A Side Conversation with Isabel Sheinman from Library For All
DIGITIZING POSSIBILITY: A LIBRARY FOR ALL
Introduction and Interview by Editor, Brett Rawson
It's been over twenty years, but I still remember the sounds and images from the books I read as a child, or the ones that were read to me: Mortimer, Cat in the Hat, The Berenstain Bears, and Chicka-a-chicka Boom Boom. There are dozens I can't recall, but these remain like buoys, bobbing on the surface of my memory. I thought about these books last year when I was a volunteer reader in preschool classrooms: Which books, if any, would the four year olds remember: Swimmy, Llama Llama Red Pajama, or Not Norman? I was curious, just as I had been back then, because for my imagination, it all goes back to those odd little worlds: they fuel children with curiosity. It's hard to imagine my childhood, or life, without those books.
But for 250 million children worldwide, there are no shelves of books to choose from. They are without — or lack enough — classrooms, teachers, and schools. It's something individuals and organizations have long attempted to change, but have always struggled to do in sustainable ways. They have raised money, built rooms to read in, brought books, and raised more money, but it has often proven too difficult to maintain these systems in working, physical order. Others have experimented with digitial solutions, but the obstacles in each environment have made it difficult to design a scalable solution. But four years ago, two individuals — Rebecca McDonald and Tanyella Evans — hatched an idea that has radically changed the direction we face: Instead of wondering how to digitize the past, they have digitized possibility. This is Library For All.
Now in four developing countries (Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Cambodia), Library For All is a non-profit organization that operates like a tech company. They have designed a bullet-proof Blueprint that, with the support of schools and leaders in the source countries, brings a fully customizable, digital library into classrooms around the globe. Meaning, students in Haiti will be reading books written in Haitian Creole, French, and English, and the local authors will get paid in return. And for areas with little or no Internet, the digital content can be downloaded remotely prior to arrival and then updated later when the tablets have access to reception. Since its inception, LFA has partnered with local and global organizations, companies, and foundations, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, the John S. and James. Knight Foundation, Youboox, and more. And this past year, the team's efforts earned Tanyella Evans the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award.
I had the opportunity to briefly experience LFA from the inside as a writing fellow in 2014, which is when I met Isabel Sheinman, the Director of Business Development (she was recently selected as one of five nominees for NYC's Nonprofiteers of the Year Award: you can, and totally should, vote for her here). I saw the organization in the midst of transition, a topic we talk about for this side conversation. I also asked Isabel to send us several images that express significant moments for her during her time with LFA. The images serve as a springboard to talk about the obstacles the organization has overcome, the challenges it currently faces, and its hopes for the near and distant future.
THE SEVENTH WAVE: Who were some of the early influencers and supporters who helped LFA become something more than an idea?
ISABEL SHEINMAN: When I first met Rebecca McDonald and Tanyella Evans — the co-founders of Library For All —Library For All was still an idea. It was an idea that had huge potential — one that both Rebecca and Tanyella, their friends and families, and a number of advisors and volunteers had already put an entire year of time, energy, and thought into developing — but it was in need of a push to get it off the ground.
I had the good fortune of sitting next to Tanyella at a big dinner one evening during my final semester of University. From the moment she began describing the idea to me and the plans for the organization, I was completely enthralled. The next day, I wrote Tanyella a novel of a note expressing my excitement. I came on board as a volunteer, keen to do whatever I could to help out.
As it happened, I was just in time for their Kickstarter campaign. Rebecca and Tanyella had set a goal to raise $100,000 in just 45 days in order to kickstart Library For All into being. Forty-five days later, we had over $110,000 in seed funding and the backing we needed to launch the library.
TSW: What an incredible first experience for you, and achievement for the organization. What was the impact, immediate and longer lasting, of the campaign?
IS: The campaign gave us the funding we needed to start building and testing the product — our digital library — but it also gave us a group of 776 committed, invested supporters keen to see our Library succeed. And so the Kickstarter launched us into the world with a built-in community of passionate people.
Every member of our team brought new support into the mix, and it’s from those personal and real relationships that our larger community formed. Our early supporters became our biggest advocates. In fact, through these relationships, we were introduced to some of the most important partners we have today, including Youboox (a French company from whom we licensed our Digital Rights Management system, which enables us to protect publisher content in our platform) and Bloomberg Philanthropies (a respected donor agency, who helped catalyze our launch in Rwanda).
As our community grew, something unexpected happened. It's pretty rare to see organizations band together to raise funds, but that's exactly what happened: When schools and communities in Haiti learned about the digital library we were building, they reached out to their donors and partners to support Library For All too, knowing that if we could succeed in building our Library, it was their schools and communities that would benefit.
TSW: You sent us an image that describes some of the moving pieces to your operations. Tell us what we are looking at here — this hand-drawn organizational flow — but also, tell us what things we cannot see here in this picture that are happening behind the screens.
IS: It’s been a few months since we drew this to represent our flow of activity and already so much has changed. For starters, we have a great volunteer graphic designer, so this has all been reproduced digitally!
In broad strokes, this image still represents the big picture of how we operate as an organization, acquiring content from local and international publishers, loading that content into our library platform, and then distributing it to low-cost devices where individuals in areas where connectivity and power are intermittent can access it.
But of course, there are a few key components of our operations that you can’t see from the image. For example, not pictured is the “hub” solution we’ve developed in response to connectivity that was too poor to access our library in the cloud. We are using a kind of technology called the Raspberry Pi to create local WiFi spots in classrooms that allows students to access the full library on their devices. The hub is a tiny device that can be carried into town when new books need to be updated to the hub, and also allows us to see data on the usage of the libraries.
Another thing not pictured is our relationship with telecommunications providers, a core part of our operations. We negotiate with telco companies to “zero-rate” the Library, removing data charges when users access the library. This is a key piece of our model, without which, costs of data would be prohibitive for the majority of our users.
A final item not pictured is the customization piece of our work. We work partner by partner to ensure we deliver the exact version of our Library that a partner needs. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model, but rather a foundation from which we build to produce a library that is tailored to country and partner. For example, our partners in Rwanda wanted to build a library of 500 titles for individuals ages 5-25, whereas in Cambodia, our partner requested a smaller library to begin (50 titles in English and 50 in Khmer) targeted at grades 4-6. This is one of the reasons why we have created what we call our Blueprint.
TSW: Yes, the Blueprint. What exactly is this Blueprint: who is it for, how does it work, and where is it going?
IS: The Blueprint is a breathing, evolving model — one that we are still working to perfect. In short, the Blueprint is a part of our business model — a way for us to easily scale LFA to any country. Each week, we get a request from a different country for access to our Library, and to date, we’ve had to turn these requests away because we simply haven’t had the capacity as a team to deliver. What we needed was a streamlined way to know exactly what it takes from our team to build a new library for a new country, and what we need from partners. This is what the Blueprint model achieves: It costs out what it takes to build a new library, including acquiring and curating content, customizing the platform and providing support. With the costs covered, and the right on-the-ground support, we know we can move forward into a new country.
The Blueprint makes our goal for scale a reality. Rather than moving at the pace of one or two countries a year, we will be able to deliver the library to more and more countries each year. At the same time, scale means nothing if it comes at the cost of deep and lasting impact, so we’ve built measures into the Blueprint model to ensure we have the right support from a partner to enable that depth of impact — measures like teacher trainings, tech support, an ever-growing and improving collection of books, and a local Advisory Board.
TSW: Who is in charge of choosing content for the library in each country — is that the local Advisory Board’s role?
IS: Exactly. In each country, we establish an Advisory Board to guide our content selection and acquisition process to help us organize the content according to subject matter, language, and grade level. In most cases, the Advisory Board helps align the content directly to the local curriculum. Members of the Advisory Board include members of the Ministry of Education, university professors, education and pedagogy specialists, and so on. This board is crucial to our strategy as an organization, providing the local expertise that we need in any country in order to build the best library program.
TSW: You require that your partners in developing countries have to pay for the digital library. How has this been received in both those host countries and here in the States?
IS: That’s a great question. We knew from the start that we would charge for the library — we just weren’t sure how much, when, and where. The reason for charging in the first place is two-fold.
First, it ensures greater buy-in from the customer. It’s not a novel fact that when we pay for something, we tend to value it more. The same goes for our Library. We want buy-in from teachers, parents, and the community at-large. Our Library is a tool, only as powerful as the way in which it is used. We know it has the potential to impact the next generation of students and to unlock opportunities, but we know that to have that kind of deep impact, it has to be valued and used.
Second, we charge for our own sustainability. We don’t want to rely on philanthropic revenue to solve the problem, both because it is not always reliable and because it does not have the same long-term impact. Our goal is to make every country in which we launch a self-sustaining program within five years. We can then use all of the philanthropic revenue we raise to invest into growth and expansion of our work into new countries. We are still learning and deciding upon our overall business model. In Haiti, we charge $3 per user yearly, capped at $600 per site. We have a separate costing model to bring our Library to any new country and we do so through major partnership. We have more testing to do on this model, but thus far we’ve had no pushback from any of our partners, so we think we’re on the right track.
TSW: Library For All is technically a non-profit organization, but you mentioned during a recent conversation we had that you now view yourselves as a tech company. Can you talk about this change, if you even consider it one?
IS: While we are a non-profit organization by structure, we like to think of ourselves as a mission-driven tech company. Our mission — to provide individuals in developing countries with access to a library full of curated content — can only be achieved if our product is truly superb. It helps us to think of ourselves as an innovative tech company, because it means we really focus on driving excellence in our product and in our business model.
We are the kind of organization that is anything but traditional. I tend to think our thirst for innovation is both a product of our having two visionary and creative founders and of knowing that what has been done before hasn’t solved the problem. Something has to change if we want to turn the dial on literacy and educational outcomes. The idea of innovation has found its way into every corner of our organization, from our product to events, and campaigns to professional development. We start by analyzing and adopting what works and where we can’t find what works, we create it.
This being said, the two biggest changes I’ve seen in the organization over the last two and a half years is in our community and in our organizational structure. When I joined LFA, the organization was a few individuals and a huge idea. Though I saw the potential, it was still a pretty grassroots effort. Now, with 12 staff members in three countries, a Board of Directors, an Advisory Board, a Young Professional Board, and supporters across three continents, we are global. The more we can treat ourselves as an enterprise, the more we can propel our growth.
TSW: What have been some of the most significant milestones for you and LFA so far?
IS: At the outset, successfully closing our Kickstarter campaign above our goal was a huge feat and the result of many minds and hands at work. I remember countless hours of excitement, fear, and nerves. But knowing that it would give us the runway we needed to invest in our product made the whole process worth it. The next milestone was when our Library started reaching actual students and schools in need — from the first trip to Haiti with our MVP (minimal viable product) to test our Library and our assumptions to our subsequent launches in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014, Rwanda in the Summer of 2015, and most recently, Cambodia in the fall of 2015, and the successful test of our hub model for schools with poor connectivity. But during all this, another huge milestone for us occurred closer to home, when we hosted two Publisher Huddles, which brought together VPs from the top publishing houses in the world around one lunch table and got them to commit to contributing their content to the Library For All platform.
Securing our first major institutional grant from the John S. and James. Knight Foundation was the next big one. It was a turning point, when we had the funding to take our work to the next level. It gave us great visibility and the chance to approach other big funders to get behind us.
More recently, another major milestone was hiring eight new members to the team this year alone. We built a Communications Team, and grew our Tech, Content, Programs and Operations teams. And most recently, this winter, a group of volunteers hosted a fundraising event in Los Angeles for Library For All. Our NYC team had nothing to do with it at all, and it was a massive success. This is a big milestone in my mind because it shows that our movement is growing and our roots are spreading.
TSW: There are two images you sent me that I cannot unsee. The first is the digital library in students' hands pictured at the top of this post — their smiles are priceless. Tell us about your visits to Haiti and the time you have spent seeing this digital library in action. What have you seen of the places where you have actually gone, and what did you witness that surprised you?
IS: The part I’ve loved most about the time I have spent in Haiti, whether seeing kids using the Library for the first time, or for the hundredth, is remembering that kids are kids, no matter where they are or what circumstances they’re living under. In most schools I've visited, the patterns are similar: The first and second graders go absolutely nuts over the pictures, zooming in and out of the illustrated picture books, jumping out of their seats to see what a neighbor is reading, and giggling the whole time; the middle schoolers compete to read faster and better than their peers, keen to be the best and the brightest; and the high-schoolers, who have started to form unique interests and passions, go quiet as they scour the library collection for books that fit within it. The only thing standing us all apart is opportunity.
The most inspiring part about actually getting to travel to Haiti is witnessing the thirst that our users have for the library and the eagerness of schools and communities to access it. One of my most distinct memories from my very first trip was being in a noisy 6th grade classroom, where the students were using the library for the very first time. The room was full of excitement. Amidst the noise, one of the most rambunctious boys in the room made a motion and called out to quiet everyone in the room. The room fell silent. He stood and with his hand on his heart, looked at our team and thanked us for bringing the Library to his school.
TSW: The second image is the one of the man standing in front with the rifle is so powerful. Tell us more about this image — where and when was it taken? When did you first come across it and what were your initial reactions to it? How do you feel seeing it now?
IS: I both love and hate this picture. I took this photo while on a trip to Ethiopia in October of 2014. We were driving through the northern region of Gondar, visiting what used to be a Jewish community (before the airlifts of the Jews out of Ethiopia took place). The village was on the side of a mountain, with nothing but lush green fields for miles and miles around it. The entire village was no more than a few homes made of stick and stone, a school, and a beautiful old synagogue. We went in to have a look around this relic of a building. Simple wood benches, a dust-covered, encased Torah, and a window of unidentifiable objects were all that filled the room. We took a moment to reflect on the history in the space, and then gather our things and prepared to journey on through the hillside. As we were walking out, I saw this guard standing in front of the only book shelf in there: a shelf that housed a handful of worn and tattered ancient texts.
I had to take a photo because it was a site that evoked such a visceral reaction in me. If this guard’s stare alone didn't make his message clear, his gun surely did. After I snapped the photo, we hopped back in the car and drove off. I remember just staring at the photo on my phone as we descended through the hills of Gondar. I felt somewhat stunned by what a concrete representation this picture was of the problem we are trying to solve at Library For All: the barrier to accessing books in so many developing countries. The fact that 250 million kids don't have access to books seems like such a mammoth and distant problem but I remember feeling like right there in front of me, this man with this gun with this book shelf was all there was to it.
I look at this photo now and I’m both angered by the fact that we still haven’t cracked the code to giving every child the opportunity to learn and dream through books, but I’m also inspired to keep working to reach that end goal. Rebecca has often described her first memories of Haiti, seeing schools where books were so precious they were kept locked in the principal's office for fear of being damaged. The fact that two years later we have a library up and running at schools in Haiti gives me hope that we are on the right track.