8,000 miles from home. No access to a public library. And desperately in need of a good read. It’s an easy fix for Sarah Davis, a graduate student from Jacksonville, Florida, studying at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. With Jacksonville Public Library’s digital collections—even across the world—she enjoys 24/7 access to e-books and databases simply by logging onto her account from her iPhone and iPad.
Kenya’s public libraries—largely reserved for citizens and long-term residents—aren’t an option for the 24-year-old student, who uses the JPL digital library regularly not only for pleasure reading, but also to access a variety of research and teaching materials for her work in special education. As an intern and volunteer for the nonprofit Girl Child Network, an initiative that promotes access to and quality education for girls in Kenya, Sarah is continually in search of resources to share with students.
“I use my library card to check out e-books all the time, whether it’s novels to read while I’m on the bus, or even children’s books to share with some of the students who I teach as I’m doing my research for my master’s program,” she said. "So I just log into the JPL website and I’m able to access academic content from around the world that adds a lot of depth to my thesis research.”
Sarah’s decision to follow her dream to Kenya began when she was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. She had an opportunity to spend a summer in Kenya working with people with intellectual disabilities—a pivotal experience that sparked her interest in “seeing what special education services would look like in a different context.” After graduating and receiving a Rotary Global Grant Scholarship, she returned to Kenya to pursue her master’s in special education.
Volunteering in classrooms in Kenyan schools, Sarah quickly got “connected” with Girl Child Network, an initiative that was partnering with Save the Children on various projects to identify and remove barriers, and train teachers to better support children with disabilities. Sarah is thrilled the organization is taking part in a curriculum review process to prioritize reading in schools through a new curriculum, and is equally enthusiastic about a new literacy initiative that was recently launched.
“Every elementary classroom in the country will be equipped basically with a giant hard drive that will have over 1,000 books on it, and students will have access to tablets to download those books,” Sarah explained. “We’re really excited for what that means. Rural schools don’t generally have access to a lot of books so we’re really hopeful that as more digital titles become available, that will improve children’s access to a wide variety of books.”
Along with valuing their education, Sarah has seen first-hand how much importance Kenyan students place on reading materials. With rural schools situated far from their homes, she said students often resort to sleeping on classroom floors at night to make sure they’re back at school the next day. She’s also learned a lot from observing teachers who, with very limited resources create effective and engaging lessons for their students.
“When I was younger, I really fell in love with reading and saw for the first time that even if I was sitting in Jacksonville I could experience things from around the world, and meet people that I might never run into at school or at church or in my neighborhood,”
As for Sarah’s own relationship with reading, she said, “Books have always been important to me.” She got her first library card as a first grader, and visited her neighborhood San Marco Branch Library weekly after school, and multiple times a week during the summer. She was a big fan of Nancy Drew books, and as she got older, she visited the Main Library for academic books to help with her studies.
Reading provided Sarah a door to another world, exposure to other cultures, and a chance to experience new ideas. “When I was younger, I really fell in love with reading and saw for the first time that even if I was sitting in Jacksonville I could experience things from around the world, and meet people that I might never run into at school or at church or in my neighborhood,” she said.
Some of Sarah’s favorite e-reads lately include Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. Sarah read several Kenyan novels in the library’s digital collection even before she moved to Kenya to get a better idea about life there. She particularly likes author Binyavanga Wainaina. She prefers her poetry in physical book format, and made a visit to the library first thing when in Jacksonville over Christmas break to grab a book by her favorite poet, Mary Oliver.
Jacksonville Public Library has been a big part of Sarah’s life, but it was surprising even to her that she’d appreciate it even more today—and so far from home.
“I don’t think I realized what a unique resource it was or that it was something I’d continue using in my adult life even after I’ve left Jacksonville,” said Sarah. “The Jacksonville Public Library has added so much value to my life in so many domains—my professional life as a teacher, my life as a student doing research, and just my personal life in having access to beautiful novels and poetry from around the world ... I love the Jacksonville Public Library!”