Skill-Share Programs: Sustaining Grassroots Libraries in Developing Nicaragua
The San Juan del Sur Biblioteca (SJDS Biblioteca), the first public lending library in Nicaragua, has been a resource in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua and its surrounding communities for the past ten years. This unique system provided by SJDS Biblioteca’s staff and volunteers enables families and children the chance to gain access to information and to develop a reading culture within their communities. With the average daily wage under $3.00 and no lending libraries, access to books was unaffordable and impossible until the opening of the SJDS Biblioteca.
The library originated on the patio of the Hotel Villa Isabella owned by Coloradoan Jane Mirandette, founder of the Biblioteca and opened its doors to the public in November 2001. As the library grew and expanded its services, it moved into a rented building, with its own local staff in January 2002. The San Juan del Sur Biblioteca, starting out with only a bookcase of books, rapidly became the first public lending library in Nicaragua. Nicaragua and most of Central America does not typically have open stacks in their libraries. This is changing through the efforts of this program. The Biblioteca is supported by the Hester J. Hodgdon’s Libraries for All Program (HJH), a 501c3 non-profit founded by Jane Mirandette and established to help fund the Biblioteca and promote other literacy programs throughout Central America. Currently, the SJDS Biblioteca makes available to patrons over 12,500 books ranging from curriculum text books, children’s books, fiction, classics, poetry, and prose to an extensive nonfiction collection, all primarily in Spanish. The San Juan del Sur community borrows an estimated 600-800 books a month. The Biblioteca Móvil project, which takes bins filled with books from a collection of 5,000 to poor rural communities in the areas surrounding San Juan del Sur, serves 31 communities to date. The Biblioteca also currently serves as a community center, providing space for study sessions, enrichment classes for preschool and classes in English. This program has become a model for other organizations as well and through the "Library in a Box" Project has helped initiate and maintain 42 additional programs run by a variety of service groups, church groups, and individuals.
How has the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca accomplished so much and grown so extensively over the past ten years? While the initial vision is due to the dedication of founder Jane Mirandette, its success and the proliferation of so many more projects is through the skill-share transfer of volunteer librarians, library students and others who travel to Nicaragua to share their knowledge and skills with the library and its community. This is significant primarily because the founder and director of these programs is not a degreed librarian and did not have the necessary training one would think needed for this degree of success.
The initial development of the library, mobile project, and the project of the HJH Program, "Library in A Box," which is a seed collection and mentoring program that has allowed the 42 other projects to flourish, are examples of what skill-share programs can accomplish. The mentoring and instruction offered to the Biblioteca by library students from Simmons College, University of Maryland iSchool students and other individuals is then offered by the staff of the SJDS Biblioteca not only to many of the other 42 grassroots libraries that have developed but also to the Nicaraguan Library Community with forums and workshops held at major universities in Managua and widely attended by library staff from all over Nicaragua. Volunteers are often frequent contributors to these programs and events. Benefits from skill-share programs are most notable because there are no library science schools in Nicaragua and few librarians to train staff in the small community libraries. There are university libraries, which are non-lending libraries and specialize in reference materials and computer access for university students. The Nicaraguan Library Association (ANIBIPA), with financial assistance from The HJH Program and a small grant from the American Library Association (ALA), initiated the En Tu Biblioteca Campaign (@ your library) in 2005. SJDS Biblioteca is a functioning member of that campaign and SJDS Biblioteca and volunteers from the HJH Program courses are frequent contributors to ANIBIPA events and programs. The fifth anniversary of this campaign in April of 2010 honored the contributions made to the lending library model by Jane Mirandette and the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca with a Recognition Award for “Promoting Excellence in libraries and for the promotion of the lending model.1
This is another example of skill-share in action. It was a group of UMD students who presented a program on blogging that led to this group having their own very successful blog.
There is a growing interest in the lending model, literacy programs, story hours, blogging instruction, and craft and language classes throughout a number of the 143 libraries of the RED Nicaraguan Government library network based on the library model mentoring of the volunteers and staff of the SJDS Biblioteca. Some of the protocols and policies created by volunteers sharing their skills have been adopted in developing nations worldwide through HJH Libraries for All Program members and volunteers associated with ALA’s International Relations Round Table. Many of these skill-share programs are represented in the poster sessions submitted yearly at ALA by Jane Mirandette and various library science volunteers.2 Computer projects, Internet capacity, web site designs, newsletter projects, story hour programs, and classes in English are only a few of the skills offered by library science volunteers that are now emulated and offered by staff and a new contingent of volunteers as the volunteer program has expanded organically.
A seminar for 80 library workers was hosted by this group which included SJDS Staff members ANIBIPA directors, the American Corners Program coordinator from the US Embassy and students and librarians from UMD and Simmons College.
So how does one partake in a skill-share program? The newest trend on the vacationing scene is “voluntourism,” which gives people the perfect opportunity to travel, see new places and give something back to the communities that they encounter. When you think about it, there is no better way to spend your vacation than in a place of your choice making a difference at the same time. This urge to do good prompted the growth of a whole new tourism industry designed to help people accomplish just that. The SJDS Biblioteca initially grew from the skills of intrigued librarian volunteers, and now the program has expanded to include a wider variety of volunteers who are looking to spend their vacation time giving back and partaking in skill-share opportunities. The volunteers who touch the Biblioteca and the SJDS community now range from high school students, college undergraduate service-learning programs, Spanish language students, library science graduate students, retirees, and whole families, to well just about anyone passing through, willing to share some of their time. Programs with SJDS Biblioteca can be self-authored for individuals and families, or as structured group events. Hands-on work incorporates much of the skill-share that goes on at the SJDS Biblioteca. Often volunteers will help library staff with reading time and craft projects. There is always a need for new creative craft ideas in a library that reaches over 5,000 families and 4,800 children in the mobile program with library cards. Volunteers accompany Biblioteca staff on the Mobile project to do projects and help distribute books to rural communities. Graduate students enrolled in library and information science programs at Simmons College and the University of Maryland are now able to come to Nicaragua, under the auspices of the HJH Program and the SJDS Biblioteca, to participate in courses for credit that innovate new library services while at the same time enable students to gain study abroad experience including meeting the challenges that a lack of electricity, intermittent Internet, and sometimes even the lack of basic infrastructure can bring to a project.3
Recent upgrades to the website were made by a recent UMD student and include the ability to choose the language and access to the photos at the flickr site.4
Mobile project volunteers enjoy their interaction with students in rural schools.
The skill-share program for librarians and library science students at the Biblioteca includes the opportunity for volunteers to travel around Nicaragua and Costa Rica making various site visits to see other projects, offering advice on improvements and enhancements, and helping communities other than SJDS set-up their own libraries. Within this forum there are opportunities to give seminars on collection development, book repair, crafts, and the lending process.
What is on the horizon for new skill-share projects in San Juan del Sur that could include librarians and non-librarians? There is a need for more English language classes and driver’s education along with general education courses, most especially literacy. Computer and vocational skill training are areas that could easily be expanded with funding and experienced volunteers. There are currently opportunities in several parts of the country as well as San Juan del Sur to participate in eco stove building; water purification projects; solar projects; teaching baking, sewing, beading, organic gardening and composting; and working with former street children and teens in a school and center environment. Los Quinchos is a program for street children the SJDS Biblioteca has hosted every Christmas and Easter holiday since 2007. Volunteers have participated in making holiday meals and sharing time with these groups of up to fifty children who have no other safe place to be over the holiday seasons. There are opportunities at the various school/home locations of the Los Quinchos throughout the school year as well.
Programs like this one have recently been highlighted by author Susan Skog in her recent book, The Give Back Solution: Create a Better World with your Time, Talents and Travel. According to Skog, "About one hundred thousand people are expected to take a volunteer vacation this year. More than fifty five million have already participated in one. 45% of Americans have considered volunteer vacations. 72% know someone who has taken one."5
Additionally, Skog notes that “There is an unprecedented surge of ordinary people choosing to step up and use their time talents and travel to make a better world. The world has never seen so many people across all age groups, volunteering and supporting causes that serve the common good and bring much needed hope and solutions across the earth. We are choosing to remain hopeful connected and empowered.”6
Susan Skog’s book also offers the following check list for anyone seeking to make a difference in this way:
Don’t participate to:
- Feel better than “ those poor people”
- Pad your resume
- Escape from an unworkable job
- Save the world
- Save Souls
Do participate to:
- To share your skills and talents
- Immerse yourself in another culture
- Discover new experiences
- Become an aware international citizen
- Join in the transformation of the world7
The Take Away
Skill-share projects are a powerful experience not just for the receiver but also the giver (librarian or not). The volunteer/giver receives the satisfaction everyone gets with the knowledge that they made a positive difference in someone’s life. The returns are immeasurable in the opportunity to experience a rich and colorful culture very different from their own. Some rewards are the opportunity to be with a warm-hearted, resilient people who are very generous and giving regardless of language barriers. There are opportunities to learn to dance the salsa, climb a volcano, watch functioning teams of oxen, take a canopy or sailing tour, ride empty waves, and experience stunning sunsets. The volunteer may also learn to cook over a wood fire, truly practice what reuse and recycle means, and how to exist happily without iPods, BlackBerry phones, and even stoves and refrigerators. One can go back in time to a simpler existence, if only for two weeks.
The community/receiver acquire educational tools, creative projects for children, a better quality of life, an appreciation for a different culture, a new outlook on the future and frequently hope. Many discover that we are more alike than different and that all of us have skill/gifts to share and often forge deep friendships like none other. All in all, both sides are enriched by the experience of working together, sharing their varied and unique skill sets to help develop and strengthen a community around its library. The experience has been pivotal in the lives of many of the previous volunteers, often prompting high school students to write their college entrance paper on the experience, change their majors and for some, the direction of their lives. It simply remains a memorable experience for others. For a good number, their response can be summed up in the words, "Been There, Done That and Going Back!"
Along with the boom of “voluntourism” there also comes the "boos" for it as well. One common complaint is that organizations are more interested in the financial gain they acquire than in the assistance that is offered. It is possible to spend up to $3,000 before expenses to volunteer with some groups for a two-week project. The SJDS Biblioteca program does not require a fee to volunteer and does not provide transport, or room and board except for specific long-term arrangements. The Biblioteca does ask for assistance with the ever pressing need for funding and resources. Many past volunteers have become ardent supporters and seekers of resources for various projects. Also, many voluntourism groups strictly limit and direct what skills and tasks volunteers can do, often without taking into account the talents of the volunteer. A good program allows the volunteer to assess, critique the need and offer its best suggestion as to how the volunteer can be most useful. Using this method the Biblioteca gained the policies it uses now, protocols for mobile projects, research and instruction for purchasing and using computers in a mobile setting, spine label training, a functional database program, the websites and access to the Internet and much more. There are other critics that point fingers at groups that build libraries in developing communities as perpetuators of “library colonialism” and the idea of forcing a westernized model on a non-western culture. It is always crucial to offer what the target audience needs and wants and perhaps more importantly, has requested. As a volunteer you should be aware of the mission, tone and approach of the project you are working with. The SJDS Biblioteca does not “knock on any doors and hand out libraries.” Communities, nonprofit organizations, service and mission groups wanting to start their own library come to the Biblioteca or the HJH Program seeking guidance and help in setting-up their own libraries.8
It is important to remember as a volunteer and skill-share participant that you have as much to learn in this new setting as you have to offer. Volunteers take their skills and creativity and adapt it to meet the needs and resources of the community they are helping. In a place where money and resources are scarce innovation is the most valuable and the most rewarding tool for both parties involved. A recent volunteer program of seventh and eighth graders from the Lincoln Jr. High International Baccalaureate World School in Fort Collins, Colorado created games and painted faces for the mobile project and a street fair. The group of teens’ predominant comments upon their return was how amazed they were to see young people who have so little be so consistently happy. One girl exclaimed "I'll never complain again!" Skill-share programs are vital to the SJDS Biblioteca and to the volunteer. They are rewarding and fun with a broadening awareness of the world at large thrown in for good measure.
How to Get Involved
If you are interested in the various volunteer projects at the SJDS Biblioteca please contact Jane Mirandette at email@example.com. For more about individual volunteer experiences please visit the University of Maryland iSchool in Nicaragua 2011 Blog for the current course and iSchool Study Aboard in Nicaragua Blog for the archives.
The Hester J Hodgdon Libraries for All Program was one of three international programs to receive the ALA Presidential Citation for International Innovation on July 13, 2009 at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Chicago, Illinois at the International Relations Round Table's International Librarians Reception.9
1. See blog at http://anibipanicaraguaentubiblioteca.blogspot.com
2. Poster Sessions, American Library Association, http://www.lib.jmu.edu/org/ala/
3. Nicaragua: International Opportunities in Library and Information Studies, University of Maryland International Programs, http://www.international.umd.edu/studyabroad/5970
4. San Juan del Sur Biblioteca, http://www.sjdsbiblioteca.org/
5. Excerpt from Susan Skog, The Give-Back Solution: Create a Better World With Your Time, Talents, and Travel (Whether You Have $10 or $10,000). Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2009.
8. HJH Libraries for All Program, Hester J. Hodgdon Libraries, http://www.librariesforall.org
9. IRRT News, American Library Association, http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/rts/irrt/news/index.cfm