Setting up a library in the developing world

I’m exhausted from lifting boxes of books and directing boys to lift even heavier boxes of books. I’m in the middle of converting a jumble of picture books with broken spines, faded junior fiction and geography books from the 1970s into some kind of workable library. An enthusiastic couple from Footscray has collected this array and shipped them to Solomon Islands Hope School c/o the Australian Federal Police – discards from primary school libraries in Melbourne as well as some lovely new titles straight from the publishers, which still squeak when you open the covers.

Does the book about Mexico, published in 1972, belong in the history section or the geography section?

Is the book entitled ‘Seasons’ – which really school be called ‘European Seasons’ – relevant for children living in the Solomon Islands?

Do we really need seven copies of the biography of Henry Parkes?

As temporary chief librarian, I have to make a few decisions. I decide to keep most things. Surely a book about Mexico from the 70s is better than no book about Mexico at all?

I decide fairly early on that my main task is not to set up the library, but to train a librarian, or a team of librarians. There’s no point having a library with no one to staff it, because it will quickly disintegrate without someone lovingly plastering wandering pages back in place, and entering new additions into the system.

Then I realise that my chosen future librarian has never used a computer before. I wait patiently while she tentatively presses the ‘on’ button; I take a deep breath as her eyes scan the keyboard, trembling fingers poised, looking for the ‘a’ key. You need to press ‘shift’ for capitals – try holding it down before you hit the letter. No before. Before. So much knowledge that I just take for granted now – until I have to transfer it to someone else. The difference between single clicking and double clicking is harder to explain. I kind of know by intuition now, like swallowing or speaking English. It’s so hard to explain what is second nature!

I don’t think my volunteers have even used a library before. They are trying to set up a library without knowing what one is. I told my future librarian to split the picture books from the novels; to write the picture book labels in red and the novels in black. I glanced back an hour later and saw that she had done them all in red. For me, the difference between a picture book and a novel is instinctive, and I assumed it was for her as well. I assumed wrong. She looked like she was about to cry as I helped her pull the novels from the big pile of labelled books.

I should have explained better. I should have taken them to the public library so they knew what they were working towards. I should have done a lot of things. I feel so inadequate for this task!

I now realise that my task is to train my librarians in library skills, computer skills, as well as general knowledge like the difference between history and geography. I also realise that my task is to make sure the bulk of these books get catalogued and entered into the computer – if they’re not done by the time I go, in five days time, at the rate the volunteers type, they might never get done.

As we work, as few of the little kids from the school come upstairs to the church mission house, which I’m living in and using as a workspace. They sit on the floor and read the books quietly into the afternoon. I think people here are starved of books. I left a novel lying around the other day, and it was devoured by Ruth’s daughter, and then Ruth’s cousin. This family is relatively well off, compared to other Solomon Islanders. But even for them, access to books is rare and cherished.

We’ve entered 700 titles into the system when we decide to unload the rest from the container. I stare despondently at the piles of dusty, dishevelled books that seem to keep on growing. My back aches from the hours of sitting on the rickety stool I found that belongs to the church’s drum kit, typing titles and publication dates into the computer database. The laptop we’re using has no battery so we have to find something else to do during blackouts.

Ruth and Hennesey are the couple who run the Hope School, which is for kids who live on the streets or who come from domestic violence situations. Ruth’s dream is to eventually make the library into one that the whole community can use. The children and young people walk up and down the road outside our house, continually into the night, because there’s not much else for them to do. Everybody has red-stained teeth, from the incessant betel-nut chewing. Traditionally, this mild narcotic was chewed only during feasting, for weddings and other special events. Now, people chew constantly, and betel-nut vendors line the sides of roads. Ruth hopes that a community library will give people something else to do.

But for now, until a new building can be erected, this will be a school library. Today Ruth directed some of the church boys to move bookshelves into a small area sectioned off inside the metal shed that’s the main school building.
“We’ll put some beanbags here and a small table there, for the little ones.”
I’m starting to imagine what the school library will look like.

I ask my volunteers to put the books in order, according to what we have written on their spines. My hope is that they will see the subject areas neatly groups together, and get a picture of what a library is supposed to achieve.

I’ve been working hard, but soon I need to let my baby go and let it run for itself. I hope I’ve set up something that will sustain, and will reap some rewards down the track.