CASE STUDY: Fighting Inequality in the Library

Tanyella Evans

Tanyella Evans is Co-Founder and Chief Executive of Library for All, a non-profit organisation that provides educational materials and books to millions of students in the developing world via a digital library.

Globally, 250 million children are not learning to read and write, risking the loss of an entire generation’s participation in our fast evolving society. A lack of access to good learning materials is a major barrier to literacy. But merely shipping textbooks in bulk to the developing world is expensive and inefficient, and cannot by itself solve the problem.

Library For All is a nonprofit organisation that has built a customisable, digital library to deliver culturally-relevant books and educational materials to developing countries. Our mission is to give equal access to knowledge. In areas where books are scarce but mobile phone networks are growing, our cloud-based library operates on devices that already exist in developing countries.

Some argue that libraries will become outdated once everyone has access to the internet. But information from the internet is different from knowledge gained from books, and the production of knowledge is mainly focused in the West. To address this, we wanted to create a digital library platform to democratise knowledge and reduce deprivation: if all students in low income countries had basic reading skills upon finishing primary school, 171 million people worldwide could be lifted out of poverty.

Access to knowledge is a critical factor in supporting economic development and boosting the ‘Indigo Economies’ of the future.

The great libraries that have shaped our societies – the Bodleian in Oxford, the Library of Congress in Washington, and the Ancient Library of Alexandria – were confined to printed pages, in august architecture firmly rooted to the ground. But with today’s technology, we can build virtual libraries across the developing world that transcend physical boundaries.

It is vital that developing countries strengthen the social fabric by making society more free and open. The work of building a national digital library must be part of this enterprise. I would agree with John Palfrey, author of Bibliotech, that libraries are the core democratic institutions that are the “lifeblood of an informed and engaged Republic.”

In Rwanda, we partner with major telecommunications companies to zero-rate our platform, removing the cost of data as a barrier to accessing knowledge. This provides our users with access to hundreds of high quality books at no cost, with many coming from local authors. We also work directly with the First Lady of Rwanda’s Foundation to improve access to ICT and create a love of reading, especially amongst children.

Strengthening the social fabric may take a long time, but technology can speed up the process. Since 2000, the number of mobile phone subscriptions in developing countries has jumped from one billion to six billion. The accelerating network effect of mobile technology is having huge social, political and economic consequences, from Silicon Valley tech giants to the Arab Spring. In the field of education, technology is reshaping the traditional teacher-student relationship by using data to power a two-way conversation. For example, users of our digital library platform are able to submit feedback and request different kinds of books. Usage statistics help us to shape the strategy of content curation to meet users’ demand. As a result of the seismic shifts in connectivity and access to knowledge, we may see an acceleration in the emergence of the cultural ecosystem necessary for the Indigo Economy in developing countries.

Local Libraries for local literature

You might expect that the most popular titles in our digital library would be Western books, as they tend to be the higher quality, more brightly illustrated titles. However, our data show that the books with local content and language are most popular amongst our readers. It is often taken for granted that globalisation means less local cultures in place of one homogenised culture, but our readers’ preferences show clearly that global development and the preseveration of native narratives can go hand in hand. In her TED talk the great Nigerian author, Chimamanda Andichie, speaks about the “danger of a single story.” Growing up in Nigeria, she explains that all of the children in the stories she read as a child featured characters that were totally foreign. Her discovery of the rich African literature much later was key to uncovering her own unique voice. As she describes, “I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realised that people like me, girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.”

Students across our programs regularly experience this kind of cultural awakening. In Cambodia we heard the following story of a 13-year-old girl of using our digital library: the student’s father is a tuk-tuk driver and her mother sells clothes. After school, she often helps her mom sell clothes. She has always liked to read, especially folk tales, but she reads a lot more now that she has access to the books in the Library For All app. She likes the clarity and brightness of the reading experience, and finds it easier to navigate compared to books in a school library. Her favourite books in the digital library are the storybooks based on Khmer legends, the local stories of Cambodia.

The Indigo Era presents a rather terrifying future of a world with widening inequality, increased propensity to international violence and isolationism on the part of the West. One of the last stalwarts against this outcome is the library, which will continue to help us develop the social infrastructure that allows every person to realise his or her intellectual and creative potential.