, at Ersatz Expat.

She’s got great advice for families moving to Central Asia, including how to dress for the cold, as well as shopping and driving tips. She’s got reviews of the sights, holidays, and local traditions… and even the nearby gulag(!).

Ersatz has just moved to Malaysia, so stay tuned for more from the Sarawak / Borneo region!

2. Alexandra Sutton & conservation in Africa

Alexandra Sutton has been working with communities in Maasai Mara of Kenya

Alexandra Sutton has been working with communities in Maasai Mara of Kenya

“A kedge is a small anchor that you use in a fishing boat. We see that as representative of what our program provides–something to hold the boat in place so people can fish for more opportunities.” 

On the other side of the globe, my interview with Alexandra Sutton has just gone up on the PopAnth web magazine. Alexandra recently founded Kedge Conservation to support African communities with the tools they need to expand local entrepreneurship initiatives. I enjoyed learning about the Maasai Mara region of Kenya and Alexa’s upcoming projects in Malawi. Learn her thoughts on the area at: Business Training in the Garden of Eden!


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. Since I often talk to people who have a bachelor’s degree in Kazakhstan, many of the programs are for master’s degrees.  Here’s the process as I understand it:

1) Develop your English.

Do everything you can to develop your English while you are still in Kazakhstan – watch TV, pay for lessons, attend American Corner, and find local friends who will talk with you only in English. You should already write a good paper in English, read academic news or books regularly in English, and enjoy some reading, writing, and thinking in English (at least reading this post comfortably!)—before you try to get someone else to pay for you to study abroad.

2) Have an academic Interest.

Make sure you really do like academic work before applying for a world-ranked program. Especially if you go to grad school (masters or PhD) you will spend most of your time reading, writing, analyzing, and talking about scholarship. If you want to travel, then travel! If you want to work, there are English-speaking places (like Malaysia) to work in. If you want to study, that’s the time to go to graduate school. The most successful applicants have already had courses or work in the area they hope to study, or even taken one bachelor’s in Kazakhstan, then gone for a second bachelor’s or master’s abroad.

3) Take time to prepare.

It will take 3-6 months before the deadline, especially the first time you apply. You will probably need transcripts from school and university, with certified translations into English, letters of recommendation in English from supervisors or mentors, an IELTS or TOEFL score, some extended essays, and plenty of other documents. Allow as much time as you can—even up to a year—to gather these documents and revise them before sending them off.

4) Choose a program – or several.

Below is a list of the largest programs I know of which fund Kazakhstani students to study for 1-4 years abroad. These include:

America: The Muskie program gives one or two years of funding to study in an American graduate program. This is for students from select countries, including Kazakhstan. The U.S. Embassy to Kazakhstan lists other scholarships for international students on their website as well.

Worldwide: The Bolashak program is funded by the Kazakhstan government to send Kazakh-speaking citizens abroad for master’s and PhD at top universities around the world. You sign away your family’s house as a guarantee that you will return to Kazakhstan and work five years to pay off your debt. The program used to include bachelor’s degrees, but those are now available through competition to take one of 500 undergraduate positions each year at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Europe: the Erasmus Mundus program operated until 2013 for students from developing countries (including the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) to study for a fully-funded master’s (or PhD) in Europe. This has just become the Erasmus+ program, which I am not as familiar with. See that link for updated information on the revised program.

The UK/Great Britain: the Chevening scholarships are highly competitive and promise to cover half-fees to Durham University, Bangor, and Cambridge next year. Each year, different universities in the UK participate; the scholarship is always in the UK, but not always at the same university.

Other: Many individual universities will offer funding to high-performing international students–find a university you like and ask what’s available. You can find recent lists of scholarships for Kazakhstani students at Scholarship Positions and more general scholarships for people from developing countries at Scholars4Dev. And EducationUSA is a good advising service from the US government that helps foreign students find universities in the US, without charging for-profit agent fees.

5) Apply – and reapply. Check the requirements and deadlines for your chosen scholarships and universities carefully, and note them on your calendar a year in advance. Find friends who are applying and work to improve each other’s applications, as it is a difficult process and good to have encouragement! Having a native English speaker check your application once you have done the work is also very helpful. (It’s nice to send thank-you notes or small gifts to people who have helped you or written recommendations, especially if you do succeed in getting a scholarship abroad!)

Finally, continue to develop your career at home while you’re waiting, as it can take several tries to secure a place abroad. And remember, there are plenty of ways to work or travel abroad besides going to a university, so consider exploring some of those options as well!

And… do you have any suggestions to share with others? Improvements on what I’ve said above? Please share in the comments!

Playing with God and Stalin on Google NGrams

I’ve just finished browsing Uncharted (Erez Aiden & Jean-Baptiste Michel, 2013) which details how the authors convinced Google to create the Ngram Viewer in order to analyst textual frequency across a large percentage of books. This is a powerful dataset you can play with for free, with no set-up time – just go to!

And if you’re totally confused, this guide will probably 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 as ‘the anthropologist’ far too often:

And also demonstrating that “fieldwork” is a much more recent concept than I thought (yes, screenshot below, as searching “fieldwork=>*_NOUN” for related terms wouldn’t embed properly):

Fieldwork 1

Russian NGrams

But it’s not just English books. Over in the Russian language books, you can assess the relative frequency of steady favorites Lenin (green) and Marx (red), the jump in obligatory discussion of Stalin (orange) while alive, followed by suppression after he left, and finally, a sharp rise in talking about God (blue) after Soviet restrictions were lifted in the late 1980s:

Also in Russian, we can see mentions of tsarism go down (blue), while the (soviet) Union (red) goes up. Economic restructuring (green) and openness (navy) both have a jump in the late 1980s, while dissident writings (orange) remain mostly beneath the radar.

All the Single Ladies

Another quirky example is in synonyms for single ladies. Party like it’s 1899? I’m not sure why there’s a sudden jump in discussion of old maids in the 1890s.

A friend suggests that old maid is a card game, which would have been popular in the Victorian era. My intuition says this is a good explanation, but a search for other parlor and card games doesn’t show the same jump. Maybe it’s what people called their wives in old books? A nickname for the declining years of the 19th century? Still unresolved:


Then there are the librarians. Do they work with books, or computers? This chart suggests that the librarians are increasingly connected with computers, relative to their existing connection with books:

There’s also a clear shift from cataloging (of print materials) to metadata (for digital materials):

Literature and Fantasy

And finally, a crucial cultural question for America today: what is it with zombies and vampires?

Try it yourself!

Interested in checking out your own theories on print culture? Play with history at!

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 (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

Pop Culture: Incongruously Played Songs

A year or two ago, I spent the summer trying in vain to be linguistically immersed in one language (Kazakh) in Almaty, a large multi-lingual city (Russian, English, Kazakh, Uzbek…). As I filled out Kazakh worksheets late at night, male voices rumbled in the garden below. Someone in a lower apartment turned on their mp3 player and opened the window.


“This is my fate… oh-oh-oh-oh… I’m yours… don’t hesitate…” I catch Jason Mraz singing Continue reading

On Library Ethnography

Here are the slides from my webinar today for the New Professionals group (@npsig) at IFLA:

In this presentation I highlight the benefits of ethnographic methods for understanding what users actually want and do in the library, some of the research projects I’ve been working on in Kazakhstan, and the more interesting results of ethnographic library studies.

Audio for my presentation (and the even more amazing presentation by Hugh Rundle) should be up at the NPSIG blog in a week or so!