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IRIS & ABLE: Connecting Libraries Worldwide

June 5, 2013
ABLE members celebrating a previous anniversary for the program.

ABLE members celebrating a previous anniversary for the program.

Today marks a day of tremendous celebration for a very special group of IRIS participants from Bulgaria. June 5 is the 10-year anniversary of the American-Bulgarian Library Exchange (ABLE) Program. ABLE actively works to set up partnerships between libraries in Bulgaria, Colorado and Iowa.

ABLE was initiated by Iowa Resource for International Service (IRIS) and funded by the U.S. State Department. “In 1986 I began exchange and development programs that helped Iowans and other U.S. citizens learn about the world and gave our international guests an opportunity to experience American life and to work with professional colleagues in the U.S.” Bob Anderson, president and founder of IRIS, said.

Currently, the nonprofit organization Bulgarian Library and Information Association (BLIA) funds ABLE’s activity. However, IRIS is still immersed in ABLE’s efforts in Bulgaria. Although IRIS is no longer formally involved with ABLE, Anderson still keeps in good contact with ABLE alumni.

Individual efforts from Iowans have also helped ABLE succeed. Mark and Laura Hamilton, residents of Ames, along with the Iowa Peace Institute, have created the largest English language library in Bulgaria called the Ivan Vazov Regional Public Library. Established in 1992, this library houses a large number of books donated by local Iowans.

In the past, ABLE has made many strides with their exchange program. “There is no question in my mind that of more than fifty international initiatives, this project has had and will continue to have the most lasting impact,” Anderson said.

In 2005, then-Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack was named an honorary committee member of ABLE. Through the years, ABLE has made several political ties. However, the most important one was that with former United States first lady, Laura Bush.

Laura Bush at the inauguration of the America Children's Corner in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Laura Bush at the inauguration of the America Children’s Corner in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Zorka Parvanova, Bulgaria’s first lady who is also an honorary committee member of ABLE, originally befriended Bush at a book festival in Russia. When Bush heard about the American Chidren’s Corner project, she happily endorsed the project from the ABLE program.

In 2007, Laura Bush was invited to the opening of the American Children’s Corner at the Sofia City Library in Sofia, Bulgaria. The American Children’s Corner brings information about the United States to the children of Bulgaria. At the opening of the American Children’s Corner Bush said, “Library visits and reading are great ways for young people to develop new interests, to perform better in school, and to have fun. But the benefits of reading extend far beyond the library. As the people of Sofia know very well, reading and being able to learn and discuss ideas freely is a basic requirement for healthy, democratic societies.”

In 2011, BLIA representatives, Spaska Tarandova and Nikolina Ivanova-Bell attended the Mortenson Center for International Library Program called Librarians of Tomorrow: Communication and Leadership. The events for this program took place at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The Mortenson Center offers programs for librarians from around the world. These programs help librarians better develop professionalism, in addition to improving library procedures. The event’s lectures discussed the history of current library trends in the United States. Professionals in the library business also shared the secrets of their craft.

As we reflect on ABLE’s many triumphs, IRIS recognizes that the bonds that are forged through the exchange experience play an important role in ABLE’s continued development. “Regardless of distance, the friends we made remain close, and the lessons learned in communities in Bulgaria and the United States have an impact well beyond the libraries,” Anderson said.

Today is not only a celebration for the past 10 years; it also celebrates the future of ABLE. “May your celebration year be successful. Most of all, I hope you will be politically motivated enough to make sure that leaders in Bulgaria, Colorado and Iowa support the vital role that libraries will continue to play in our communities,” Anderson said. Because the growth of this program is important, IRIS welcomes any contributions individuals would like to make toward the ABLE efforts in Bulgaria.

If you were apart of the American-Bulgarian Library Exchange program, feel free to send us your stories and photos at

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