If Even the Poorest Countries Have Cell Phones, Why Don't Kids Have Access to Books?
Fourth grade student at Library for All's pilot school in Respire, Haiti, working with a tablet
In the age of fast and free information, with Google at our fingertips and Khan Academy to answer our every intellectual pursuit, it’s hard to imagine that 260 million children in the developing world have never owned a book of their own, or that 50 percent of schools in Sub-Saharan Africa have very few or no books at all. With my co-founder Rebecca McDonald, we created Library For All because we believe that through the power of technology, we now have an enormous opportunity to disrupt the way knowledge is distributed on a global scale.
When I was 17 years old, I was given the amazing opportunity to take a scholarship and volunteer for a year as a teacher in Uganda. It might sound cliché, but that year changed my life. I was amazed by how much my students were desperate to learn. The kids in my class loved to come to school, they loved to get homework—I mean really loved it. Their thirst for knowledge was insatiable.
I realized then the power of knowledge to create hope, and a pathway out of poverty.
When I met Rebecca in New York nine years later, it amazed me to hear that her story was similar to mine. She had moved to Haiti with her husband after the earthquake, and had spent close to three years there in community development work. She had seen schools of hundreds of children, with maybe 30 books. The children’s passion for learning was thwarted by the lack of access to books that were essential for basic literacy and numeracy, as well as more advanced science and social subjects.
One of the students Rebecca met in Haiti was Roberlain, a super-smart eighth grade girl who wanted to be a doctor. But Roberlain’s science textbook was so worn and the ink quality so poor that she couldn’t even read a basic diagram of the human body. The lines that pointed out the different organs just pointed into a black blob on the page.
Rebecca knew that shipping books to Haiti was not the solution to this challenge—the expense and inefficiency of shipping even donated books was too limiting. Yet she saw that even in Haiti, mobile phone reception was available virtually everywhere. Even those living in poverty had a basic cell phone. So she wondered: What if we could deliver e-books via mobile phone networks?
Although feature mobile phones can be laborious to read on for any prolonged period, our distribution model depends completely on Library Partners like existing schools, adult literacy and educational programs, NGO’s, and government programs that can purchase low-cost tablets. Moreover, we are very committed to ongoing research and evaluation and have invited New York University to be our partner in evaluating and improving our sustainability and adoption model. We will also undertake our own monitoring to assess literacy scores before and after access to the Library. The e-books will be sourced from publishers, as well as open source providers. We are currently curating the library in partnership with our pilot school in Haiti to ensure that the content is relevant and appropriate to their needs. We do not want to reinvent the wheel, which is why we are not building our own programs on the ground.
Library For All is about more than delivering digital access to books. We definitely want to include U.S. schools in this endeavor, so very soon we will be launching a Go Read! Global Read-a-Thon, inviting students in the U.S. to get sponsored by their friends and family to read books, in order to support students their own age in developing countries who do not have the same access to books.
Now, as I look ahead to the launch of our pilot program, I can’t wait to get started. We are currently working with our technology and content partners to build the Library. And the good news is that Roberlain is among the first cohort of students to gain access to the Library For All platform when we pilot the program at her school this October. We believe that our program can be a sustainable model for scaling this solution across the developing world, unlocking knowledge to those without the access we take for granted. If you'd like to be part of our project, check out our Kickstarter campaign or donate here.
This project is part of GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress.