Monday, November 25, 2013

Why I became a librarian

The original story I posted about why I became a librarian got deleted so I am posting the story again using an article that was published for an online magazine in Australia. 
I'm just a nerdy librarian who wants
 to read books to kids in Africa

School libraries in Zambia are about as common as giraffes in Canada. If you look in the right places you can find them but they are not naturally a part of the environment.
In 2009, Seeds of Hope Children's Ministry, the Canadian NGO that I am affiliated with was building  a school for more than 120 HIV affected children in Ndola, Zambia.[i] I volunteered to set up the school library. Since I didn't have any librarian training, I registered for the Library and Information Studies program at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC.  In June 2012 I received my Library Technician diploma. After much packing, planning and organizing Grace Academy High School now has a well equipped school library. 
 Seeds of Hope (SOH) looks after children affected by and infected with HIV. Caring for these children is an insurmountable task that includes medical care, food, housing, education and most of all love. It was a privilege to be involved in the task to set up a library for this special group of children.
I have made yearly trips to Zambia since 2001 when SOH established a home for children orphaned by the AIDS crisis. During the first years we were more concerned with giving the children quality of life before they succumbed to illness as a result of AIDS but in 2004 anti-retro viral medication drastically changed their circumstances. Children who weren't expected to live into their teens became healthy and began to thrive. SOH had to start planning for the futures of these children. They established a boarding school called Grace Academy on a 55 acre plot of land just outside of the city of Ndola in the Copperbelt region of Zambia.
This Zambian grandmother cares for 11 grandchildren.
A library isn't the most pressing item on the list when deciding how to help orphans and vulnerable  children (OVC's) in a developing country. But we all know that once the very basic human needs of OVCs are met there is a need for education and information to provide hope for a future. A well equipped library is an integral component to providing a good education for children. Unfortunately there is an extreme lack of libraries in Sub Saharan Africa, including Zambia. I am convinced that libraries have an important role in alleviating poverty in countries like Zambia. I wrote a research paper about this that I presented at the Pan-African Reading-for-All Conference in Botswana in June 2011.
Reading for All Conference. It was cold
 in Gabarone, Botswana in June
Funding for libraries is almost non-existent in public schools in Zambia and if a school does have books they are often locked up for safe keeping. One school—Baluba Basic School—near Luanshya has 1,000 pupils and only 800 books. This means if 800 students each take one book home, 200 children are without a book. When I visited this school and asked to see their library I was told that the room was locked and the teacher with the key was absent.
We donated extra books to Baluba Basic School
For  Grace Academy library we collected approximately 8,000 donated new and gently used books in Canada. Volunteers helped me sort through the donations and divide the books into fiction, non-fiction, reference and textbooks. We packed the books into 110 banana boxes collected from grocery stores (banana boxes are sturdy, stack well and are uniform in size). We kept a general record of the titles we packed but we did not have time to make a detailed list. Ideally I would have liked to catalogue the books before shipping but a container became available sooner than expected and there was only enough time to pack up the books.
In September 2012, a team of eight volunteers—two of us library technicians and the rest willing helpers—travelled to Zambia to set up the library. We had two short weeks to get the books on the shelves, start the cataloging and hire a librarian.
We spent time organizing the books, stamping, sticking on spine labels and barcodes and taping. We had brought all of our supplies with us, including book ends. Meanwhile carpenters were still finishing some of the shelves and building the desk for the librarian.
We chose to use an open source integrated library system called OpenBiblio, designed for small libraries it was fairly easy to install and it was free. There was no internet available so we could not import MARC records.

We had refurbished bar code scanners and one of our team members donated a laptop. We also managed to purchase a printer/photocopier in Ndola. The library room is part of the annex of four laboratory rooms across from the high school, this room is a perfect size, has windows, electricity, a secure door and a good roof.

Meeting with Zambian librarians
One of the big questions we had when planning our trip to Zambia was will we be able to hire a librarian? Finding and hiring a librarian in two short weeks in Africa seemed difficult to do.  Anyone who works in libraries understand how important it is to have a librarian to connect the resources to the patrons. We wanted the library to come to life and be a vibrant component of the school. I sent out an email to the IASL International Development SIG and Dr. Barbara NcNeil, University of Regina connected me with Mary Chipanshi, Nursing Liaison Librarian at UOR. Mary Chipanshi contacted her niece who works for a company in  Zambia, she gave my information to the records manager, Lazarous Musitini who made arrangements to meet me at our project. Mr. Musitini  brought Mwansa Mwape, a recent library studies graduate from the University of Zambia. I am grateful for the IASL SIG group that made it possible for me to connect with Mr. Mwape and we were extremely pleased to hire him. He began his librarian job immediately.
When we interviewed Mr. Mwape for the job, one of the most important questions was What do you think about having a large part of the collection being made up of fiction books? This question came to our attention after another Zambian librarian who was helping us declared we had far too many fiction books for an academic library. I had to explain that in North America we encourage students to read a lot of fiction knowing that in order to create life-long readers we must instill a love for reading in the children. When children read for pleasure they naturally become better readers. Zambian acquaintances have told me that reading is considered an activity for academics—the idea of reading for pleasure is not part of the Zambian culture.  Mr. Mwape told me that he had been taught by a professor from America who explained the importance of encouraging reading for pleasure.
Last minute purchase the
 Guiness Book of World Records was a hit.
The library is now open, the librarian is cataloging the rest of the collection and he is training the volunteers. Best of all he is facilitating the borrowing of books and encouraging the children to enjoy reading. While we were setting up the library we let the students help us, this made our job busier but the reward was watching the children as they would work on a book—they would eventually take a second look at the book they were working on  and start to get absorbed with the content.
I am thrilled to think about the possibilities that are in the library, the potential for learning and creativity that can be sparked and the love for reading that is now being passed on in a part of the world where a library did not exist before.

And that is why I became a librarian.

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