November 23, 2017

Library for All Begins Scaling Up | Q&A with Isabel Sheinman

Isabel Sheinman Library for AllLibrary for All, a nonprofit organization that has created a digital library solution designed to deliver ebooks and high-quality educational materials to children and readers in developing countries, was recently honored with an Empowering People Award. The global competition held by the Siemens Stiftung foundation is designed to find the most innovative technology solutions currently improving people’s lives in the developing world.

In less than five years, the organization has gone from concept to Kickstarter to successful pilots in five countries. LJ had an opportunity to talk with Director of Development Isabel Sheinman about Library for All’s growth, the challenges to providing access, and the ongoing refinement of its model for curating and licensing relevant content in varied markets with different languages and different needs.

LJ covered Library for All’s Kickstarter campaign for your operation in Haiti in 2013. How has the organization grown since then?

Isabel Sheinman: In broad strokes, the major change and growth that we’ve had during the past three years has been our expansion into new countries. Over the past three years we have piloted Library for All in five countries—Haiti, Rwanda, DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], Cambodia, and Mongolia.

Part of the reason behind those choices was really the ability for us to test different models in different countries. Haiti being largely an NGO-run country, we knew we would have to work school-by-school in order to have a strong impact.

In Rwanda, there’s an incredibly high mobile penetration rate [almost 80 percent] across the country, so we thought it would be an ideal, really ripe environment to test a direct-to-reader mobile phone version of Library for All. So, rather than having to access the library through a school, individuals can just download the library through the Google Play store. We learned a lot from our initial launch [with this model in Rwanda] in June 2015, and we will be taking those learnings and rewatching again in 2017.

In Cambodia and Mongolia, we have a partnership with the Asia Foundation. That really enabled us to test an organization-to-organization partnership, having a very strong partner that guides the implementation of Library for All at schools across each country.

And DRC was an incredibly powerful pilot, in which an organization called En Classe really championed Library for All. None of our team ever set foot in the country, because we didn’t have to. Local champions took the model that we had developed in Haiti and reimagined it for the context that they work in. They have since built partnerships, and are communicating back to us different ideas that they have for growth for Library for All.

At the conclusion of our five pilot programs we basically extracted information and learnings from all of the pilots and compiled that into one model that we call our blueprint. That’s our model for scale, and it will eventually enable us to go into any country and to know the steps needed to build a successful digital library program. Of course, every country will be different, but having a blueprint really enables us to know from a content, technology development, and funding perspective what is required for success.

Mobile networks are quickly becoming more prevalent in developing countries, but how do you provide device access to people who need to use these ebook libraries?

Our school partners and implementation partners to date—referring to schools, community centers, libraries, orphanages—they are in charge of finding, purchasing, or acquiring, through donations, their own devices. That said, in Haiti, we do have three Haitian staff in our office. They have been working very closely with our implementation partners there, and have seen a gap in the availability of devices for certain schools.

Certain schools just couldn’t afford the cost of paying outright for a collection of tablets to use to access the library. So our team in Haiti has designed a microfinance model to address this problem. Schools, in partnership with local banks, can pay the cost of these devices over time. That really speaks to the power of having local expertise in developing a program like this. It’s not a model that we would have been able to design and develop without working hand in hand with our partners and really understanding their needs and how to address those needs.

It’s one idea that we hope to replicate across our other programs. It’s really interesting for us to see the models that will develop out of each of the countries in which we work, and how we can replicate, adapt, and reuse those models in other countries as well.

What are some of the other challenges to providing access to content?

The bandwidth question. We always knew we would design Library for All specifically for low-bandwidth environments. The library has a really robust offline reading experience, and connectivity just allows a user to update the library because we’re constantly updating the library and its contents. It also allows us to receive data back from our readers. So it is really important that users are able to connect every so often, but many of our schools in Haiti were finding that challenging.

So we’ve developed what we call our “hub” model. We use a Raspberry Pi, a small computer that can fit in the palm of your hand, configured to provide a local connection to the library in any classroom. It can send content out to devices in the classroom and it can also collect data back. Then that little Pi can be taken to an area with a stronger connection, and once it’s plugged into an Ethernet cable, that data is fed back to Library for All’s server, enabling us to update the Pis.

That’s one solution that has grown from seeing the need for a stronger connection in certain schools to—given the success of that model—becoming part of the rollout when we launched the pilot in Cambodia.

How is content curated and how are licensing terms negotiated?

We work in three “buckets” of content. The first is content we acquire from local publishers. That’s really where most of our focus, attention, and resources are driven. It’s a key principle of Library for All that our focus is on acquiring the best, highest quality, most relevant content for our users, and that tends to come from small and medium-sized local publishers.

In every country we build an advisory board. That’s one of the first steps that we take. We as a team based in New York are certainly not the experts in what children in every country should and could be reading. Our advisory boards provide us with that expertise.

Our team does the job of unearthing and navigating the local publishing industry to find what publishers exist and what content they’re producing. Once we can get a sense of that, we run the content by the local advisory board to see what content they would select for the library, how they would tag it in the library and organize it. Then we go back and negotiate licensing fees with the local publishers for their content. Given that this is their market, we don’t want to take content and mass distribute it. We instead want to involve the local publishing industry as much as possible. We also provide data back to these publishers on which of their books have been read, which haven’t. We can start to paint a picture of local reading habits as well, which has been really valuable for them.

The second bucket of content is international publisher content. There are certainly gaps in what is locally available, and we try to fill those gaps with content we can find from larger international publishers. From them we ask for content donations. These are not their target markets, so it doesn’t seem to be a problem to ask for content donations.

The third bucket is all of the open educational resources that we can find. We sift through and try to find, again, the highest quality and the most relevant content for local users. The idea is to weave all of these content sources together.

A strategy moving forward is that we are starting to build collections in the library based on feedback that we’ve had from partners across all five of our country programs. We are starting to see the need for collections focused around specific subjects. For example, in Haiti and Cambodia, we’ve had requests for content that is girl-centric, which is to say, female characters at the center of the story that can be used to help empower girls in the classroom. We’ve also had demand for a health collection and a STEM collection in some of our libraries.

Other than donations, how is Library for All sustained in each country?

The goal of Library for All has always been to receive philanthropic funding to get the wheels turning, but then the model is designed to achieve sustainability through a [market appropriate] implementation fee that we charge to partners. The goal is to be sustainable within three years of launching in any country. We are on track for that in Haiti, as that was our first country.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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