November 24, 2017

Academic Movers 2014: In Depth with Amed Demirhan

Photo by Michael Pilla

Photo by Michael Pilla

In the latest of our In-Depth Interviews with Library Journal Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, sponsored by SAGE, we spoke with Amed Demirhan, who in 2011 revitalized the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in Yola, the capital city of Adamawa, a largely rural state on Nigeria’s northeast border. Within a year of his arrival, Demirhan had transformed the AUN library into a 21st century facility, halving its print book collection and expanding its ebook holdings from 1,889 to 45,442. In 2006 Demirhan established and ran the academic library of Kurdistan-Hewsler, Iraq’s first independent English-language university. As of this month, he serves as executive director of the Barzani National Memorial, which he is helping to establish in Kurdistan.

LJ: Your resume has a very global reach. What is your educational background and how did it bring you to libraries?

Amed Demirhan: I have a B.A. in International Studies with a minor in Spanish, a Master of Arts in Dispute Resolution, and a Master of Arts in Library and Information Science. In addition, I have studied and am fluent in English, Turkish, Swedish, and Kurdish (my native language), have reading knowledge in Arabic, and am also functional in Spanish.

I have always been interested in learning as much I could on diverse topics, and therefore I loved being in libraries to do research. One of my professors, James Wolf of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), frequently saw me in the library and he would say, “Mr. Demirhan, you should consider becoming a librarian.” Honestly, I thought he was joking. However, one day I asked how one could become a librarian. He informed me about library school and said we had one there at USM. The idea was planted in my mind. I thought, well, since I spend most of my time in the library, if I could be paid to stay in the library that would be great.

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In this interview series, sponsored by SAGELJ goes in depth with this year’s Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, delving into just how and why they pulled off the projects that brought them recognition as innovators, change agents, and more.

How did you end up in the business of developing libraries in these challenging and remote settings?

It was totally coincidental. One evening one of my close friends, Bill Keel from the Broward County Library, sent me a job search for the University of Kurdistan Hawler Library. They were looking for someone with an educational background from an English-speaking country to establish their new English language university library. I found it interesting but wasn’t very enthusiastic, because I really loved living in Southeast Florida. However, a week later I applied for the job and a month later they shortlisted me for an interview, and the rest followed.

Building a library from the beginning in such an environment was very challenging, but at the same time it was very rewarding because you had to learn about everything. It gives you a great perspective across the board from the smallest needs of library materials to staff, curriculum, contracts, subscriptions, types and formats of resources, and so on. In most cases you have to know how or learn first, and then teach others. Therefore, it creates an intense learning opportunity. During these periods I actually learned that expression that “challenges are opportunity” is not just a cliché but is real. I have to say I am very grateful to Bill, who encouraged me to apply.

You have a Masters in Dispute Resolution—how has that helped you in the library world?

It helped in several ways. First, because it is an interdisciplinary study it helped give me a wider understanding of academic curriculums and concepts. At the same time, having an understanding of the nature of conflicts and conflict resolution in institutions is very helpful because initially you are operating in a quite unregulated, or barely regulated, working environment.

One very important thing I learned in my dispute resolution studies: “conflict is neither positive nor negative.” But the outcome of conflict could be positive or negative, and it is dependent upon the management of the conflict resolution process. Therefore, a conflict could actually create a positive result, and because of that one shouldn’t be afraid of conflict.

Have you had mentors who influenced you?

I had a great fortune of knowing and having been mentored or supported by some of the most distinguished library leaders in United States. The late Dr. Donald E. Riggs, former dean of the University of Michigan libraries and later the vice president of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale; Mr. Tom Sloan, Executive Director of the Mid-Hudson Library System (MHLS) in New York, and formerly Executive Director of South East Florida Library Information Network; Dr. William Miller, Dean of Florida Atlantic University Libraries; and my good friend Bill Keel, librarian from the Broward County Library, FL, who is also a former career executive from the corporate world.

Of these, Dr. Riggs was my formal mentor through the Florida Library Association. Dr. Riggs introduced me to leadership ideas in libraries, approaches to library organizations, services, strategic planning, and the role of missions and visions in organizations. It was eye-opening and very inspiring.

In addition, I learned a lot from two of my former supervisors: General Robin Brims, a retired British General and one of the University of Kurdistan Hawler Presidents; and current AUN President Dr. Margee Ensign.

What are the particular needs of libraries in war-torn and rebuilding countries?

There is no question—as librarians we believe in importance of libraries for every community. However, this need is more apparent in developing world. Many (most) individuals in these environments do not have access to basic reference sources, learning and knowledge resources, and so on. In addition, in the places where libraries are available, they are not necessarily accessible to the communities they are supposed to serve.

However, with the development of e-resources, open access, affordable smartphones, and tablets, many resources become available and less expensive. This is creating, and ultimately equalizing, opportunities in the developing world for access, particularly in post-conflict societies. Nevertheless, the challenge is to get academic leaders and community leaders to change their thinking habits from traditional hard copy resources to what I call e- (electronic) and m-(mobile) thinking in the decision making process. This e and m thinking will increase access far beyond the walls of libraries and universities, at a fraction of the cost of traditional structures.

How were the changes you instituted at AUN received? How did you convince people that ebooks replacing print books was a change that needed to happen?

Actually most students didn’t have a problem, but some faculty and administrators did challenge the idea. However, University President Ensign has been a firm believer in e-learning and a leading advocate. In addition, most AUN Executive Council Members were convinced of the importance of e-learning. This made life easier for me.

We had a strong argument about the cost of the collection, effectiveness, accessibility, and serious usage statistics to demonstrate this. For example, our ebook usage increased from 1889 ebooks in 2011 to 45,442 in 2012, while our physical collection usage for the same period decreased from 16,185 to 8,892 for about 1,000 students and faculty. We frequently presented this trend in our face-to- face meetings, university weekly and monthly publications, and by email to students and staff. Finally, I think most faculty, students, and staff are now very proud of AUN’s accomplishment in e-learning.

Were you really able to replace a library’s worth of technology with a smart phone and tablet?

Yes we have replaced the following with a smartphone:

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Photocopy machine, scanner, desktop, laptop, and cell phone (Photo by Amed Demirhan)

In addition to replacement of the above equipment, this smartphone provided further savings: paper, ink, electricity, space, and maintenance fees; and added functionality as a camera, video recording and sound recording device, audio book device, and social media tool. And it is environmentally friendlier. This is what I call “m-thinking,” which creates further efficiency.

What are you doing in Kurdistan right now?

I have been asked to build the Barzani National Memorial, which includes a library and museum. Mustafa Barzani was a 20th-century national hero and leader of Kurdistan National Liberation, and founding father of the Peshmerga (Kurdish Armed Forces). It is a very important project, as most 20th-century Kurdish history has hardly been documented, and the known available resources are scattered across the globe. Therefore, this project will create an opportunity for Kurdish/Kurdistani international scholars and interested individuals to have a better understanding of Kurdistan, Mustafa Barzani, and the modern history of some 40 million Kurds. Kurds are the largest single group in the world without an established homeland.

I started this project in December 2014.

Where would you like to work next? What areas of the world hold libraries that are in need of your expertise?

I wish I knew where my next library will be, but my door is always open for new challenges once I finish the existing one successfully. I think most libraries around the world have to be transformed to e and m, and perhaps they can benefit from my skills and knowledge.

Among his other many distinctions, Demirhan inspired the following poem, written in his honor by Professor Alfredo Ocampo, Business School Professor and Coordinator for the Atiku Center for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Development at AUN:

EBiblos
In Homage to Amed

There’s a Tablet from Ur that says I’m Biblos
recording what is known in this my time
for the future to build upon my knowledge

Beyond five thousand years that have passed
we’ve reached this age and times where our tablets
download the knowledge of centuries and thought

For now as Theillard acknowledged we have found
a universal location where to archive
a billion e-books of humans to retrieve

And the functions of EBiblos is for a new library
to be able to access them simultaneously
not from papyri or paper or stone

A wise one from that tribe of EBiblos people
came here to Yola Town and AUN
One of the best no doubt and transformed us

E-thinking is his motto that we have learned
to get ahead in life and all our students
have equaled their access to all this knowledge
in equal terms as those in MIT’s throughout this Global World!

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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