Imagine walking into a library with stacks of empty shelves. You reach the back of the library and find a table with a small stack of worn books on it. What if the span of knowledge available to you was just those thirty books?
This is the situation for 260 million children globally.
It's also the reason why Rebecca McDonald founded Library For All, a digital library platform for the developing world.
In this very special podcast, Vearsa CEO Gareth Cuddy discusses the history and mission of Library for All with Rebecca McDonald--as well as the ways in which publishers can help promote global literacy.
Gareth: Rebecca, thanks for joining me today. Obviously, we know each other for a little while, and I was hoping for those who are listening that you can give us a little bit of a background, perhaps about yourself or more importantly, what inspired you to start Library for All.
Rebecca: Yes, my husband and I actually moved to Haiti in 2010 , we saw what had happened during the earthquake and we just felt really moved to go and help. We are both from the construction industry and it felt like our skills could be useful, so we packed up, we sold almost everything and we moved to Haiti, which sounds super crazy right now. Every time I tell that story it sounds crazy. So we really felt it was something we were supposed to do, we worked on lots of different projects there but one of the things that just struck me so deeply was that every school I went to had nothing, no materials, no resources, no books and I couldn’t understand how it was possible to get an education there was no access to any materials. And it really affected me, I didn’t know anything about libraries, about books or publishing, as I said I am from the construction industry so I parked it in the back of my mind and I didn’t think there was much I could do about it. It was probably about six months later I was doing research for myself, while still living in Haiti. I was doing research to buy an eReader for myself, I had ran out of books, my half a suitcase of books had now gone and I was desperate for some more books. So I started looking at electronic devices, what I could do while I was living in Haiti. The idea for Library for All literally struck me like a lightning bolt, I can’t explain it any other way.
I had a idea about a digital library and having an expanse of books available to the kids in Haiti. The idea of the library would not leave me, I allowed myself weekends and night times to research this space and really get to know what was happening with digital libraries. I was really saddened after three months of research that I had now found a single scalable model. I wanted the kids to have access to what I had access to as a kid – a full library, what they get excited about and what makes them want to read is what they find. It started from there and I thought, “ok”, what do I do now? So I started reaching out to publishers and seeing if they would be willing to support the effort and to my surprise, many said yes straight away and they did not laugh at me. So I thought, ok we might actually have something here, we might be able to get this off the ground. So that is where Library for All began.
Gareth: Great, and when was that Rebecca?
Rebecca: That was 2012 that we actually got going, the idea came in 2011.
Gareth: How does the system/program work and where is it live today as of September 2015?
Rebecca: We are a classic library platform designed specifically to work in low bandwidth communities that have little or no access to books and we focus our efforts on communities that when you look at them and visit them you realize they have other issues as well. They are low bandwidth, obviously internet is a challenge but also it is expensive and the groups that we are trying to reach to buy physical books or to pay for internet is really expensive and totally cost prohibitive and do that is the area we work in. We specifically built the platform to be delivered over mobile networks and to be able to reach the poorest communities and deliver eBooks that are culturally relevant and language appropriate for those communities. We highly curate the collection, we could have easily just dumped 100,000 out of copyright books into the library but we are just not prepared to do that. Delivering in low bandwidth environments, you have to take file sizes into account. You want to have the most appropriate collection that your readers are definitely want to get their hands on rather than sorting through the things that they do not care about. We take a huge amount of effort and time to curate the library. The great thing is we don’t pretend to know what our readers want to read. Even living in Haiti for 2 – 3 years did not make me a Haitian, it not make me an expert as to what the kids of Haiti wanted to read. So we actually put together advisory boards for each of the countries we work with and they are filled with people from teachers, professors, authors and they are just an incredible group of people who help us curate the library. Especially, when you are working in local languages as well, you need that local language experience to be able to make sure that the content is relevant and good and really high quality so that is the way we go about it.
Gareth: To my knowledge at the moment, you are live in Haiti, you recently launched in Rwanda, I believe you had a launch or are about launch in South East Asia as well.
Rebecca: Haiti was our first country, we launched a pilot there in 2013 and then we launched the actual product, the cloud based library in 2014 in Haiti and then we launch in the democratic republic Congo that same year and as you said, we recently launched in Rwanda which was really exciting and Cambodia is next. By the beginning of November, we will have launched in Cambodia, which we are really excited about, it is our first journey into Asia and we are really excited about it.
Gareth: Great, so to recap Rebecca, you are going into countries that have little or no resources or infrastructure, you are allowing them to access books digitally, you obviously have to be mindful of the digital infrastructure that is in these countries. You are doing it on a very considerate and in some ways, a slow pace, but deliberately slow because you want to make sure these countries have the right infrastructure for you to be able to come in with your platform. What does a roadmap hold for Library for All? Where is next?
Rebecca: We have a long list. One of the things we find really important and that we have identified as one of the key pieces we have to put in place before we launch in each country is strategic partnerships with telecommunications companies just it is the first thing we do before we enter a country. We negotiate with the telecommunications company to review our rates to remove that barrier for the people in the communities to be able to download the books. So that means that there are no data charges for the user to download the books, download the app that is built for that country and to continually update their library on their device, that is one of the key things that we have to do and we are slow to deliver it because we know that without that it is no good because we cannot go out to the people we are trying to reach the most. The way that we do that, is that we choose the devices that are most relevant in that country so we don’t come with this perspective that you must use a device to access Library for All. We come from the opposite end and we do research to what is being used in that country already. For instance the take up in Rwanda is low in smart phones that are actually dominating the market whereas because of a tax on smartphones, we don’t see that in Haiti. Low cost tablets, schools are starting to invest in and because of a local manufacturer there and low end smartphones have not made much of an impact. We really look at what is being used in that country first and foremost and then we make the changes to our platform to be able to download the app onto those devices so that it works perfectly. So we are slow and steady but at the same time we are super ambitious. We are looking at two more countries for next year, Mongolia and The Philippines’s are already in the planning. We are looking at have Rwanda as a really great base for us for that whole East African region. There are a lot of countries we want to focus on all over the region desperate to get a hold of our content and a hold on our technology. We would like Rwanda to be a base that we can spread out from as we move into these different regions but next year is gonna be very exciting as we are expanding quickly.
Gareth: You touched on it earlier Rebecca, that when you come into a new country you look for buying from local stakeholders, around publishing and you touched on it earlier about culture importance of the types of books for various regions. Do you think is Library for All either is or has the type of potential to influence the types of books and stories and learning materials that are produced locally in these countries.
Rebecca: Yes, I think the influence comes mainly for identifying the gap. One of the things that we work really hard on is we digitize the curriculum if it is not already digitized and we make that available on the platform for teachers in the country. And then what we do is we tag our library to that curriculum so that it does align with parts of the curriculum we target and make it really easy for them to find on the platform. What that process does is it identifies gaps that the local an international publishers are not actually serving. It allows us to feed that information back, it give us a unique perspective to feed that information back to the publishing industry and identify those gaps and see who wants to take up the challenge to fill them. But also, because we are collecting a large amount of data on the back end, what our users are reading, what are they reading, what they are searching for on the platform and what they are not finding that gives us a great action point where we can go out and source the content from publishers. Or if it doesn’t exist then we can again flag it as a gap in the market. So it is really exciting that we have the ability to be the voice between the users and the producers and to speed up the process to what the markets are really looking for.
Gareth: Great and just the last question on the company in general, this is obviously incredibly challenging work, how have you managed to fund the company to date Rebecca, how has that journey been?
Rebecca: That is always fun. We launched a Kickstarter campaign back in 2013 to fund out pilot because back then we were seen as being very risky from the funding community we were a little to innovative for them at the time. That is beginning to change, we have some incredible funders behind us now, we have been working with companies in Rowanda, Haiti. They have really jumped on board and have been hugely supportive of us, we have been really grateful for that. Most of it has actually come from individuals, most of the work has been able to happen because individuals have seen the potential what we are trying to do. Funnily, book lovers, people love the written word and see it and think “yes, you're right, everyone in the world deserves access to books." We have had people say they would die without their books, they are the people that jump on board and donate and support us.
You'll hear from us!