MLIS student helps Ethiopians turn a new page

In a country hit by years of famine, military upheaval, disease and extreme poverty, books are a rarity. Many children in Ethiopia have never held one in their hands.

So when the non-profit group Ethiopia Reads ( began setting up school libraries for children in the capital city of Addis Ababa, many librarians felt it was their duty to protect new collections - to make sure kids didn't damage or destroy them.

"The librarians felt a huge responsibility for keeping the books safe. These are valuable resources," said University of Washington iSchool graduate student Rachel Scott, who spent August in the country helping train the librarians.

Many were secretaries, teachers or other school staff suddenly reassigned to their new role with little or no training. With no computers to help them, they wrote inventory logs by hand, in no particular order. Few knew the benefits of reading stories aloud to children. Many set up physical barriers between the kids and the shelves, doling out books one-by-one as students waited in long lines.

"We encouraged them to be more open, to let the children actually use the books," said Scott, who is combining her iSchool Master of Library Science studies with graduate work at the Dan Evans School of Public Affairs. "We told them that it was OK to have rules and discipline, but that there was more to a library than just protecting books."

Three-day training sessions covered cataloging, classification, children's literature, the Dewey decimal system, bookbinding, book-mending and strategies for fostering a love of reading. Yohannes Gebregeorgis, Ethiopia Reads founder, said Scott and fellow American volunteer Janet Lee added new ideas, vigor and passion to the training process.

"Their involvement has strengthened our training program, which we have done with local staff in the past," said Gebregeorgis, who came to America as a political refugee, earned a Masters in Library Science degree and returned to Ethiopia with the dream of developing a reading culture in a country where literacy rates hover around 50 percent.

His organization, supported largely through American donations, has already opened 40 school libraries, providing tables, chairs, shelving and books. Ethiopia Reads also sends colorful open-air book carts with children's books into poor, rural areas. These book mobiles are pulled by donkeys.

The challenges of librarianship in a world where more than three-quarters of the citizens live on less than $1 a day were eye-opening for Scott. "Just being there is so amazing, so different from anything you know, that you have to leave your expectations at the door," she said. "You do what you can, and accept that that is enough for now."