Research in the Developing World

Thinking inside the box

Portable libraries are bringing books – and a love for reading – to remote communities in Zanzibar and beyond

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A pupil at Kilindi Nungwi Primary School in Unguja reads aloud to his class. (Photos by Ashleigh Brown of Book Aid International)

In the isolated village of Unguja, Zanzibar, Kilindi Nungwi Primary School is typical of many schools in the archipelago.

Many pupils come from poor families of subsistence farmers, and the school lacks teaching and learning materials. Parents are required to contribute money to support the running of the school and provide basic materials such as pencils and exercise books. The school has no space or funds for a library of its own, and the only books they have are those provided by the government that relate directly to the curriculum. Even these though are scarce or out of date, and students often have to share textbooks with 10 or more of their peers.

A pupil at Kilindi Nungwi Primary School in Unguja uses the School Library in a Box.Other than a copy of the Qu’ran, most have no books at home. Although supplementary reading materials are available in the main public library in Stonetown, it is over an hour and a half away by car, and it is rare for teachers or pupils to travel this far to use its books.

As a result, the children aren’t used to reading regularly, and their confidence in reading and speaking English – the language of instruction in subjects including science, maths and geography from upper primary onwards – is low. With almost half of Zanzibar’s 1.3 million people living below the poverty line, the children in these schools are among the poorest in the world.

At Book Aid International, we believe that reading offers people the opportunity to improve their own lives. The charity is working with Zanzibar Library Service (ZLS) to improve access to books and help children develop their reading skills and a love of reading at Kilindi Nungwi Primary School and other schools on the archipelago through a project called School Library in a Box.

The School Library in a Box scheme was piloted by ZLS in response to a survey it had conducted in Zanzibar which showed that very few schools in the archipelago had libraries and many children had little opportunity to read books. They piloted the box scheme in five schools in Zanzibar, and it proved so popular that ZLS then approached Book Aid International to support the project and help to expand it. Together ZLS and Book Aid International developed the School Library in a Box project that exists today.

What is a Library in a Box?

A School Library in a Box is a portable school library – a box made specifically to hold several hundred books, from curriculum textbooks (formerly only available on mainland Tanzania) to story and picture books in both English and Kiswahili. It is portable so it can move from classroom to classroom and easily be stored in the Head Teacher’s office.

The project has four key aims:

  • To increase access to books
  • To develop higher levels of literacy among school children
  • To develop the skills of teachers in library management
  • To promote a culture of reading and learning among school children.

With the gift of reading, children will be better placed to succeed at school and reach their potential. Each participating school receives two book boxes (constructed by local carpenters) containing 600 new books in English (supplied by Book Aid International) and a grant to purchase Kiswahili books. Book Aid International also provides training, through ZLS, in effective library management and ideas for encouraging reading inside and outside the classroom, for two teacher librarians in each school.

The project has been funded by a number of organizations, and in 2010, Kilindi Nungwi Primary School was one of the first first 10 schools on Unguja to receive its own School Library in a Box.

In an environment where people are not used to reading regularly due to a lack of books, changes will be gradual. Already, however, participating schools are reporting encouraging improvements.

A teacher at Pale Primary School in Unguja leads a reading activity.

Pupils are borrowing books to take home, and teachers are holding reading lessons when their timetable allows. Teachers have also developed innovative ways to use the books to help bridge the gap in curriculum materials they do not have. At Ole Primary School on the neighboring island of Pemba, Zesa Rajab teaches science and history to upper primary pupils. He has taken the initiative to read through the books in the box to find those which he can use to explain topics he’s teaching. He uses a book called Five Little Kittens to teach about the eating habits and classifications of different animals. An English teacher at the same school, Fatima Said Yousuf, uses a book called I Like to Jump to teach grammar rules, such as the difference between past and present tense and positives and negatives.

Not only is the quality of teaching in schools improving as a result of the School Library in a Box project, students’ knowledge and imagination is growing too, according to the teachers. Five years on from the arrival of the box, the Head Teacher of Kilindi Nungwi Primary School has reported an improvement in his pupils’ vocabulary (especially English), reading ability and even curiosity and creativity – the children are becoming good storytellers.

When the book boxes first arrived, pupils had to be encouraged to read, but now an increasing number of children are borrowing books from their School Library in a Box on a regular basis. They take the books home and share them with their families. In communities where families largely do not own books, this is a significant development in increasing reading activity. The communities as a whole are embracing the books boxes: neighboring schools and members of the local community are visiting the schools to borrow books. In fact, in one day, 700 people turned out to visit a ZLS reading tent they had set up in a northern district of Unguja — even more testament to this growing interest in books and reading.

In one day, 700 people came out to this reading tent set up in Unguja by the Zanzibar Library Service to improve access to books and help children develop their reading.

Schools recognize the value of books and are working to build on this further. Kilindi Nungwi Primary School is constructing its own library room to house a full library of books. Head Teacher Haji Sharif Haji described how the Library in a Box had “planted a seed in the school.” Having experienced the positive effects of greater access to reading materials for his students and teachers, he now wants to expand and create a space for a larger number of books. Haji is also giving his teachers extra training in the English language to help them make better use of English books in their lessons – vital for schools where English is the language of instruction for several subjects.

The project continues to grow. It was introduced to neighboring Pemba in 2012, and with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), the project was also introduced to the Kagera region of mainland Tanzania in 2011. To date, the School Library in a Box has been brought to 10schools in Unguja, 30 in Pemba and 64 in Kagera, and over 220 teachers have been trained. But there are many more schools and communities to be reached, and Book Aid International is therefore delighted to have received funding from the RELX Group towards providing 10 more schools on Unguja with a School Library in a Box. This will include the opportunity for 20 teachers to take part in training in how to use the box and lead reading activities with children. We estimate 5,590 primary school children will benefit.

If we are seeing such changes after just five years, imagine the changes we’ll see within a generation. These are exciting times for the children of Zanzibar.

Partnering with Book Aid International

Volunteers from Elsevier along with Book Aid colleagues after building a Children’s Corner at Limbe City Council Library in Cameroon.

Over the past decade, Elsevier has donated nearly 300,000 scientific, technical and medical books to a total of 211 partner institutions in developing countries. Elsevier is Book Aid International's largest donor of medical books, with 90,000 donated to date. Book Aid International's high-priority areas include agricultural and biological sciences, chemistry, dentistry, energy and power, engineering and technology, environmental sciences, health professions, immunology, life sciences, mathematics, medicine, nursing, pharmaceutical sciences, pharmacology and physics.

In 2014, eight Elsevier employees had the unique opportunity to join Book Aid International on a trip to Cameroon to deliver and build a Children’s corner at a public library in Limbe. Read more about it here.

Health Hub at Murang'a LibraryIn 2011, The Elsevier Foundation awarded Book Aid International a $120,000 three-year grant for primary-care health workers and consumer health information users. In partnership with the Kenya National Library Service, the project developed the skills of 30 library staff across 15 key public libraries. Book Aid International worked with knls to repackage and communicate critical content from medical books to underserved Kenyan communities: healthcare providers and users. Donations from Elsevier and other publishers were used to supply the new "health corners."

In May 2015, Elsevier colleagues also worked with Simon Mercer of Book Aid International in Elsevier’s Linn, Missouri warehouse to pack a shipment of ca 10,000 books to be delivered to Zimbabwe libraries destroyed by floods. Another 5,000 books were shipped from Linn in September to Book Aid International’s warehouse to further boost the amount of STM books they’re able to deliver.

To learn more, contact Elsevier Foundation Program Director Ylann Schemm (@ylannschemm).

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Jenny HayesJenny Hayes is Book Aid International’s Communications Executive. She joined the charity in October 2014 and has seven years of in-house publishing experience, five of which were spent on the Publicity Team. Jenny can be found tweeting at @Book_Aid.

Ashleigh Brown, Education Project Officer at Book Aid International, also contributed to this report.

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