A Library For All -- Part One

Kneeling on the dusty floor of a 6th grade classroom at a school in the mountains of Haiti, I held on to the back of Jessica's folding metal school chair with one hand and pointed to the words on the tablet screen she held with the forefinger of my other. I was as engrossed by the expressions on Jessica's face as she was by the tablet screen in front of her.

It was an eyes-wide-open, out of body experience for us both. This was the very first time that 14 year-old Jessica was seeing a story in her native language and the first time that I was seeing the digital library that my team at Library For All had spent months creating, come to life in Jessica's hands. It was the first day we were piloting our library in Haiti, and it was working.

Jessica and I were reading a story in Creole together. Well, to be more accurate, I was jokingly sounding out the words as best I could using my high-school French, while Jessica was giggling uncontrollably at my mispronunciations. The book was intended as a young-reader's text. It was a story that my teammates and I had read with a group of first graders during the previous class period, but Jessica was not bothered by the ease of the text. In fact, I'm not sure she noticed it at all. Her eyes were not following the words, but were instead moving between the pictures below and those on the opposing page. She corrected me by sound and not by sight each time I stumbled over a Creole word in my broken French accent.

Her eyes scanned the images so intently, I almost felt as though I should remind her to blink. Each time we swiped to turn the page on the tablet it was as though we had started from the very beginning. Her eyes dilated, her head turned between me and the images as though she were watching a tennis match, and pointing to the page, she asked me, "Is this really Haiti? Is this really from my country?"

This was the very first time Jessica was seeing a picture book with illustrations of her own country and of people from Haiti. She had only ever seen the basic workbooks that were being used to teach in her 6th grade classroom, books that contain line after line, after line of uninspiring text. She had grown accustomed to reading the monotonous sentences from these books intended to teach her how to read and write, and had never been exposed to stories that would allow her to think, to imagine or to dream.

Read the text, copy the words, repeat. That was how Jessica and all of her classmates at her own school and neighboring schools were expected to learn. The few stories and picture books that Jessica had seen in the past were English books containing words and images that she did not recognize and could not understand, let alone relate to. These were books that had been sent over to her school in large duffle bags, the very same books I used to bring into my own New York City school during our Holiday Book Drive.

When I first perched up next to Jessica's desk that day and asked her what kind of book she wanted to read from the library she now held in her hands, her immediate request was for a story about her own country. She had been starved of literature in her local language and deprived of knowledge about her homeland -- i's history, her ancestors and the landscape around her.

Watching Jessica explore the collection of books in her hand, I felt like I was watching her discover her freedom and a world that was bigger than herself. With a digital library at her disposal, Jessica will now be able to read, learn and aspire to a better life than the lot she has been dealt. She started with the picture books, but it is clear that it will not be long before Jessica will move to the history books, the science and math textbooks and the English, Spanish and French literature, to learn of different cultures and different opportunities.

In an effort to stay relevant and current, and to provide the greatest amount of choice to the students, we have designed our library as a cloud-based system so that we can update the content regularly based on what books the students and teachers enjoy and benefit from the most.

Jessica is just one student the library has already reached, her school is only the first of many, and Haiti is our very first country. We plan to pilot in two new countries in 2014 and to reach five million students in the next five years. This blog will be a record of our journey.

This is part one of a two-part series on Library For All's launch in Haiti.