Graduate-level research is almost always mentally challenging, but Natalie Ornat found pouring through documents for her master’s paper emotionally taxing as well. Ornat, who graduated from the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS) in May, focused her research on the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the 1990s.
“I spent about five months steeped in the diaries, memoirs, journals, and oral histories of individuals describing some of the most violent, harrowing moments of their lives,” Ornat said. “I will be forever awestruck by the people of Sarajevo’s resiliency, compassion, and even humor in the face of war. I really hoped to share their experiences and place a light on a spot of history that is often overlooked.”
The quality and depth of Ornat’s paper, titled “Reading for Your Life: The Impact of Reading and Writing During the Siege of Sarajevo,” has now been recognized by both SILS and the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T).
At the SILS spring commencement, Ornat received the Dean’s Achievement Award, which recognizes the best master’s paper produced by a Master of Science in Library Science (MSLS) student and Master of Science in Information Science (MSIS) student each academic year. In September, Ornat was named the winner of the Pratt Severn Best Student Research Paper Award from ASIS&T.
“Her analysis was careful, her writing style was evocative of the emotions of the time, and, perhaps more importantly, her study gave voice and legitimacy to the suffering of a besieged people,” said Brian Sturm, SILS Associate Professor and Ornat’s advisor. “Her findings explored the nuanced ways narratives provided stability, escapism, and connection to others in a world torn asunder by violence and fear. In short, these narratives helped preserve the identity and sanity of the Sarajevans who wrote and read them.”
Ornat said she first became interested in the conflict while teaching social studies with the Teach for America program. While searching for a book for one of her units, she came across Zlata’s Diary, an account written by young girl living in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. Realizing that she knew little about the war, Ornat began reading all she could about it.
“What I found so compelling about Sarajevo in the early ’90s was how it simply doesn’t fit a lot of our preconceived notions of a warzone,” Ornat said. “The city was modern and cosmopolitan, filled with relatively secular and educated people. Teenagers watched MTV after school and adults chatted about Bill Clinton over coffee. It felt altogether familiar, which makes it especially shocking to see a place like that descend into war and chaos.”
During her research methods class at SILS, Ornat read a master’s paper that examined the power reading and storytelling had on prisoners of a Czech ghetto during World War II.
“I was so intrigued and moved by the piece that I knew I wanted to explore this topic within Sarajevo,” she said. “I wanted to better understand how reading and writing could impact one’s wartime experience and how libraries could better service these communities. I wanted to know, what can we learn about the value of literacy not just to function in daily society, but to provide us refuge and escape when our lives become difficult?”
To augment the written materials she studied, Ornat worked with the UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies to identify several survivors of the siege living near Chapel Hill. “Her interviews with them brought to life and personalized the experiences captured in the documents,” Sturm said.
In addition to her classes and research experience, Ornat said she greatly benefitted from working as a graduate assistant for Davis Library’s Research and Instructional Services during her time at UNC. Ornat said the “amazing team of librarians” at Davis were supportive and helped her grow professionally. She also enjoyed getting to know other students at SILS.
“I had the pleasure of meeting so many interesting, smart, driven individuals while at SILS, some which will be friends for life,” she said. “I learned so much from these people and foresee myself continuing to learn from all of the amazing things they will do in their post-SILS lives.”
Immediately after graduation, Ornat became an Atkins Fellow for UNC-Charlotte’s Atkins Library. This fall, she’ll start a full-time position as a Children’s/Teen Librarian for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library.