An African library journey

By Cheryl Lopez

Teacher librarian Cheryl Lopez recently spent a month at The School of St Yared in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Students at the school come from the poorest of homes and their education is sponsored, mainly by Australians. Here she discusses her experience working with staff and students to set up the school library.

Early in 2014 I was approached by a teaching colleague to establish a library at The School of St Yared, an NGO school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I already had a connection to the school, as my husband and I have been sponsoring a student there for the past three years.

I was intrigued with the idea of setting up a school library in a developing country, with very few resources and a great need. The School of St Yared is a special place. It was started six years ago by a young Ethiopian man, Yared Wolde. Yared dreams of providing free, quality, education to the very poor children in Ethiopia. When students are selected for the school, the first criterion is that they are from very poor families. The school receives no government funding and survives solely on sponsorships and donations

The teachers from The School of St Yared being shown their new school library

Cheryl shows the teachers the new library

I spent the next six months consulting with fellow teacher librarians, Yared, and the current Australian Advisor at the school. I decided that an automated library system would not work in this situation. This decision was made due to the absence of a consistent power supply, a lack of funds, and that there was only a small chance of any trained library staff being available to manage a library. The idea for the library was to have a simple, functioning, and fairly foolproof circulation system. I planned to construct a basic Accession Register and use good old fashioned book pockets, borrower cards, and date due slips to manage the loans.

I sought donations of processing materials from colleagues in other schools as well as businesses in the industry. I ran fundraising activities in my school with book sales and raffles. The generous donations from friends and family encouraged me to continue with my endeavour. Armed with library stationery, and as many new books as I could fit into my luggage, I set off for Addis Ababa on Boxing Day, 2014.

When I arrived at the school Yared greeted me joyfully. He outlined his dream for the library. He hoped for a complete overhaul of the room and books organised for student and teacher borrowing. With a smile he also asked me to organise the Reading Books while I was at it. No problem, I thought, easily done in less than three weeks!

Two teachers standing in the new school library for The School of St Yared as it takes shape

The library underway.

My initial task was to sort the resources. The collection consisted of three separate collections: Amharic reading books, English reading books, and library books. Since my knowledge of Amharic starts and ends with 'umma seganallo' (thank you), I decided I could only sort those books into neat piles on the shelves and repair some of the torn covers. The English reading books were all donated parts of reading schemes from Western Australian schools. Old familiar titles were there, Eureka, Reading 360, and Macmillan Readers among others.

Of the 1000 or so titles most were in good condition and the teachers had sorted about a third of them into 5 reading levels to cater for the students in years 1-5. I had hoped to sort the remaining titles and add another two or three higher levels to allow for growth as the school added more classes. Unfortunately time only allowed me to physically sort them into reading schemes and set them out for ease of access. The third section was approximately 1000 library books. These were all donations; either new books from sponsors and visitors or secondhand from Western Australian school libraries.

While some of the books were fairly new, having been carried to Ethiopia in personal luggage by school visitors over the past few years, most of the used books were in very average condition, a little dated, and tired. This is understandable, given that most had been discarded from other schools. I was constantly challenged by the consideration 'is something better than nothing?' as these students have no other access to books. There is nothing to read in their very poor homes and Public Libraries are almost non-existent. I chose to add almost every book to the new collection apart from those that were beyond repair.

Once the physical sorting was completed, I began an Accessions Register. With a newly purchased printer, I printed labels, attached them to book pockets and borrower cards, and added date due slips. I chose not to add call numbers to the books, although I did include them in the Accession records. The fiction would be placed on the shelves, hopefully neatly, by the soon-to-be-appointed Library Officer. However, I added coloured spine labels to the non-fiction. I used the coloured Syba Signs spine labels which match their shelf dividers. I decided that would help the students get the idea of Dewey classification and the colour system would be easy for them to follow to begin with. In the future perhaps another volunteer could make the system a little more sophisticated by adding call numbers to the books. I wrote very detailed Procedure Instructions for the Principal and the new Library Officer.

Yared and I ordered wooden library shelving and some very brightly coloured Ethiopian recycled cardboard browser boxes and shelves. The school handyman repainted the room, changing the bright pink to a more subtle cream. One morning on the way to school we stopped off at the markets and bought a large mat for the floor.

Every day the students came into the library to check on my progress and to help where they could. They loved gluing. Like readers everywhere they were easily sidetracked when they found a book that interested them and many 'helpers' quickly settled down to read. They were so excited about every new step on the journey that when my energy levels flagged, their enthusiasm, friendliness, and gratitude was an inspiration.

When moving day finally arrived we relocated all the old, sloping, mismatched shelves to other parts of the school (everything is recycled in Ethiopia). Then the books were moved into another room and the floor was washed before the new shelves were moved in. The books were then returned, posters and lettering added to the walls, and the carpet put down. Finally we were ready for business. I ran a 'get to know the new library' session for the teachers, which was followed by a traditional Coffee Ceremony - an essential activity to celebrate anything in Ethiopia.

A woman poses in front of the new school library shelves which are stacked with books.

The library is finished!

The refurbishment of the library at the School of St Yared was a great success. It was made possible by generous donations of money and materials (thanks to WA Library Supplies, Syba Signs and a number of Western Australian school libraries) as well as the time and energy of volunteers from Perth and New York. As with all school library development, the job is never complete. This was just the start. There is the opportunity for much more voluntary work at the School of St Yared. The library desperately needs more quality books. One of the biggest challenges is getting books and materials to Ethiopia, but we will continue working on that.

Now I am home and free to enjoy my well-appointed school library, complete with qualified staff, a great collection of ordered, processed books, and spacious reading areas. Here I think of the library at the School of St Yared in Addis Ababa. It is small, it has very few books but it is somewhere that the joy of reading, the love of story, and the excitement of education among the students is obvious – and contagious.

Image credits

  • Cheryl shows the teachers the new library. Courtesy of Cheryl Lopez and Amanda Huxtable.
  • Yared and Cheryl - the before shots. Courtesy of Cheryl Lopez and Amanda Huxtable.
  • The library is finished! Courtesy of Cheryl Lopez and Amanda Huxtable.
Cheryl Lopez

Cheryl Lopez

Teacher Librarian

Yidarra Catholic Primary School