A School of Public Policy (SPP) faculty member and two students are working with colleagues across campus — and around the world — to expand the reach of the UMass World Librarians project, which bridges the “digital divide” by connecting students and educators in Africa with educational resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have the technology to access.
World Librarians works with schools and libraries in several countries, providing them with portable servers and Wi-Fi hotspot tools (called Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning, RACHEL, devices) loaded with open-access educational resources that can be used by students and teachers in solar-powered computer labs. In addition, teachers and librarians can request specific information by sending a message to World Librarians via Twitter. UMass student “searchers” then find the requested resources and post it on a Google drive; from there, a local team member saves the resources to a flash drive and delivers it to the school or library.
The project was founded in 2016 by Charlie Schweik of SPP and the department of environmental conservation; a group of UMass students, including Pamela Eisner, SPP class of 2019; UMass librarian Jeremy Smith; and Carl Meyer, cofounder of ShiftIT, an education organization in Malawi, where World Librarians first launched. Today about 25 school and libraries in Malawai participate in the project, which is now expanding into Ghana and Kenya.
Schweik, Smith, Meyer, and UMass colleagues Pempho Chinkondenji and Promise McHenga recently coauthored a paper about the project, “World Librarians: A Socio-Technical System Providing Library Search Services to Offline Schools and Libraries in Malawi,” in World Development Perspectives.
Rachel Mann, a student in SPP’s Master of Public Policy program spent part of the fall semester in Ghana, working to establish a World Librarians program there. Mann is collaborating on the effort with Freeman Ahegbebu, program manager at the Ghana-based nonprofit Cheerful Hearts Foundation, with which Mann has previously worked. They are using a small RACHEL device, called a RACHEL-pi, that provides a mobile hotspot for schools that don’t have an internet connection. In addition, they’re working on a proposal for a grant that would help expand the project’s reach in Ghana.
Mann was especially drawn to World Librarians’ focus on “decolonizing of the sharing of information,” by responding to specific requests from the educators and students it works with, rather than simply choosing the materials it thinks users need. “It’s not about what the global north thinks the global south wants to learn,” she said. “It’s about putting the agency where it belongs: with the people, with the communities that want to learn this stuff. They get to decide, and then the [World Librarians] team sends them the information.”
Back in the U.S., Grace Buckner, a student in SPP’s Master of Public Policy program, and Kate Marchetti, an undergraduate at the Isenberg School of Management, are working on a fundraising campaign, through the UMass MinuteFund platform, to support a World Librarians site in Kenya. That effort got off the ground last year, when Schweik spoke about the project at an Association for Research on Civil Society in Africa (AROCSA) conference in Nairobi and connected with several attendees who were interested in the project.
As World Librarians grows, Schweik said, ownership will shift to the individual sites where it’s based, in an effort to “decolonize” the project. For example, as local sites are built up with the necessary resources, in-country teams, rather than UMass students, can search for the information requested by users.
“The word about the World Librarian program is spreading, and we continue to be lucky in connecting to very capable people in countries like Ghana and Kenya who see what is happening in Malawi and want to do the same in their country,” Schweik said. “Our role at UMass is to assist them in the ways they want support and help them get operational and become self-sustaining.”