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In Haiti, a library with no books transforms the way kids learn

A library of digital books could eventually bring thousands of titles to millions of students around the world.

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    Students at Julie Siskind School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, identify alphabet letters on a wall.
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When Rebecca McDonald was helping rebuild Haiti in the aftermath of its 2010 earthquake, the former construction manager witnessed one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the devastated Caribbean nation: In Port-au-Prince, in school after school that she visited, McDonald noticed that children had little or no access to books.

The schools were also overflowing with kids in need—70 percent of one school's student body was made up of former restaveks, a Creole word used to describe Haiti’s child slaves or domestic servants—and most elementary and middle school teachers hadn’t studied beyond the sixth grade.

“I asked myself how children were supposed to get any education without books, especially given that they’d catch up with their teachers really fast,” McDonald said. An avid reader herself, the 36-year-old often shopped for books online, which led to her epiphany about the medium. “It hit me that Haiti’s kids could use digital books,” she said.

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While online access to books was not a new concept for bridging the educational divide in the developing world, quantities were limited; McDonald noted that Haitian schools at the time generally had only 20 or 30 preloaded electronic books for hundreds of students to share.

In spring 2012, McDonald met Tanyella Evans, then the Scottish executive director of Artists for Peace and Justice in charge of building a school in Haiti. Evans, 27, immediately liked McDonald's idea, and together they set out to achieve a lofty goal: Launch a cloud-based digital library that would make books accessible to 250 million schoolchildren in developing countries around the world. 

 

With $110,000 raised on Kickstarter in July 2013, the duo officially established their nonprofit, Library for All. By the end of that year—thanks to Open Educational Resources, free digital titles provided by major US publishers, and partnerships with local governments and NGOs to purchase electronic devices—Evans and McDonald started their pilot program at Respire Haiti, a K–12 school on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Respire Haiti was also home to an especially important student population: The majority of the school’s 530 students were former restaveks, according to the school’s website

Today, Library for All uses an Android app for low-cost tablets, PCs, and feature phones to make available a selection of 1,200 cloud-based e-books in Haitian Creole, French, English, and Spanish; many of the students had never even seen books in their native language of Haitian Creole before.

The library platform also offers curated literature collections and language resources for schoolteachers. McDonald and Evans hope to make the library platform “device agnostic” by the end of the year so the library's content can run on any device.

Like the digital books in its library, the organization is expanding fast. As of this past October, Library for All is staffed by four full-time and three part-time employees, and the program operates in nine other schools in Haiti, each with a target audience of 200 students. Last year, Library for All launched a similar pilot program at a K–12 school in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and programs are also planned for Rwanda and Asia.

For their work in Haiti, McDonald and Evans were awarded the 2014 Echoing Green Global Fellowship, which recognizes emerging social entrepreneurs. In January, Evans was named one of Forbes magazine's “30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs” of 2015.

The recognition is only encouraging them to work harder and faster. The duo plan to continue building partnerships with content providers, schools, organizations, and governments, and they aim to reach 5 million schoolchildren in the developing world by 2017.

• Ajay Singh has written about human rights, health, and development issues for Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press.

This article originally appeared at TakePart, a leading source of socially relevant news, features, opinion, entertainment, and information – all focused on the issues that shape our lives. Visit takepart.com/start-from-the-source

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