In 2017 and 2018, Todd Burleson, library media specialist at the Skoie School in Winnetka, Ill., and Wendy Gardner, librarian at the Avery School in Dedham, Mass., worked as a tag team, leading seminars on library education at the Sharjah International Library Conference. “We first met on Twitter, and then started collaborating online,” Burleson says. “But we had to finally fly to Sharjah, some 6,000 miles away, to actually meet in person.”

Together the pair may have, initially, sought to impart their hard-earned knowledge from the U.S. to attendees at the conference, but ultimately they found that they learned just as much as those attending the seminar. “It was an eye-opening experience,” Burleson says.

We caught up with each of them by phone to ask them to reflect on their experience.

What was the focus of your education sessions at the conference?

Burleson: We primarily focused on was offering best practices for promoting literacy and helping kids connect with literature and books. Above all, we sought to help librarians make connections: to network among themselves and connect with the international community.

What was the most practical application of your advice?

Gardner: One of the first things we did was get everyone on Twitter and connect them with the hashtag #UAELibrarians. It has been going for several years now and remains very active. It has been great because I’ve been able to follow the development of several of the libraries from a distance.

What was the biggest personal takeaway for you from your time in Sharjah?

T.B.: I was blown away by the reverence for literature in Sharjah, there’s a joy to the way they approach reading and books. It’s true that in much of the Middle East there may be a different engagement and notion of literature due to the appreciation of the Koran, but it was obvious that in the U.A.E. there is a more cosmopolitan approach. Walking through the book fair, yes there was a huge proportion of religious texts, but there was an awful lot of American and translated books and local books, too. For example, books from Kalimat, which is publisher based in Sharjah, really stood out, and I bought almost all of them.

W.G.: For me, the big wow moment was the realization that we all shared the same challenges: their schedules were already full, or they didn’t have the budget, or their classes were too big. Every time a topic came up, it was like, “Hey, me too.” It was really validating for the Arab librarians to hear we had the same issues in our libraries.

What did you yourselves learn while lecturing there?

T.B.: I was amazed at the diversity in Sharjah, how many people had come from so many nations. I think there were 150 nations represented, and I just found that amazing—the sense of welcoming people into their country. The other thing I noticed was how respectful people were of different cultures. You might see 50% of the people wearing traditional dress and another 50% in street clothes. I was also amazed at the level of tolerance, acceptance, and respect the people in Sharjah had for cultures that differed from their own. It is so different from where our country is at right now.

What advice would you give to people attending the conference for the first time?

T.B.: In the U.S., we have a growing Muslim population, and I think it’s only a matter of time before we see more coming into our libraries. I think it’s a good idea to be prepared, so go to Sharjah with an open mind and let yourself be surprised.

W.G.: I think it’s important to be present and learn as much as you can while you’re there, but keep in mind you also are creating a community. It’s great to be able to get together and interact for several days, but then you need to ask yourself, “Okay, now what are we going to do to help each other over the rest of the year?” Let me add, this experience was yet another reminder of how sharing experiences in our libraries can impact others. My teaching world is a better place because of the connections I have made. Teach, share, and connect—we are stronger together.