Friday, May 26, 2006

writing for my local paper: "Learning from Topsy Smalley"

today, The Daily ran my editorial titled "Learning from Topsy Smalley." the online version is a bit different from the one i submitted, so i'm reproducing the original version below. as always, i thank the good people at The Daily for giving me this opportunity.
    Learning from Topsy Smalley

    Topsy Smalley is an instructional librarian at Cabrillo College Library, in Aptos, California. In April 2003, as Baghdad fell, she saw the widespread looting of Iraqi museums, hospitals, universities, and libraries.

    As a librarian, Topsy was particularly pained to learn of the destruction and desecration of libraries. She decided to make contact with librarians in Iraq and offer, at the very least, her professional condolences.

    Topsy Smalley reminds us that when we tap into our own passions (hers are books, learning, and libraries) we can make a difference.

    To make contact, Topsy went through listings of Iraqi universities in the International Handbook of Universities and culled emails. She sent them. No one replied.

    She contacted the Middle East Librarians Association and received snail mail addresses for three librarians in Baghdad. Her plans to send them letters were thwarted when she learned that there was no U.S. mail service to Iraq.

    She wrote to Laura Bush, who was once a school librarian, and asked for her help. No response.

    Topsy reminds me that patience is a virtue. From Topsy Smalley I learn that to do something right, you have to be persistent.

    Finally, six months later, through a web site for the Coalition Provision Authority in Iraq, she got into contact with a Senior Advisor to the Ministry for Higher Education and Scientific Research. He supplied her with eight email addresses of presidents of Iraqi universities. Six bounced

    But two got through.

    By trying and testing, observing and assessing, Topsy learned a number of important things: 1) that university libraries in Iraq were in terrible shape; 2) that Iraqi university libraries have had no new college-level textbooks since 1991; 3) that English is the language of instruction in Iraqi higher education; and 4) that Iraqi university libraries desperately needed new textbooks, especially in the sciences and mathematics.

    She also learned she could use the Ministry's Army Post Office (APO) address to send books to Baghdad.

    And so began the booklift.

    With help from Cabrillo College faculty and librarians, Topsy began to ship box after box of books to Baghdad. Since November 2003, Topsy has shipped 144 boxes of books to Iraq.

    Topsy reminds me that actions speak louder than words. From Topsy Smalley I learn that before we act, we must understand what is needed, and to understand what is needed, we must learn to listen.

    There is so much more to Topsy's story. Like when she learned that she could no longer use the Ministry for Higher Education and Scientific Research's APO, and she found help from a female first lieutenant in the U.S. Army in Iraq. Like when she facilitated a collaboration between chemistry faculty and students at Basrah University and Cabrillo College. And when she suddenly no longer heard from an Iraqi with whom she'd been collaborating.

    As the war waged (and wages) on, Topsy's booklift continued. When she ran against walls, she learned to go around them, to go over them, and sometimes, with the help of others, to go through them.

    I can only imagine the feelings of sorrow and hope Topsy felt when she received messages of gratitude from Iraqis. From the Director of the Art College Library of Baghdad's Al-Mustansiriya University: "I thank you very much for your feeling of sadness for the damage. I wish to see your library at your college, and I wish that you could come to Iraq and see our library. I wish that we had all the books for our needs in education that you have in Cabrillo College Library. Thank you again."

    From a theoretical chemist at the University of Basrah: "Thank you for the gift of wonderful new textbooks from faculty and librarians at Cabrillo College. Because of the shortage of books, and the fact that we have not had links to the academic world in many decades, these books are of great importance and experience for our University of Basrah. We all thank you so very much for these books!"

    From Topsy Smalley – her ideas, her actions, her passion, and her hope – we should all learn that dialogue is better than destruction and that books are better than bombs.


    David Silver teaches communication at the University of Washington. Starting this fall, he'll teach media studies at the University of San Francisco. He blogs at: For more on Topsy's booklift, see and click "Iraq Textbooks Project."
with luck, i'll have the opportunity to write one more editorial before i leave UW.


At 5/26/2006 3:35 PM, Blogger i said...

love the Topsy Smalley story and I'm glad that you included the thank you quotes. i still can't get my head around the "no U.S. mail service to Iraq" part.

At 5/27/2006 10:25 PM, Blogger sarah said...

when i read about topsy, i imagined her believing that all she could do was offer her compassion to people experiencing an unimaginable situation--an admirable gesture that most of us never think to extend. and then as time passed, she learned more, and began to believe that she could do more than offer her words, she could offer her expertise.

that transition is powerful; it marks the point at which she understands her capacity to make a difference.

i love hearing stories like topsy smalley's.

At 5/29/2006 12:15 AM, Blogger Michael R. Wood said...

I read your article in the University of Washington DAILY. Great story--very inspiring. Topsy Smalley really lives the spirit of librarianship. She sets an example of advocacy in the best tradition of the profession. Thank you for sharing this.

Michael Wood

At 5/31/2006 7:57 AM, Blogger kq said...

learning from david silver

i understand that this post is about topsy smalley, but it reminds me how i learn from you, my friend.

this is a powerful story. and nicely composed, too, pal.

oh! the power of words.

have i reminded you recently that your mother and father must be so proud of you? and all those sisters of yours, too?

At 5/31/2006 8:54 AM, Anonymous david silver said...

exactly, sarah, it's about expertise. topsy could have organized a food drive or a petition drive or a legislative drive, but she didn't. she organized something related to her expertise - books, learning, libraries.

few people understand me when i use this phrase but i'll use it anyways: the best we can do is do what we do best.

At 5/31/2006 8:59 AM, Anonymous david silver said...

hey, thanks michael. (and, before i forget, infospeak looks really cool and i look forward to seeing what you all come up with. i noted that yared ayele is the project's webmaster - smart choice! yared is an extremely intelligent and creative student - you all are in good hands.)

i like - and agree with - these two sentences: "Topsy Smalley really lives the spirit of librarianship. She sets an example of advocacy in the best tradition of the profession."

i've never met a librarian who didn't care deeply.

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