Building School Libraries Overseas

Service Learning through the Library

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

-Dale Carnegie

There are opportunities for library programs to get involved with the community service initiatives of the schools they serve; especially, with projects that involve literacy and reading. I want to share a service learning model that fosters student initiative and embodies a full school commitment to the service of others.This post complements and relates to the posts from our fellow AISL librarians, Laura Bishop and Maria Falgoust who shared their experience and research with service learning and libraries. I hope my experience adds another example of library programs partnering with community service programs. This year at my school, Berkeley Preparatory School, I was excited to participate in a community service role in which the Jean Ann Cone Library supported the community service of students to build a school library in the Bahamas. The vision statement of Berkeley Preparatory School is: “ Berkeley puts people in the world who make a positive difference,” and the Bahamas Books service project epitomizes the fulfillment of this vision through multiple departments, programs, faculty, and students coming together.


This service learning program was developed over many years, and in my role I am “standing on the shoulders of giants,” of previous librarians, teachers, administrators, board members and students who exemplify the spirit of social responsibility. As a new faculty member, I am gifted with a unique perspective because I have new eyes to admire the scope of this program with the freshly-minted experience of now understanding the details involved. This past February, I and Middle School Community Service Director, Buck Johnson, traveled with nine Middle Division students and eight Upper Division students to Nassau, Bahamas to set-up a library at Yellow Elder Primary School. Over the course of four days the Berkeley students set-up 2,800 books complete with a digital catalog and presented library lessons. While this was my first service trip it was the third school to receive a school library from this program. I want to share the journey that includes Berkeley families, alumni, Parent’s Club, Middle Division and Upper Division community service programs, and the Jean Ann Cone Library that all came together to support and share literacy through the power of libraries in the world beyond our campus.

Student-Driven Service

The impetus of this project started with Berkeley student, Elias Tsavoussis ‘16 noticing a need for more access to books in the Bahamas to address literacy. Elias talked to his parents, peers, and teachers at Berkeley about the ways he could start with a book donation to gather resources for a library. He took his early research and ideas and applied for Berkeley’s 50th Anniversary Service Award, a scholarship award “that honors students who have made a strong commitment to serving his or her community such that the student’s activities make a positive difference in the world.” Elias received the award, and with its grant money, he established a library at Nassau’s Columbus Primary School. From this project, The Berkeley Bahamas Books service initiative began, involving Berkeley’s Middle and Upper Divisions. Since the project’s inception, two more Bahama Books primary-school libraries have been started, both in Nassau. Elias’s siblings, Alexis ’11 and Paul ’13, also developed the non-profit organization Mission: Education Bahamas that aids literacy research, efficacy, and acquiring more grant funding. Their involvement started the Berkeley alumni affiliation with the project that continues to collaborate with our school community and students today. Now Wendy’s, Marco’s Pizza, and Popeye’s in the Bahamas sponsors the Bahamas Books as well.

Sourcing Books

Another important school community event that is integral to the Bahamas Books project is the annual “Share the Love of Reading” book drive that the Berkeley Parent’s Club has been organizing for over 12 years. This project brings the Berkeley community together and gives to local literacy and educational organizations. The scope and reach of this established community book drive enabled a new international outreach to be the next phase of giving; it now serves as a major source of books for the Bahamas Books project among its continued local outlets. This venture illustrates that often our schools have systems and programs already in place, so that libraries and library programs do not have to start with a blank slate, and it gives us another way to collaborate with our school communities. Our Lower Division library, the Rudolph Library, has also been a constant contributor to the collection. Finally, we have also reached out to our local librarian cohort, the Bay Area Association of Independent Schools librarian group to ask for any books they are no longer using in their collections, but are still serviceable.

Library Support

I also want to highlight that because this service project was student-driven at its inception it has continued to have a strong student leadership component where the torch is carried on by Upper Division students.  Most models of service learning and experiential learning stress the importance of student ownership and initiative as an important component to success. Additionally, the Jean Ann Cone library has a strong student library proctor program that serves as another student leadership program at Berkeley. Many of these student library proctors serve as foundational help to the Bahamas Books program. Their library training and daily workings in the library make them the perfect mentors to the Middle Division students that choose this program for their community service focus and other upper division students. Usually two to three student library proctors volunteer to attend the trip to the Bahamas and they are instrumental in the whole group putting together a library in four days.

Processing Books

So how do you process 2,800 books on top of your daily school library and teaching schedule? The answer: Middle Division students. The Berkeley Middle Division has a robust community service program from 6th-8th grade which gives students the foundation to serve others and prepare them for independent community service projects in Upper Division. As the Middle Division Librarian my role is to teach and shepherd a dozen Middle Division students on how to sort, label, process, and catalog library books. There are six dedicated days spread throughout the school year for students to be immersed in a service project. In the Bahamas Book track, the morning is comprised of three and half hours of dedicated work time where we sort, label and catalog the book donations. The afternoon is reserved for all community service groups to return and reflect on the service of the day. I relished this time with my Middle Division students giving them “the behind the scenes” tasks of libraries so they understand the inner workings of their own school library. As we sifted through the books students shared their recollections and memories of the books they checked out from the library when they were in Lower Division. I also believe they developed a new appreciation for the “grunt work” aspects of library by handling 2800 books and packing over 70 boxes. Our Middle Division students also revisited the Lower Division library and made a how-to video about library procedures to share as an instructional tool for schools that have never had a library before. Our students also designed library posters and bookmarks to give the students in the Bahamas the full experience they remember in their library as children. I refer to this group lovingly as my home team because not all of these students travel to the Bahamas, but they are instrumental to preparing the books to be a full functioning school library.

While I am working with the Middle Division students, C.D. McLean, our Library Director and one of our Upper Division librarians, oversees the Upper Division students who signed up to help and go on the trip. She set up weekly lunch meetings so that this group of students could plan and organize the types of library lessons the students would implement upon completion of the library. Students chose relevant books to use for storytimes and library activities in which the librarians reviewed and gave feedback. These Upper Division students also serve as mentors to the Middle Division students who traveled on the trip. I coordinated with the Yellow Elder Primary School principal, Mrs. Armaly, to schedule our students into their classes which involves a full day of engagement with the children of Yellow Elder.

Collaboration and Reciprocity

The day of travel finally arrives. All the hard work culminates in both the Berkeley Preparatory School and the Yellow Elder Primary school coming together to celebrate reading and libraries. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, so our first two days are spent exploring the culture and nature of the Bahamas. We spent a day on the water taking a boat trip to the Exumas where we visited an island of iguanas and stopped on a remote sandbar to fully experience the crystal-clear caribbean waters. Then on Monday we were warmly greeted by the whole Yellow Elder Primary School in a schoolwide convocation. The administrators of the Yellow Elder Primary School read quotes from famous authors about the power of libraries and reading. Then a program of student performances began: students read poems, sang songs, and danced traditional dances. Our trip coordinator, Buck Johnson represented our group and expressed our gratitude for their welcome and expressed our honor in sharing the love of reading with their community. These are the powerful moments of community service: the culture exchange, mutual benefits, and reciprocal learnings that all groups involved experience. We were all moved from this opening day at the Yellow Elder Primary School. The rest of the day we spent setting-up the the library. We broke into groups building furniture, shelving books, and decorating the library. It was a long work day, but the excitement of the children spurred us on. I also had the opportunity meet with librarians in the Bahamas to share and exchange current trends in library programming. Our last day at Yellow Elder was spent engaging with students through literacy and library activities-storytimes, letter recognition crafts, prop making, and games. For me, it was a joy to see my students imparting their own experiences and passions for libraries to this younger generation. Our students remarked about how it gave them a new appreciation for their own library when they saw how excited children are in the realm of a new library. I know it reinvigorated my own view of being a librarian. In reflecting on this whole experience I cannot stop effusing gratitude that I not only get to share the love of reading and research with my fellow librarians and students in the beautiful Jean Ann Cone Library, but that I also get to be part of a compounding effect of sharing the gift and value of libraries to a wider community. I am thankful for the Berkeley Community Service program that included the library program in building a legacy of literacy and encouraging us to make a difference in this Caribbean corner of the world.

Video Tour

Related Links

Mission: Educate Bahamas

This year-Bahamas Local news story

Previous years- The Nassau Guardian news story

The Bahamas Weekly news story

One thought on “Building School Libraries Overseas

  1. This is wonderful! I love the photos, and I especially love the way you prepared your students (and the books) throughout the year before their big journey.

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