international support

Barbara Schleihagen: It is not that difficult to get Ukrainian books anymore


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Over the last year, German library community showed great support to the Ukrainians who arrived after the full-scale invasion had begun in February. The capacity of the librarians to work with newcomers and willingness to be relevant to the needs of society were especially visible within one of the cases — Book Suitcase / Ein Koffer voll mit Büchern.  

Chytomo decided to discuss this initiative with Barbara Schleihagen, the Executive Director of the German Library Association, who explained how German libraries and the Goethe-Institut found a way to bring Ukrainian books to Germany, what the lessons learned after the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, and how reading helps to be integrated into social life. Wherever you are, and whatever language you speak.

— The Book Suitcase project allowed access to Ukrainian books all over Germany. We are very grateful for this. How did this project start?

— We have a long tradition of cooperating very closely with the Goethe Institute. In this case, it all started with a joint webinar, organized together with the Ukrainian Library Association, where the Goethe-Institut was one of the partners. There we heard more about the situation of libraries and their offers for people in Ukraine. The Goethe Institute approached us later on and said: “We have an idea for a project which involves giving Ukrainian books for children and young readers to libraries in Germany. Are you interested in cooperating with us?”


We are working on the part of informing our libraries about the project and bringing them in contact with the Goethe Institute and supporting the Goethe Institute in the selection of the libraries. The Goethe Institute is responsible for all the logistics involved: – choosing the books and getting the books from Ukraine to Germany and distributing the books within Germany. 


As soon as the book titles were chosen, we wrote to our members, which are 2000 libraries. 1,200 of them are public libraries, so we reached out to them. Within a week or two, about 800 libraries replied and said they would love to have these “book suitcases”. 


— Why do you think the German libraries were so supportive?

—  When the war started, we published a statement to express our solidarity. We asked our libraries to support Ukrainian refugees wherever they can. Libraries found it very natural because libraries really see themselves as open spaces where people can just come in and feel welcomed: to have a place to read, talk to each other, and find information. 


And in addition, we had many refugees coming to Germany in 2015, so libraries have already gained a lot of experience. 


2015 was a year of the European migrant crisis (also known as Syrian refugee crisis) – within one year 1.3 million refugees and migrants came to Europe to request asylum. According to the UN Refugee Agency data, the number of refugees from Ukraine with temporary protection status in Europe has reached 4.8 mln people. Germany hosted more than 1 million of them.


Libraries were willing and open to welcome refugees from Ukraine and provide books for them. The libraries tried to buy some Ukrainian books right from the beginning.


Of course, some of the larger public libraries already had some books in the Ukrainian language, but not many. They tried to buy more, and they realized it was very difficult: to find out where can they order these books, which titles are suitable, and what is the logistics? So some of them contacted us and stated: “The demand is there, but I cannot give anything”. So they were really happy to have this offer [Book Suitcase].

I just did a quick survey in October before the Frankfurt Book Fair, to understand what the current situation is in the libraries. I asked about a hundred libraries which are among the largest in our country. The majority said they now have enough Ukrainian books, at least for children, and that there is high demand. And what I heard also is that it is not that difficult any longer to get Ukrainian books for children and for young readers. What they still found difficult is to get books for adults and to find suitable books for them.


— Why do you think it is more complicated? It seems that suppliers are the same. 

— I guess it is because all parties who are involved focused very much on children’s literature. And I think this was right because children really need support from books — from books in their own language. But the logistics has settled a little bit.  So it’s probably now easier getting also books for adult readers. Many libraries normally buy their books either in the local bookshop and in the other online bookshops we have here in Germany, or from a service company for libraries. 


— You mean distributors?

— Not really. It’s a kind of service company, which is dealing with all kinds of library needs, bookshelves or catalog cards. They also offer a service where librarians write book reviews and recommend them to other libraries. They sell books as well, basically working as distributors too. Their services are useful especially for smaller libraries. And what smaller libraries also find useful is that they can follow the recommendations (given by the other librarians).


— Can you tell more about this 2015 refugee crisis and what was the experience of the libraries in this case?

— Yes, libraries really wanted to help — in the way they can. They prepared media boxes and book boxes for the refugee houses. so the refugees could find some books and some kind of information leaflet on where the next library is located. They explained how to join the library, and how to use it). The information was prepared in various languages. I also know that one library has produced picture cards without words to explain how to use the library. Language is the problem, so you need to explain it in a different way. 


It is a way of getting to know the society you are living in.


The refugees were really very happy to have this open place. There are very few places where you can go. Nobody asks you what you’re doing in the library. It’s just open, you don’t need to have a membership card just to be there. It’s a friendly place where they meet other people and I think this is why it was used so often. It is a way of getting to know the society you are living in. Some of the libraries received extra funding for setting up small self-learning language centers, for example.


— How much is the situation different for Germany now and in 2015-16?

— Now we are talking mainly about women and children who are fleeing the war and from a country that is not that far, which is Europe, which is kind of close. The war was not something we expected. But librarians were prepared in a way. Whereas in 2015, it was overwhelming for the whole society because we didn’t know how many people are coming, from which countries, and which languages they are speaking. At that moment it was a bit difficult to cope with the situation, but libraries developed some offers very quickly.


— Before 2022, was the demand for Ukrainian books essential? 

— Before the war started in Ukraine, there were not that many people in Germany speaking Ukrainian, therefore the demand was not that high. And in public libraries, the building of the book stock is done partly also by demand.

We have of course many books in foreign languages in public libraries. And they are cataloged and put on the shelves according to our library classification. So in the first place is English, then comes French, then comes Spanish, and Italian – these are the languages that are in the highest demand. And I think then after these five comes Russian and then there is a section in the classification called “Slavic languages”, and after — all others. 


— As I understand, the situation has changed?

— Of course, now libraries need to offer something, especially for children. And those libraries who found that the demand is not yet high, start to work on that and actively promote their offers.

They invite preschool groups and school classes during the hours when the public library is closed to the public. They also do guide tours for the volunteers who are working with refugees and explain what they have. In addition, they organize events, like authors’ readings for example.


— So you are not only trying to satisfy the need but stimulate the demand?

— It’s not enough to have the books presented in the libraries. But it’s also important to involve people and tell them that these books are there. Some of them just don’t know, and some of them are so stressed that they are not yet ready to go to the library. Some of them are maybe scared because they don’t know the language and they assume that the library is only full of books in German.

Some of them just don’t know, some of them are so much stressed that they are not yet ready to go to the library.


— I assume to work with this type of reader needs to have some special preparation from the librarians?

— Apart from inviting children from schools or kindergartens, we also invite volunteers who are working with refugees. They are trained to work with people who have suffered from traumatic experiences, especially with children. And this is one way and the other is that together with these books that were delivered in this project from the Goethe Institute, they have also produced materials that are aimed to give advice on how to work with these children. 


But there’s of course a limit to what can be done. This is a library. This is not a place where you can give professional psychological help. But nevertheless, I think if you make sure that people understand and feel that this is a safe place and there are other people they can talk to… maybe this helps. 


— And how about the Ukrainian diaspora? Are these communities active in bringing the books to the libraries?

— I’m not sure how it works in each library, but what I realized is that we have many NGOs that have a long history of cooperating with Ukraine and we have Ukrainian communities as well. I heard that librarians found it very helpful to work together with them because they speak Ukrainian. Some of the Ukrainian communities donated books to the library in the beginning, because there were no books. So this is a very important connection.


— How are the libraries within Europe working on this topic? Can you say something on behalf of the European network? Because the German case shows very systematic support, it’s very well planned and implemented.

— I think it’s our German way of doing things. I participate in a network of European public library agencies and ministries responsible for libraries.


We have monthly meetings and we exchange information about what we are doing and how we are doing it. And I remember for many of us, the most useful information we got in the first weeks was from a colleague from the National Library in Poland who said she has a list of recommended children’s books. We faced the same challenges and exchanged experiences — you can do the same, or try something else.


For example, among the activities that some German libraries started immediately when the war started that they made a collection of information sources that are reliable and available on their websites. Because we have a big problem with false information and with fake news regarding the war in Ukraine. 


— What is the main advice that you can give to those who want to start the Ukrainian bookshelf?  

— We are quite lucky in Germany that we have a very good bookselling system.


I would recommend going to your local bookseller or on the websites of some specialized booksellers who give recommendations on Ukrainian books. Make sure that they take care of the delivery.


I think it is no longer a big problem, but it could still take a long time, several weeks.


As soon as the books are there, it is important to cooperate with other people in the local community who work with refugees. You have to think about how to give them the information that the books are there. Otherwise, you will have your books on the shelf and nobody comes. 


— What is the situation with readership in general in Germany? We hear about a decrease in reading everywhere. Many pupils can’t read and understand the text properly. What is the latest data on this issue?

— This is indeed a very sad fact: due to the pandemic the schools and kindergartens were closed during the first months. Now our politicians know that this was a mistake. And we have evidence now that the reading competencies of young children are unfortunately really decreasing.

The Institute of the Quality of Education published the study recently. They checked the reading competencies of children 10-11 years old, those who finished the first four years in school. They found that more than 40% do not meet the regular level in reading. There are two levels: the basic level which means you should be able to read fluently. One quarter didn’t reach this level. The higher competency level demands that you are able to explain the whole text, but about 40% failed. 


— Was it different from the last PISA result?

— The first PISA results came as a shock — Germany did not do very well. We were all surprised, we are the country of poets and thinkers, and — reading competencies are not so high. That was a moment when it became even more important to do what libraries really offer: awakening the joy of reading.


We were all surprised, we are the country of poets and thinkers, and — reading competencies are not so high.


There’s a correlation: if children grew up in families where the education level is rather low, or when the parents do not speak German very well, the children often do not perform well in reading. We assume that many of those people do not come to the library, and we need to reach them in a different way. That’s why we have cooperated with kindergartens and schools and in this way all children come. Children normally are very happy about libraries. Normally they love reading. Children are happy with listening to stories.


And we offer a lot now in libraries by reading a book together and then working creatively with the smartphone or tablet to have a combination of the analog and the digital world. And in recent years we also realized through scientific research how important it is to read aloud to already very young babies.


The problem is that many schools do not have enough teachers and find it very difficult to offer the support that is needed. Besides, Germany is a country where we have no tradition of school libraries. Many countries find it very important to have very good school libraries. But in Germany, we have on the one hand some very good school libraries but on the other hand also many schools without proper libraries, and then children need to make some effort to go to a public library. 


— I think books are so important for integration because when children are reading the same stories. It means to be on the same page.

— It’s true. I’m a librarian and I think reading just helps you to understand the world. Reading opens your mind – and it is so important. 



Photo copyright: Stiftung Lesen / Sascha Radke