BUILDING BRIDGES OF UNDERSTANDING THROUGH CULTUREGRAMS
by J. Lee Simons
Birth of a Product
What began as cultural briefs for leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown into a thriving educational product line used by K–12 educators, corporations, government, and the military. Coined by Elder O. Leslie Stone, Assistant to the Twelve, in 1974, Brazil and Argentina Culturgrams were prepared by LDS Translation Services with information provided by the BYU Language Research Center. They were used to prepare visiting authorities for Area Conferences in those countries in February 1975. A statement of purpose on each two-page, double-sided Culturgram read: “CULTURGRAMS briefings to aid understanding of, feeling for, and communication with other people. CULTURGRAMS are condensations of the best information available.”
By March 1975, an additional fifty-seven country-cultures slated for addition to the Culturgrams format and completed by June 1977, with V. Lynn Tyler, now retired, as general editor, Lynn B. Jensen, coordinator, main writers: Gail (Newbold) Andersen, Steven Graham, Pamela Jackson, and in-country natives. Church statistics and a map were included with concise text covering cultural norms and protocol under these general headings: customs and courtesies, the people, lifestyle, the nation, suggestions for visitors, and suggested reading. Soon their value extended to curriculum for Relief Society, when Culturgrams’ content was used in Cultural Refinement lessons from 1978–82. Tyler noted that hundreds of people had assisted with the research and development of Culturgrams.
As the market began to expand, references to the Church’s statistics were dropped. Deborah L. Coon, who began as the research assistant, became the publications manager and brought Culturgrams to the Kennedy Center, when it was established in 1983. In March 1984, Family Circle magazine featured Culturgrams as a free insert, which caused sales to jump—over 200,000 that year. The first bundled format, Culturgrams: Nations Around Us, Vol. 1, appeared in May 1985 and featured fifty countries from Europe and Latin America (Vol. 2, April 1988). The first World Edition was published in September 1986, but the exact number of countries represented is unknown.
When Coon married Rick Worthen in 1989, she left the Kennedy Center, and her assistant, Grant Skabelund, became manager of Kennedy Center publications for the next ten years.
Life of Preparation
Andrew Bay (better known as Andy), grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, Portland, Oregon, and Houston, Texas, and developed an affinity with things international at home and in the larger community environment. “My father traveled widely as a transportation expert. He would always bring us back indigenous toys, pictures, or books from places as varied as Australia to Denmark,” said Bay. “As a child, I nearly wore out the vast collection of National Geographic magazines my parents kept around the house—that and a Time-Life book series on Africa.”
He also served as a missionary for the Church in South Africa, which continued his interest in both other languages and other cultures. After completing an undergraduate degree in humanities, he began a master’s degree in English, with an emphasis in Third-World literature and folklore. Bay explained, “Literature helped me better understand how we understand and perceive other cultures and how other cultures might perceive ours.
“While at BYU, I also worked at the International Cinema, ordering the films, arranging lectures, and helping to take tickets. That experience opened my eyes to the world because so many countries’ films were represented there. And I took various language classes: French, German, and Swedish, and I taught many semesters of Afrikaans.”
Following graduation, Bay worked for Dynix, a library software company, until his wife, Ana Preto-Bay, suggested they take their son and move to her native Portugal, where they taught for a year at a private university. “Living in Portugal was a great experience,” Bay reflected. “I grew to understand my wife and her culture in a new way and realized the cultural dimension of a person is enormous. Many times you can’t see it or put your finger on its facets, but culture still informs everything about a person. So much is tied to the place—community, context, and language—where a person is raised.”
In 1997, having returned to the U.S., he began teaching English and history at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. And although he completed that teaching contract, he simultaneously accepted an offer from Skabelund to become an associate editor of CultureGrams (now with an “e” and a capital “G”). “I was doing copy editing in the BYU library at night, on top of teaching,” said Bay. “I knew as I was editing that this was a job I was going to really like; it has since proven enormously satisfying and meaningful.”
Operating a business at the university became a burden, and in 1999, BYU and the Kennedy Center licensed CultureGrams to MSTAR (Millennial Star Network), a half-Church, half-BYU corporate entity located in the former WordPerfect offices. “MSTAR was part of a group that did the Church’s web development, and after a couple of years they sold some of their assets to a company called Geolux Communications, which included a new company, Axiom Press, that became the publisher of CultureGrams.” Beginning January 2002, Axiom operated out of offices in Lindon.
During those transitions, Bay stayed with CultureGrams through the inevitable personnel changes, until he became the managing editor with the move to Axiom Press. And in June 2004, CultureGrams was acquired by ProQuest Information and Learning, and in October that year, they relocated to their current offices in Provo’s Riverwoods. Bay became manager of editorial operations and manages all aspects of CultureGrams’ products.
CultureGrams remains the same concise, two-page, double-sided format as the original. Likewise, the purpose remains that of “building bridges of understanding” [originating with Tyler]. “That was the catch phrase that went with CultureGrams. I have always believed in that, and all the editors I have known, who have worked with this product, believed in it, too,” Bay reflected. “Because we put great stock in our product and its integrity, we don’t cut corners in the process of developing new texts, the in-country text peer review, or in updating texts yearly—the result is a great, high-quality product.”
From the print-only product developed at BYU, CultureGrams has evolved into a web-based product. “Though we still offer print product in book, loose-leaf, or downloadable PDF formats, we have converted many of our print customers to electronic databases,” Bay affirmed.
The World Edition now includes 190 countries and territories with twenty-five categories for each country. A Kids Edition offers sixty-eight country reports and the States Edition provides access to each state and the District of Columbia, both directed toward upper elementary-aged children. An eight-page USA CultureGram is designed for international visitors or those who might be hosting one. Other features such as a photo gallery, recipe collection, and famous people index are available on an online database. Sortable, create-your-own data tables, printable maps and flags, national anthems, and currency converter, among other features, are also part of the database.
“CultureGrams is special because it is both a library and a classroom product. Librarians see it as a database for students doing research. Teachers see it as a classroom product used for presentations, reports, role plays, geography assignments with and an international or multicultural emphasis, or for the recipes. In fact, teachers use the recipes both to make different kinds of foods and also as a cultural document to show what different peoples eat, the spices they use, the way they prepare their food,” Bay disclosed. “The range of users is a testament to how well the product and content are conceived. And it’s important for people to recognize the connections they have with other people, as well as the differences, and to respect those differences.”
And though much of the growth has come through word of mouth for a great product, the move to ProQuest has meant a significant change in marketing. “ProQuest has a great sales team that works very well in the K–12 market. Other ProQuest divisions sell to the government, military, NGOs, corporations, and public libraries,” he said.
Bay now works with a team of five editors, a copy editor, and the occasional intern. “We also have two technologists who report through the Technology Division but work with CultureGrams,” he explained. The editorial team is “an eclectic bunch of people with five master’s degrees, a PhD, and an ABD” in disciplines ranging from anthropology to political science and from English to international relations. “We have a very diverse group and people who have lived everywhere from Turkmenistan to Germany and from South Africa to Italy,” he said. “We all have a definite interest in the world and the cultures of the world.”
However, the text writing and reviewing takes place primarily in-country. “When people read our content, written and reviewed by people in the country, they can have confidence that it reflects the people’s point of view,” said Bay. “Then we edit and publish.”
And those writers and reviewers change each time so the content is not biased or outdated. “We consider CultureGrams to be a primary source. The content is from their own experience and observation, as well as those of the other reviewers that we choose,” Bay explained. “They come from varied geographical, religious, and political backgrounds within the country to represent different viewpoints and different ethnic groups as well.”
Although most of the content remains stable from year to year, sections change as needed. “We update the sections on history and government when there’s a change in the government,” Bay acknowledged. “We have a section right now called Events and Trends that is updated every year as well. And any statistics that we include are also changed each year.
“And then a certain percentage of our texts we send back to the country each year, and we do a much more extensive review and overhaul of them—as the culture changes, as attitudes change, those changes are reflected in the text.”
The Kennedy Center name remains on the publications for several reasons, said Bay. “One is in tribute to the Kennedy Center as an originator of CultureGrams. We have very close ties with BYU—all our editors are BYU alumni. Two is that the Kennedy Center receives royalty from ProQuest generated by CultureGrams sales. And a third reason is the cachet of having a reputable university associated with the publication.”
A Personal Glimpse
Recently, the Bay family internationalized in a very personal way. He and Ana, who is a member of the Portuguese faculty at BYU, have four boys. “Last September, we were in a place in the north of Kazakhstan, where no one spoke English, and we don’t speak Russian,” Bay recalled. “But that is where we adopted our two youngest sons. It was an amazing experience.
“Miles is twelve, Patrick is nine, Anton is seven, and Owen is sixteen months—just a baby. Anton and Owen are adjusting well. Their presence has been a great blessing for our family.”
We express our thanks and appreciation for the careful documentation left us by V. Lynn Tyler regarding his work and associations at BYU in Discoveries: Worlds of Our Campuses (1996).
More about CultureGrams on their web pages at http://www.culturegrams.com.