A Special Library Collection Making a Difference in the Lives of Refugees and Immigrants

In honor of National Library Week, we asked ECE President Margit Schatzman to write about ECE's library.

Mike jumped up, and when he came down in front of a bookcase of foreign language dictionaries in our library, the floor shook ominously.  “You are playing 'put a straw on the camel’s back',” he said, with a sigh.  I had asked Mike, an architect and civil engineer, to review our office blueprints and make recommendations on the structural integrity of our building.  It was time for us to expand, again, and I wanted to make sure that the space could stand the strain of our ever-growing library collection.  Apparently, it could not.

Our specialized applied comparative education library is the heart of our operations.  It includes college catalogs, copies of syllabuses, foreign language dictionaries, directories of higher education institutions and sample documents.  Standard reference materials are used to evaluate the education of over 30,000 foreign-educated people each year.  

Our library also contains a fascinating historical collection of information on education in which a researcher can get lost:

  • A publication on South Africa chronicles how apartheid in education was codified with legal precision.  
  • A 1959 directory of universities around the world includes a scant two and one half pages for the People’s Republic of China, with other countries’ page count in the dozens.  How the number of universities has grown since then.  
  • A  838-page publication from 1952 on the educational systems of the world that was clearly produced on a typewriter and then copied, includes the countries of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, British East Africa, British West Africa, Ceylon, Siam and Transjordan.

When I first encountered our library in 1983, the entire collection fit against the south wall of the office of Jim Frey, the founder of ECE. This was ECE’s second office.  The first was in the basement of Jim’s suburban home, behind the furnace and within sniffing distance of pet cat Tara’s litter box.   As I learned more about my new occupation, our library continued to grow.  We moved to a larger building one mile away and proceeded to gobble up the adjacent offices, one or two rooms at a time, creating a weird patchwork of carpet designs as we took down walls and decorated on the cheap.

Mike’s structural analysis caused us to get serious as we hunted for our new quarters.  The weight of the library shelves and dozens of filing cabinets of sample documents meant that we needed a load capacity of at least 150 pounds per square foot, which is far more than a typical office.  Our real estate agent took us on tours of dreary concrete slab structures in light manufacturing buildings and strip malls.  Finally we found a magical space in the old Blatz brewery in downtown Milwaukee.  Our library settled in the location where the copper brewery kettles would have stood.  Our lease stipulated installation of a dumb waiter so we could transfer boxes of books from the second floor library to the offices and work stations that overlooked the library from a mezzanine on the third floor.

ECE libraryJust as the industrial structure of the Blatz brewery supported our books and papers, when it came time to move again, we found another industrial space.  Bottle house B of the Schlitz brewery is our new home.

Before our forays into the world of breweries, our library was already becoming legendary in the highly specialized profession of international credential evaluation.  Over the years we have hosted visitors from Jamaica, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and many U.S. colleges, universities and other evaluation services.  Our visitors are amazed by our collection and the wealth of information that still can only be found in a physical format.  While other evaluation services were trimming their libraries, we grew ours.  We collected publications from colleagues who retired and bought from used book stores and on line.

Jim Frey was the original curator of the library.  New evaluators took over the responsibility for the library as a labor of love and we finally hired staff to manage this important resource.  Along the way we worked with volunteers and consultants to catalog the library with a modified Dewey decimal system.  The library is now completely cataloged and on-line. We are acquiring publications in electronic format, subscribe to numerous services and are well on our way to scanning all our sample documents for research purposes.  

Although we serve traditional international students, immigrants and U.S. citizens and residents who have been educated in other countries, we have begun a charity program, ECE®Aid, to provide help to under-served populations.  With the help of donors, we are providing evaluations at no cost to refugees and others identified by partners in refugee resettlement agencies and colleges and universities who admit refugee students.  Our sample documents from countries like Iraq, Sudan and Syria, and our vast collection of syllabuses and programs of study are especially helpful in serving this population.  Our work feels all the more meaningful when we can help a struggling family access higher education, help a refugee get a job in the field in which she was trained, or help secure a professional license for an immigrant wanting to make a contribution to his new homeland.

Last week we learned that a colleague who had conducted research on international credential evaluation in our library successfully defended his dissertation.  When he walks across the stage to receive his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, we will know that our little gem of a library played a role in his academic success.  He, like so many foreign-educated people and those who serve them by helping others understand and value their education, are why the ECE library exists.

 

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