For Schools With No Books, A Digital Collection So They Can Have A Real Library

Library for All is now working in impoverished places around the world on a simple mission with a major impact.

Rebecca McDonald came up with the idea for Library for All after visiting Haiti in 2010. The country had just experienced a major earthquake, and the schools there were having a tough time getting back to normal–even more so, because they lacked basic education materials.


“The reason we started the library was that, everywhere I went, they didn’t have any books. And if they did, they were in English when people either speak Haitian Creole or French. They were good paperweights, and that was about it,” McDonald says.

Library for All now works with 10 schools on the island, with plans to partner with nine more. The model is simple. The nonprofit assembles a highly curated local-language collection of books that schools access through Android tablets.

“It can be anything from early readers to textbooks and fiction novels. We have a library for each country we work in. We believe for that content to be relevant, it needs to be specific to that country,” McDonald says.

The books come from open providers like Project Gutenberg, a long-running digital book library, as well as local and international publishers. Each book is checked first by local educators and experts, who grade the book for age appropriateness. Library for All, based in New York, now has the largest Haitian Creole digital library anywhere. Along with French content, the collection numbers about 1,100 books in all.

There is a huge demand for basic education in the developing world. Some 250 million kids today aren’t even learning the basics. Changing that will require more schools, more teachers, and different ways of teaching and learning. But it will also require books. Library for All hopes to reach 5 million kids by the end of 2017. It’s also working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Mongolia.

Once on the tablets, students log in with their password. Fifty books are already downloaded. They can choose from the remainder, and books will automatically download when there’s available Internet. Often, teachers download a textbook before class and then hand the tablets to the students as it begins, McDonald says.


Library for All recently received a grant for $265,000 from the Knight Foundation, as part of its libraries challenge. The money will go toward expanding further in Haiti.

The key is to create relevant libraries rather than necessarily large libraries, says McDonald. “We could have filled the library with 100,000 Project Gutenberg books, but the actual ones you want to read would be harder to find. French classics aren’t necessarily relevant to grade 7 students,” she says.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.