Library For All
Interview with Library For All founder, Tanyella Evans on why she started the organization and what she’s thinking about.
Organization Vision: Provide individuals the tools to learn, dream, and aspire to lift themselves out of poverty.
Organization Mission: Make knowledge accessible to all. LFA sees an opportunity to leverage mobile technology to provide the world’s poorest people with access to books and educational resources that are essential for increasing literacy rates, improving health outcomes and reducing poverty.
Population Served: Children/adults with access to a mobile phone or tablet device in Haiti, Rwanda, DRC, Cambodia, and Mongolia.
Founding Year: 2012
Problem and Approach: In a world where at least 758 million adults and 263 million out-of-school children lack basic literacy skills, access to books is essential for increasing literacy rates, improving health outcomes and reducing poverty. Library For All has created a digital library that allows users to access culturally relevant and linguistically appropriate content sourced from local and international publishers, at a much lower cost than building physical libraries. “The Library” is designed specifically for developing communities to work on any operating system or device that those living in poverty have access to, such as low-cost mobile devices, tablets or PCs.
Why did you start this program? When I was 17, I volunteered as a teacher for a year in Uganda, and it was a year that changed my life. At the school where I worked, books were so scarce that they were kept under lock and key in the principal’s office. I had just one textbook to teach a class of 40 students. Each day, I would transcribe our lesson on the chalkboard, and after class, the students I taught were so eager to learn that they would beg me for homework. At a young age, I saw firsthand how easy it might be for individuals in developing countries to fall short of functional literacy, even after attending school. And unsurprisingly, in accordance with illiteracy rates, as much as 40% of the global population does not have access to books in a language they speak or understand.
At Library For All, we believe technology is a powerful, equalizing force in the face of of such a massive illiteracy crisis: through widespread technology, our mission is to make knowledge accessible to all, equally. We have built a global digital library platform that houses content curated for communities across the developing world. Today, individuals in countries like Haiti and Rwanda can access reading material via our digital library using devices they already own (i.e. mobile phones and tablets).
What kind of trends do you see in your area of work? One of the biggest trends in the education sector right now is the collective realization that children in developing countries do not necessarily learn or gain literacy skills just by being enrolled in school. Quality education is not about school attendance, but rather the educational experience, as it must produce improvements in literacy, educational attainment, and therefore earning capacity. This is what is required to break the cycle of poverty. Children need quality educational materials and quality school teacher instruction.
Another trend in our space is the fact that more and more people have access to technology via low-cost tablets and mobile phones, but there is a huge need for relevant, local language content. A device is only as good as the content it provides for the user, and through our work, we have realized a gap in the content that’s needed for people in countries like Haiti, Rwanda, and Cambodia to achieve a quality education.
What do you think will change most about over the next 5 years? We live in a world where people living on $1.25 per day have access to a mobile device. There are 6 billion mobile subscribers globally today, and over the next 5 years, I believe that mobile phone penetration will continue to increase exponentially. I believe that nearly every person will not only own a mobile device, but that device will be some type of smart phone equipped with high-speed data. As a result, I believe the cost of data as a whole will decrease. Finally, as more and more people become connected to the national and global economy through mobile money, I foresee new opportunities for earned revenue and business in there (previously developing) markets.
What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in the population you serve? Why? We focus on providing tools to the population we serve to foster independence, resourcefulness, and pride. We do not want the communities that we work with to become dependent on us, but rather to partner with us in helping their own communities to thrive.
What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in your staff? Why?
- A “get s**t done” attitude – If we want to make our digital library accessible to all, we have a lot of work to do if we want to solve this issue in our lifetime. Our staff members are willing to dig their heels in deeply and help to create something from nothing.
- A data-driven approach – Data speaks! We have very little resources, and we can only afford to invest in what we know works. The data helps paint a picture of success vs. learnings, and we rely on it.
- Independent strategic thought – we need to keep our eye on the big picture, and each of us needs to consistently remind the other of that.
Who are your key mentors? Too many to count, but I’d like to highlight two specifically. Linda Smith is my spiritual mentor and guide. She helps me to be conscious and aware of how I show up to work and to bring positive energy into my interactions. She helps me keep my ego in check and makes sure I don’t get caught up in the “story” of who I am. Keith Wright has helped me to develop a rigorous, agile, data-driven approach to our organizational strategy. He is also a role model to me for how to be a good coach – he is someone who is always in my corner, but constantly makes me want to better myself. I want to be that for my staff.
If we talk one year from now, reflecting on what a great year it’s been, what did you/the organization achieve? In 12-months time, we will have scaled the reach of our digital library in our program countries, particularly in Haiti and Rwanda, increasing our readership from 10,000 to 25,000 readers. We will also have created original, local language books for our digital library in our program countries: Haiti, Rwanda, Cambodia, DRC, and Mongolia. We created 200+ local language books for Haiti in 2017 via writer workshops funded by USAID, and we will have replicated our writer workshop model in our program countries!
What’s next for you in your work? What are you looking forward to? After reaching our 12-month milestone, the future is thrilling! We will be poised for rapid scale in our program countries listed above, and in 15 additional countries, the majority of which are located in East Africa and Southeast Asia. Our goal is to provide our digital library of local language book to 30M+ children and adults in the next 3 years through partnerships with local schools, governments and NGOs.
What do you wish others knew about the organization? I want all of our future supporters and partners to know that we take a systems change approach to our work. Beyond supporting the needs of children and adults to achieve literacy and a quality education, we aim to improve other global systems by way of our work. For example, through our writer workshops, we are shifting the publishing industry in our program countries by working to create new supply-chains for content and ways of bringing relevant knowledge to the world.