Books don’t make a library
An ironic contrast to the bold label above the door, the dark storage closet looked like anything BUT a library. Books filled unopened boxes sealed with cobwebs. More books stacked up broken shelves amid piles of rat poop. And even more books littered the dusty cement floor. Termites had sawn through dozens of pages, and dirt caked dozens more. Books, yes; a library, not quite.
From closet to classroom
The only thing the teachers and administrators could talk about was the need to construct a new school building for the library so students actually had a place to sit and read the books. I pushed them to find space among the already existing classrooms instead.
“Are you sure there aren’t any empty rooms we could use,” I prodded. But the answer was always the same: “No.”
Much to their dismay, I found an empty classroom no other than right next to the library storage closet. Imagine that! After pretending like it was the head master’s idea all along, he finally let us use the space.
The Dewey Decimal System, Gambian style
I urged teachers to sign up to be part of a new Library Committee, a group that would help develop and maintain this new space.
The sixth time I scheduled a meeting, the members finally attended. We set goals for developing the library and created an action plan for how we would accomplish each step. First on the list was organizing the books.
Although the complex Dewey Decimal system works wonders in America, I had a feeling it wouldn’t go over too well here. We created our own organizational system instead:
- Easy: books with few words and repeated phrases
- Medium: books with many words, but simple vocabulary
- Hard: books with many words and difficult vocabulary
One day after school, the Library Committee met and sorted all the books into stacks. Then over the next few weeks, the librarian (my host father) and I labeled all the books by color. Using supplies the school had, we cut color poster boards into 1-inch squares and taped them to the spines.
Beads 4 Books
It is no surprise that at this point the only thing lacking was money. But how to get it from a public education system already vastly underfunded?
What I didn’t want to do was write a grant and continue the expectation that toubabs are piggy banks who can bail out African countries at any time. The school would have to work for it.
I decided to create a little fundraising program called Beads 4 Books. Every week, the fourth, fifth and sixth grade students made beaded jewelry with me after school. I then sold the necklaces and earrings for a small profit.
I had planned to sell the jewelry in local markets and even here on my blog, but Peace Corps volunteers quickly bought the merchandise faster than the students could make the products. We raised about 8,000 dalasi ($200 USD). The students who helped make the jewelry voted on how to spend the money for the library, and they chose paint and bookshelves, which were just the finishing touches we needed.
Library lessons not as easy as A-B-C
Once everything was in order, it didn’t stay in order for long. Half the teachers couldn’t shelve the books properly, let alone monitor their students in doing so. Of course, since most of the teachers had never visited a library, I should have expected there to be confusion in the system.
I hosted a school-wide workshop where my host father and I trained the teachers on how to put the books away: according to color, with the spine facing out and the book right side up. It took practice. Later sessions included training on read-alouds and activities for using the map.
Week after week, my dad and I dragged the teachers to the library until eventually they came on their own during their scheduled block. “Choose a book,” the teacher would say, which led to a shoving match as students excitedly rushed to find a story.
My dad and I then realized that we also had to teach the teachers how to teach their students! We modeled how to manage the class during library time, reviewing the rules and practicing with the students on how to care for the books. The students in the beading group really took ownership over the library and began to police the process.
Eager to learn, some students even began to visit their library instead of playing at recess. Previously having had access only to textbooks, most students had never read a book for fun.