8,000 Books Ethiopia Bound: The Colorado Connection

Each morning as I walked into town to begin my volunteer/sabbatical work at the Segenat Children and Youth Library in Mekelle, Ethiopia, I was comforted by the mountains that surrounded me and the clear blue skies overhead that reminded me of home. As a “semi-native” of Colorado, I relished the cool nights after the warm days that living at this altitude would bring. There were heavy rains during the rainy season, but just like in Colorado, the mud turned to dust as soon as the sun came out. Water is and will always be an issue. The prickly-pear cactus grew wild and was often used as a fence or a border, separating houses or fields of grain. It bore a delicious fruit known locally as “Belas” and was sold by street vendors at bus stops and street corners. At times the terrain, even in town, was difficult to navigate. It seemed that no matter which direction one was headed, it was always uphill. Imagine a horse pulling a cart filled with materials, the traditional method of transportation since there were few personal vehicles and few paved streets, attempting to navigate these rocky roads. On one trip to a nearby mountain village, I thought I was “off-roading” in the mountains of Colorado, traversing the mountain via switchbacks and hairpin turns to be greeted by the chapping wind at the mountain top. The crow of a rooster in the wee mornings or the “whoop” of a hyena in the middle of the night would bring me back to the reality that I was back in Ethiopia, my adopted home. Despite the hardships that I faced working in a developing country, I knew that I had the support of my colleagues back in Colorado.

Heard the Call

What lead me to Ethiopia, a distant country on the other side of the world? This journey began more than 35 years ago when I first went to Ethiopia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I heard the call of President John F. Kennedy and knew that was where my destiny lay. I was idealistic, naïve, and assigned to a small village in the south where I taught seventh grade English, the medium of instruction for upper grades and the third language for all of my students. I lived through a revolution and the toppling of Emperor Haile Selassie and was among the last group of Peace Corps Volunteers to serve in Ethiopia for more than a decade. Even now I still tell others that not a day has gone by that I have not thought about Ethiopia, such was the impact of the country and people on my life.

Thirty years later I had the opportunity to meet Yohannes Gebregeorgis, a native of Ethiopia who fled his native land as a political refugee, took asylum in the U.S., and completed an undergraduate degree in English at the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo and then a Masters in Library Science at the University of Texas at Austin. Throughout his career, Yohannes has overseen the development of over 45 school library partnerships across Ethiopia, three public children’s libraries, seven Donkey Mobile Libraries and a number of portable libraries. Yohannes has achieved international fame for these endeavors including a 2008 Top 10 CNN Hero award,1 a Presidential Citation for International Innovation by the American Library Association (ALA) in 2008, delivered the President’s Keynote Address at the American Library Association Mid-Winter conference in Boston in January 2010, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate for his achievements by Regis University in Denver, Colorado in May 2010. In June 2011, he will be awarded Honorary Membership to the American Library Association at the annual conference in New Orleans, the highest award bestowed on an individual by the American Library Association.

While in Denver to serve as a keynote speaker at the Colorado Association of Libraries conference in Denver in November 2008, Yohannes graciously agreed to a number of presentations across the state and several at Regis University; the most significant proved to be a Regis University Radio interview with Dr. Thomas Hooyman, a professor of Medical Ethics. Tragically, Dr. Hooyman was killed in a motor vehicle accident a week later and Yohannes vowed to build a library in his memory. In less than a year, we raised the funds to establish a school library in his name and I was invited to Mekelle to participate in the training of library assistants, to help in the organization of the Dr. Thomas Hooyman Library and Media Center, and witness the dedication of the facility.

During this visit in August 2009, I made a point to connect with current Peace Corps Volunteers in Mekelle, the Peace Corps having been reintroduced two years prior, and they would prove to be instrumental in the development of the new library project, soon to be named the “Segenat Children and Youth Library.” It was at this time that the City of Mekelle offered to Yohannes the use, lease free, of a large, free-standing building to house a children’s library.

The Segenat Children and Youth Library, a gift from the City of Mekelle.

The Segenat Children and Youth Library, a gift from the City of Mekelle.

Colorado Responds

Colorado libraries and librarians across the state answered my call for book donations and over 10,000 books filled every corner and recess of the Regis University Technical Services Department. Fellow Colorado librarian and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer- Senegal, Allaina Wallace joined me in picking up donations from donation sites. Volunteers from across the Regis University campus helped me sort, cull, and inventory the final 8,000 books that were shipped. The Regis volunteers contributed at least 200 hours of time during their lunch hours, Saturdays, and use of “Mission leave” made available by the University. The Regis University mail room served as the staging area for package pickup, loaded the pallets, and “shrink-wrapped” each pallet of books. All told, 129 boxes of books were placed on five pallets for shipment to Djibouti in East Africa.2

Danait Redai, a Regis University Student, helps unpack and sort some of the 10,000 books donated by  libraries, librarians, and students across Colorado.

Danait Redai, a Regis University Student, helps unpack and sort some of the 10,000 books donated by libraries, librarians, and students across Colorado.

Colorado librarians were also instrumental in determining the feasibility and choice of an online public access catalog. I conducted a literature search and spoke with a number of Colorado colleagues about possible open source software products. It needed to be inexpensive (hopefully, free), easy to manage, and be capable of multiple scripts including Amharic and Tigrigna. All indicators pointed me to KOHA. In further exploration, I discovered that a number of small libraries in Colorado had implemented KOHA as well. John Twigg, Regis University IT department, and I contacted Kieran Hixon at the Fremont County Library in Florence, Colorado and Amy Bruno at the Dacono Public Library in Dacono, Colorado. All were very knowledgeable, helped with software, and gave practical tips about basic needs. They downloaded and configured the KOHA software on a donated laptop and walked me through the basic functions.

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Steve Turco, Regis University Mail Services, applies shrink wrap to one of the five pallets shipped to Djibouti, East Africa.

Steve Turco, Regis University Mail Services, applies shrink wrap to one of the five pallets shipped to Djibouti, East Africa.

Sleeves Rolled Up

I returned to Ethiopia in July 2010 to begin my sabbatical stay and was overwhelmed by the progress achieved by Yohannes, his staff, and the Peace Corps Volunteers since I was there in 2009. The extensive floor plan was carefully divided into reading and study areas by strategic placement of shelving separating the preschool and early grades from the more studious needs of high school students. A reading nook, fashioned after one that I had seen at Timberline Elementary School in Centennial, faced an alcove that supplied ample lighting as well as a semi-enclosed space for story hours, arts and crafts, and other activities. It later proved to be one of the more popular spaces in the library.

A four-year old girl made daily visits to the library with her six-year old brother.  She particularly enjoyed the reading nook, fashioned after a similar piece of furniture at Timberline Elementary School in Centennial.

A four-year old girl made daily visits to the library with her six-year old brother. She particularly enjoyed the reading nook, fashioned after a similar piece of furniture at Timberline Elementary School in Centennial.

We quickly made introductions as I tried to associate names with faces and positions: Birhan, Bisrat, Adom, Enda, Enzesh, Meheret, and Selam. The library assistants had at least a tenth grade education and one had an additional two years at a technical college. Each earned around 600 Birr, the equivalent of $37.50 U.S., per month with the others earning much less. Yohannes also hired three student assistants who were scheduled for ten hours per week. It is a rarity that students are hired in such jobs, but with these opportunities they gain very valuable experience and hopefully will continue on in the library profession. One of the students lives in Debri, a two-hour walk from the library. This worked well during the summer, but was impossible once school started. Fortunately, Yohannes also had a library at the school in Debri which allowed the student to work at that school library during the school week and at the Segenat on Saturday.

Birhan, a library assistant, looks over an assignment about the Dewey Decimal Classification system during a three-day training session prior to the official opening of the library.

Birhan, a library assistant, looks over an assignment about the Dewey Decimal Classification system during a three-day training session prior to the official opening of the library.

The first major step was organizing the books on the shelves. Because many of the titles were withdrawn from other libraries, they were already classified and had spine labels. Despite the fact that the students and the library assistants were working primarily in a third language and had little to no library experience, they took to this task with great enthusiasm. This gave the assistants an opportunity to slowly become familiar with the collection, to distinguish between juvenile fiction and picture stories, between fiction and non-fiction, and between general materials and reference.

Classifying the remainder of the collection would prove challenging because of limits of third language capabilities and because of the unfamiliarity of western surnames. The library also lacked electricity for the first six weeks of the training and quality basic supplies were almost nonexistent. Communication was primarily in Amharic because I speak no Tigrigna and they were reluctant to speak English once they learned we could communicate in Amharic.

The decision had already been made to classify the books in the Dewey Decimal Classification system since the majority of the books came from one U.S. public library. We used JPS (Juvenile Picture Story) and the author’s surname for the picture books, JF (Juvenile Fiction) and the author’s surname for chapter books, and J (Juvenile) and the appropriate Dewey classification number for the non-fiction. We did not have a Dewey classification manual until much later in the process so we worked from an outline I found online and a comparison of existing classified books on the shelves, essentially using the shelves as a shelflist. But even this proved challenging as the schedules were in English, and at times a very technical English. There were definitions that even I needed to verify in a dictionary on occasion.

It didn’t take long for them to differentiate between the picture books and chapter books, but western surnames was a concept that gave them headaches, and me as well. Ethiopians use a given name when naming a child, usually one that reflects a circumstance: Genet (Heaven), Tirunesh (You are good), Gebremariam (the Servant of Mary). The child takes the father’s given name as well as the grandfather’s given name for further identification. Thus a female child could be called Regat (given name) Yohannes (father’s given name) Gebresellasie (grandfather’s given name). Her brother might be called Girmay (given name) Yohannes (father’s given name) Gebresellasie (grandfather’s given name). It wasn’t sufficient to state that they should always use the last name as the surname because that didn’t take into account hyphenated surnames, or names that began with “von” or “van” or “de” or “la”, or suffixes such as PhD. There was also great confusion between authors and illustrators; size of the font was not necessarily an indicator of authorship.

The next step was to print “labels.” Although stationery stores were everywhere, they lacked many common supplies, let alone library-specific supplies. The quality of many of the supplies was also suspect: tape that stuck to itself but not much of anything else, scissors that were not sharp, and markers that dried out within days of purchase. I had brought my laptop with me and fortunately it had a good working battery, all the more essential since there was no electricity to the building. I was able to create a template for label production in Microsoft Word and the students enjoyed inputting the data, transferring it to a flash drive, and then walking it over to a business center with electricity for printing on sheets of paper. Computer viruses were rampant with all of the file sharing. I was fortunate not to have my laptop implode until two days prior to my return to the U.S. The “labels” were trimmed and adhered with the aforementioned cheap, plastic tape. The students became quite skilled at spotting typographical errors that were then redone. I had brought two very good pairs of scissors with me and discovered that soon the gardener was using them as well. I put a stop to that and purchased a cheaper pair for his use alone. Property is communal with everyone sharing pens, a ruler, a calculator, or a pair of scissors. I had the only flash drive in the building and it was difficult to refuse to share it when payroll was on the line. Until we were able to secure electricity to the building, my laptop was the only computer available for any number of projects.

Dedication Preparation

In the meantime, others were working on getting power and water to the building, planting trees, providing signs in English and Tigrigna, purchasing books in Amharic and Tigrigna, framing photos and artwork, preparing for the dedication, and planning children’s book week. Computers were purchased with a Peace Corps Partnership Grant, but not installed until electricity was run to the building, which was shortly before the dedication. Time would tell whether we would be able to network the computers and determine the feasibility of the KOHA online catalog.

Regis Librarian and native plant specialist, Jan Turner contributed funds to purchase indigenous trees to plant along the Boulevard leading to the library.  They were delivered on a horse-drawn cart.

Regis Librarian and native plant specialist, Jan Turner contributed funds to purchase indigenous trees to plant along the Boulevard leading to the library. They were delivered on a horse-drawn cart.

It's Official

The Segenat Children and Youth Library officially opened on August 20, 2010 to an audience of more than 400 well wishers and dignitaries. There was a ribbon cutting ceremony, formal speeches, a coffee ceremony, and since it was scheduled to occur during the Ashenda Festival, spontaneous dancing. The Ashenda Festival is a girl’s holiday that celebrates the end of the rainy season and the coming of the New Year (September 11). Over 3,000 copies of Yohannes’ book, Tirhas Celebrates Ashenda: An Ethiopian Girl's Festival were distributed to attendees and to Ashenda girls who visited the library. Tirhas Celebrates Ashenda was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Thomas Hooyman and was funded in part by the Cherry Creek Rotary Club in Denver, Colorado. We received great press, including Leonard Kniffel from American Libraries3 and Girmay Gebru from the Voice of America, as well as Ethiopian TV.

Yohannes Gebregeorgis is interviewed by Girmay Gebru of the Voice of America during the library dedication.

Yohannes Gebregeorgis is interviewed by Girmay Gebru of the Voice of America during the library dedication.

Day to Day Activities

Attendance soared from day one, a welcomed sign reflecting the need for the library. All new children registered upon entering the library providing their given name, father’s name, their grade in school, and the name of their school, since no one had a specific street address. Later we started collecting the name of their Kebelle (neighborhood) since some students did not go to school near their homes. This information will be instrumental in selecting the locations of further branch libraries in the future. Returning students merely checked in and confirmed their information, which was then recorded on a general tally as well as on a specific user card. Since there was no detection system, book bags were left at the registration desk and students could retain a single exercise book and a writing device. All students were physically searched before they left the library by either a female employee or a male guard. They all seemed to take this in stride, most likely because everyone is searched before going into a public or governmental building such as a post office, bank, or office.

The toilets presented a unique set of problems because the library probably had the only public toilets in the city. For whatever reason, when the water was supplied to the building, it only went as far as a standpipe near the building. The cleaners or guards needed to bring water into the building by bucket and pour the water into large barrels outside of the individual stalls. Water pitchers were provided to flush the western-style toilets. Toilet paper was not supplied, but if carried individually and used, was deposited in a trash container in the stall. Periodically the city would turn off water to an entire Kebelle for days at a time and if staff had not replenished the barrels, no one would have access to water and therefore to the toilets. We soon discovered that some of the boys were using the water for bathing and shampooing their hair, consuming the little precious water that we had. Despite the obvious need to perform such personal functions, this was not one of the services that the library could provide at that time and so the toilets were locked, but could be used with permission.

We also had many of the same problems that librarians have the world over: children mis-shelving their own books, noise levels, or the occasional writing on tables. These issues were somewhat resolved by careful placement of signs in the local language, monitoring the area, and periodic shelf reading. It was very gratifying to see the library assistants working as a team for problem solving and the children really using the library as a place to study, read, and do research.

Implementing Online Access

Following the dedication, the next major challenge was automating the library now that the library had electricity. It was time to take a deep breath and then determine the feasibility of implementing an online catalog. Although my desire to have computers in libraries in Ethiopia had been scoffed at, I wanted to prove my skeptics wrong. I was comfortable with the KOHA software, but knew that having it on a stand-alone laptop would have severe limitations. Fortunately, a Peace Corps Volunteer from a southern region volunteered to network the computer lab. The online catalog would now become a reality.

It is no surprise to those in the library profession that catalogs are labor intensive. I determined the minimum amount of data that would need to be entered into the records and drafted a set of procedures. I first had the Peace Corps Volunteers test drive my instructions to see if they were logical and understandable, made some changes, and then trained the Ethiopian staff. I debated about the worthiness to include collation information: pagination, illustrations, and dimensions when I discovered that the entire staff was sharing one lone ruler. After combing a number of stationery stores, I was able to purchase an additional ruler and decided that after all that effort we were definitely adding dimensions.

Enda Mehari enters data into the KOHA library software.

Enda Mehari enters data into the KOHA library software.

The KOHA software is easy to configure and I was able to set up templates for both bibliographic records and for item records. This included setting up material types and shelving locations. The guidance given by my Colorado colleagues in small-sized libraries was invaluable. Since books would not circulate and since patron information was kept in the local language, the circulation module did not need to be configured at this point. As noted earlier, KOHA is capable of using both Amharic and Tigrigna script, but the limited personnel resources just did not allow us to take advantage of this feature of the software.

There were two staff members who understood written English and also had keyboarding skills. We carefully worked through the procedures together. While the KOHA software has the capability of downloading cataloging records over the Internet, we didn’t have access to the Internet. All cataloging would be original, but with somewhat brief records. The fields that I felt important were ISBN, call number, author, title, collation, and subject. Most of the books had CIP and we used the Sears subject headings if they were available. If not, we would leave those fields blank and would rely on keyword searching or browsing for the books on the shelves. Since both the keyboarding and language skills were limited, I did not want inventive headings.

Once again, the issues of surnames became a challenge. Capitalization was also something very foreign to them. Words are simply not capitalized in either Tigrigna or Amharic. Names were frequently entered into the database in lower case and other words in upper case. Many children’s books have elaborate fonts and flourishes which gave way to some creative spelling. An uppercase “I” (eye) and lower case “l” (el) were frequently switched. Similar words such as “plants” and “planets” were often confused. Correcting every single error would have been demoralizing for the library assistants, so I focused on those that affected searching. I would work with each individually so that each could identify her own errors and make corrections. I then asked them to check each other. Most errors diminished under this procedure.

The KOHA software has a professional looking web interface. It was easy to teach all of the library assistants how to search the catalog and quickly the students also picked up searching techniques as well. I placed one computer at the reference desk and a second at the registration desk. These also became the two primary computers for inputting cataloging records. The KOHA server was also placed at the registration desk limiting access to staff only. Access to the online catalog came primarily through the use of computers in the PC lab.

At the time I left, we had entered bibliographic data for 3,000 items and “barcoded” 4,500 of the 20,000 volumes in the collection. Actual barcodes were not available, and upon the recommendation of one of my colleagues from Colorado, we wrote a simple number in the upper left hand corner of the front endpaper in a black permanent marker. This number was sequentially generated by the KOHA software. Simple and efficient.

The need for an online catalog became apparent as students began asking more and more sophisticated reference questions: “What is the big bang theory?” “Can you help me identify different trees of the world?” Not surprisingly, maps and atlases were also frequently requested items as the students explored the depths of the oceans, country flags, major languages or population statistics. With this type of question in mind, we began our cataloging project for both the reference collection and the non-fiction sections.

Besides providing access to the local holdings, an online catalog will also prepare students for libraries at the university level. Addis Ababa University (AAU) uses the KOHA open source software and has had an aggressive retrospective conversion project for the past few years. The University of Mekelle uses ABCD, a software suite for the automation of libraries and documentation centers. A professional catalog and other strides made in automation will now enable the Segenat to apply for future technology grants.

The greatest change that I witnessed in Ethiopia from my first visit in the 1970s to these subsequent visits was the high use of cell phone and mobile technology. I purchased a CDMA, a mobile device that connected me to the Internet and connected me to the world. It was very expensive to purchase ($200.00 U.S.) and relatively expensive to maintain on Ethiopian salaries. A 100 Birr mobile card ($6.50 U.S.) would last about 12 to 15 hours with careful use. But it gave me great flexibility by allowing access to the Internet and email from home, office, or anywhere that I travelled. With the intent that I would donate the CDMA to the library when I left, we configured the library network to utilize the CDMA. I trained an assistant on email so that she could forward to me needed statistics for future fundraising. The IT manager included Internet in the Introduction to Computers course and the Segenat is determining the best way to use the minutes for Internet applications.


With books on the shelves, a highly automated environment, and a multitude of student visits, it was time to focus on a range of library programs for children. The reading nook was popular with the preschoolers who attended story hours and puppet show presentations, made more professional with the intensive training prior to the library opening. Jigsaw puzzles presented an interesting challenge since the library assistants had never put together this type of puzzle before, but the children picked up the skill with ease with a simple demonstration. Other activities included the use of local materials such as corn husks and eggshells. Corn husks were in great supply and used for corn husk dolls, much to the delight of both boys and girls.

Once we had electricity and the computer lab became networked, the Segenat was able to offer an Introduction to Computer classes. Two separate sessions were conducted, one taught by a volunteer from the Mekelle Youth Center. In addition, the Segenat offered other programs: a Science Club, mentored by a retired school teacher of 30 years; an art club mentored by a local artist; and a homework club monitored by older students. Signup sheets and waiting lists filled quickly. Two Ethiopian-American authors, Dinaw Mengestu and Maaza Mengiste, donated copies of their books, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears and Beneath the Lion's Gaze for the Book Club. Local authors donated copies of their books for the Book Club as well.

New and returning users were tracked daily with the male/female ratio almost two to one. This is not surprising since girls had much more responsibility at home. Attendance on Saturday was also high, due in part to the showing of free videos on Saturday morning. But the video program only accounted for about twenty to thirty percent of the overall attendance on Saturday. Many of the schools did not have Saturday classes and students heavily used the library for studying. An Ethiopian Television reporter was advised by her son, a frequent library user, to report on the new library. Two fifteen-minute segments were aired nationally on ETV and the next Saturday, the Segenat had a record number of 765 attendees with 1,015 the following Saturday. This upsurge in attendance led to some creative thinking about crowd control. The staff brought out folding chairs and limited entrance to the library based on available seating.

Students filled every chair on a daily basis.

Students filled every chair on a daily basis.

The Future

What does the future bring for the library? Fundraising is a high priority since the library is privately supported. There will be great efforts made in Ethiopia, the United States, and Sweden, (which has a large Ethiopian population), to raise the necessary funds. The city of Mekelle has offered the library three additional sites for future branches. Based on fundraising and demographics, a site will be chosen that best meets the needs of the children in Mekelle and relieves some of the demand on the Segenat library. We suspect, however, that more branch libraries will likely just increase the overall attendance. Sunday hours are under consideration, should additional funds become available. Extending daytime hours beyond the six o’clock closure is unlikely because of concerns for the safety of the staff who would travel great distances in the dark. There are next-to-no streetlights, side roads are tricky during the rainy season, public transportation is limited, and hyenas do present a real threat. Challenges such as these call for creative solutions, compelling vision, and the collaboration of many around the world.

Once again, I know I can count on the efforts and support of Colorado librarians and other members of the Colorado community. A current Peace Corps Volunteer from Denver and I are working on a library project in the city of Finote Selam in which he is assigned, in the northern region of Gojam. I am also in touch with first year Peace Corps Volunteers from Fort Collins. According to the latest data, the University of Colorado at Boulder tops the list of providing graduates to join the Peace Corps leading to potential allies in the near future.4 I will continue to be a frequent contributor to The Herald5, the online journal of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Finally, during my stay, I was introduced to a group of Ethiopian businessmen from Denver who built the school at the top of that wind-blown mountain. They have proven to be an invaluable resource upon my return to Colorado. I also hope to search out some Mexican supermarkets to locate the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.

Leonard Kniffel described the Segenat as a “New Youth Library Makes Impossible Dream Reality.” With passion, dedication, and hard work we can make the impossible possible, and the ordinary extraordinary. Readers may keep up to date on the progress of the Segenat Children and Youth Library at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Segenat-Children-and-Youth-Library/161388783881687


1. Championing Children: Yohannes Gebregeorgis, 2008 CNN Heroes Archive, http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cnn.heroes/archive/yohannes.gebregeorgis.html

2. "Local Librarian Establishes Children's Library In Ethiopia.” ABC 7 News Channel, Denverchannel.com (December 29, 2010), http://www.thedenverchannel.com/video/26253073/index.html

3. Kniffel, Leonard. “New Youth Library in Ethiopia Makes Impossible Dream a Reality.” American Libraries (August 23, 2010), http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/news/08232010/new-youth-library-ethiopia-makes-impossible-dream-reality

4. Peace Corps Announces 2011 Annual College Rankings, Peace Corps, http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.media.press.view&news_id=1701

5. The Herald: News for Those Who Served in the Peace Corps in Eritrea and Ethiopia, http://eandeherald.com/