Local area foundation helps build digital libraries in Africa

Jessica Bass

The John Harvey Lowery Foundation (JHLF) is a non-profit charitable organization working in the name of Dr. John H. Lowery, one of Ascension Parish’s first African American physicians and one of Donaldsonville’s most important philanthropists. Inspired by Dr. Lowery’s commitment to the education of youth in the early 1900s, today the JHLF works locally and partners with organizations internationally to ensure children in underserved communities have access to the resources they need to receive an education.

The Tanzania Digital Library Initiative (DLI) is an effort to empower individuals in East Africa by making educational materials such as textbooks and video tutorials, accessible in their communities. The digital library exists on locally installed networked computers that are filled with open-source and donated electronic, educational books and films. These computers can be brought to and kept in communities relatively easily and with a low cost when compared with that of purchasing and transporting printed materials. Once the computers are installed, the study materials can be found through a simple keyword search of all of the digital content.

All of the books and videos are stored locally on the computers, so the system does not require Internet access, and materials can even be “checked out” on a flash drive. The Digital Library Initiative is led in Tanzania by PeerCorps Trust Fund, a sister organization to the JHLF, which aims to to improve community health and safety, reduce poverty, and increasing educational opportunities for youth in underserved communities.

To date, PeerCorps has been able to realize its vision of the digital library in two small, rural villages in Tanzania through the John Harvey Lowery Foundation’s financial assistance and its support in outreach efforts. The first library installation, completed in December 2014, is hosted by Tazengwa Pentecostal Bible College in northern Tanzania. The resource serves the whole village of Nzega, Tanzania, where a majority of homes do not have electricity, and where they are just beginning to pave the town’s main road. The second digital library included primarily medical resources, and supports students at the Ilembula Nursing College in the rolling hills of southern Tanzania. Completed in June 2015, the library contains over 40,000 books, articles, and video lectures, giving the school one of the largest collections of medical resource materials in all of Tanzania.

At both of these schools, a digital library with tens of thousands of books alleviates a significant financial burden for the institution and for families, and empowers community members with access to information. It also offers an opportunity for students to learn and practice computer skills as they pursue a career. The new content was presented to students and staff through a week-long program of open trainings, intended to introduce basic computer skills. After the first couple of days, the students were arriving library even before the program leaders, and turning on the system for their studies and for computer practice!

Digital libraries have offered, and continue to present, incredible potential to transform the way information is shared, both in accordance with and as a result of Dr. Lowery’s vision of universal education. The effects of the two installations that have been completed so far with JHLF’s support are only the beginning of a much bigger mission to ensure educational materials are accessible for all those who wish to have them.