Professor of information studies John V. Richardson Jr. was named a Senior Fulbright Scholar this summer and traveled in September to Ashgabat, Türkmenistan to work with the nation’s Department of Library and Information Science at the Institute of Cultures. During the six-week fellowship in September and October, Richardson, an expert on library and information economies in developing countries, lectured at professional book fairs and related events, spoke to Türkmen students and faculty about book publishing in the digital age, and encouraged the acquisition of materials by the National Library of Turkmenistan and its branches.
Richardson says that the Fulbright assignment was an opportunity to inform the governmental and educational agencies of Türkmenistan about the efficiency of digitalization, particularly to address the shortage of actual books and materials in the country’s recently built library facilities.
“The president of Türkmenistan has spent a lot of money so there are absolutely beautiful libraries,” Richardson notes. “There are a lot of new, modern buildings. But the book stock is really quite inadequate and outdated. So how do you play catch-up? Hence the e-book, the e-library.”
Richardson says while some of the population can afford to own digital readers, there is still a dearth of material in the national language due to Türkmenistan’s former status as the Türkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, which was under Russian leadership until 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved.
“Speaking globally, there’s plenty to read in English,” he says. “But if you speak Russian, less. And if you speak Türkmen, even less.”
Richardson, who visited Turkmenistan previously in 2005, 2009, and 2011, says that cultural sensitivity should be exercised in assessing the needs of the nation’s libraries. He says that although Russian is more widely spoken in the country than is English, existing LIS books and materials are predominantly in English and the availability of Russian texts is dwindling due to the fall of the Soviet Union. He hopes to encourage the publication of indigenous stories in the native language, as well as foreign texts translated into Türkmen.
“Although we might speak English, we don’t necessarily share the same cultural experiences,” Richardson says of his colleagues in Türkmenistan. “I want to know what stories they tell their children, and influence the local publishers to offer materials that are more relevant to their society.”
Richardson expressed his optimism over the administration of Türkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, who was elected for a second five-year term this past February. He says that the former dentist and minister of health under the nation’s previous president Saparmurat Niyazov has been instrumental in a national movement toward what he calls “Türkmenization,” which has included the creation of a National Cultural Center as part of the National Library, and a new Institute of Culture.
“He’s published several books,” notes Richardson of Berdimuhammedow’s efforts at documenting indigenous Türkmen culture. “Most notably, one a nine-volume series on medicinal plants of Türkmenistan, the first two volumes of which I’ve donated to [the UCLA] library. Another two-volume set is a book on Turkmen cuisine.
“Having access to material in their native Türkmen will make it easier for [the citizens] to discover a cultural heritage that has been overlaid by more than 100 years of Russian language materials,” he says.