Innovation Ecosystem

It takes a library, a lesson in community building

The story of building a library in Haiti, in response to what the residents wanted

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

Toby Simon, left, and Besly Belizaire, one of the new librarians for the library in Deschapelles, Haiti, who was trained by FOKAL.

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

Two Haitian students who participated in the focus groups on the new library in Deschapelles, Haiti.

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

The new library under construction in Deschapelles, Haiti, in November of 2014. It is being built using earthquake and hurricane resistant materials.

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By Toby Simon
Posted 11/24/11
The process of building a library in Haiti involved asking the residents in the village of Deschapelles in focus groups what they wanted – an important step in community building, no matter the location.
What kinds of books are needed for the new library? Will the new library have photovoltaic panels installed to provide it with a source of electricity that is more dependable? How can the process of listening – and conducting focus groups – become a necessary part of the community development?
Walking through the Brown University Science Library recently, a colleague pointed out that most of the books on the shelves would all soon be replaced – a victim of today’s electronic, online accessible culture. At Browser Books, a second-hand bookstore in Seekonk, Mass., the owner has been flooded with people coming to donate their old books in boxes – which in turn are often donated to local libraries, to be sold at community book sales.
The value of books appears to have decreased at the same time that the value of libraries has increased – not so much as a repository of books but as a community center of shared culture and conversation.

PROVIDENCE – Libraries. We just assume every town and city has one. We’ve grown up with them and genuinely appreciate the incredible value they offer to a community.

Simply put, we love libraries and assume everyone has access to them.

Recently I returned from a short trip to Deschapelles, Haiti. Deschapelles is a rural village where the Hospital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) is located.

Founded in 1956, HAS is a 130-bed hospital providing medical, pediatric and obstetric care to people in the Artibonite Valley.

The hospital employs some 500 people in the village of about 14,000. Deschapelles and the surrounding Artibonite Valley have scarce publicly supplied electricity. Rice is grown in the valley and many other people try to make a small living as subsistence farmers.

In the town of Deschapelles, there’s a volunteer community group, ODES, that works for the economic and social good of the community. They hold weekly meetings and membership is open to all interested residents.

Long-term sustainability
ODES has partnered with Sister Cities Essex Haiti, or SCEH, a Connecticut non-stock corporation which was created in the spring of 2010 by a group of Essex residents who had an existing commitment to Haiti.

SCEH’s mission is to build a mutual long-term sustainable relationship between the people of Essex, Conn., and the people of Deschapelles, as well as the hospital.

SCEH, in partnership with ODES, is committed to building a library in the village of Deschapelles. Construction is almost complete. It is being built using earthquake and hurricane resistant materials. 

SCEH contacted me several months ago to see if I could help them with an initial assessment to determine the community’s needs around the creation of a new library.

Libraries in Haiti are somewhat rare. It is estimated that there are only about 50 libraries in the country of 10 million people. The Foundation for Knowledge and Freedom, or FOKAL, is an independent foundation in Haiti supported by the Open Society Institute and other international and local organizations.

Since 1991, FOKAL has provided a range of educational, human development and economic activities to the local communities and civil society organizations in Haiti.

FOKAL is extremely interested and active in supporting library efforts throughout Haiti. Of the 50 libraries in the country, FOKAL provides financial support to 35 of them.

It’s a revolution
My work in Deschapelles was to conduct focus groups with a variety of constituents from the village. The use of focus groups, as qualitative research, has been well documented.

The questions asked in the groups related to participants’ knowledge about – and experience with – libraries.

We also wanted to find out what they thought the benefits would be to families, schools and the community that were offered by a new library. 

Here’s what I gleaned from the groups: everyone – adults and children – are extremely excited about the new library.

When I asked them what they thought when they heard a new library would be opening in their village, one young man replied: “It’s a revolution.”

They see it as an enormous asset for families, schools and the town. The word “gift” was often used.

Recognizing that they live in a small, somewhat isolated village with little or no Internet access, they see the library as a way for them to become better informed about what’s going on 90 miles away in Port au Prince as well as in other parts of the world. 

It was clear from the groups that the majority of the participants had never been to a library, but they still had some sense of what it was.

A community center for learning
Since all Haitians value education, they love the idea that the library will sponsor speakers, seminars, educational trainings, and awareness programs.

Approximately 65 percent of Haitians can read, so many expressed interest in literacy programs.

With much excitement and animation, the focus group participants expressed an eagerness to learn, read, borrow books, acquire new knowledge and attend the grand opening of the new library.

Everyone spoke about the incredible opportunity the library would provide to families that don’t have the means to send their children to school or if their children are in school, to purchase schoolbooks.

There are no Internet cafes in the town of Deschapelles, so computer literacy is also an issue. Since very few households have electricity, children are forced to walk to the hospital each night where they sit under the lights, doing their homework. Girls, for the most part, aren’t allowed to go out in the evening so they do their homework next to a dimly lit gas lamp.

The under-the-hospital-lights method of studying and doing homework was a major impetus behind SCEH’s decision to build a library. The new library will provide a safe and sound space for students to do their homework each night.

When one of the teenage boys was told that the library would have 14 computer stations, he couldn’t stop grinning. The teenage girls told me they thought they’d be able to get their parents’ permission to study at night in the library.

It’s an exciting time in Deschapelles. Everyone is eagerly awaiting the opening of the library with great anticipation and hope. At the end of each focus group, many people expressed sincere gratitude for our taking the time to speak with them directly about their needs, interests and concerns.

Listening to what the people want
One 20-something young man even shared an anecdote to express his pleasure with our seeking their input. He told the story about an outside group who came to help the village of Deschapelles. They noticed that one community had to walk about 5 miles to the next town to get water each day. This organization decided they would build a well right in the middle of the neighborhood so people wouldn’t have to make the trek each day for water. So they built it, but no one came. Months later this organization returned to the community to find out why they weren’t using the well in their own backyard.

This is what they were told by community members: they liked getting out each day and felt the exercise was good for them. The teenage boys enjoyed flirting with the teenage girls in the town where they gathered water. And, the well was built right next to an old cemetery. And that’s a no-no in Haiti.

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