“I’m going to Tonga. You in?” This is how I was invited on my first international library adventure. Eric Bemiller had been telling me about a Tongan library project for a few weeks, but he was not sure he would be able to go to Tonga. His text came Thursday, June 27, 2013. I said yes June 29, and we were flying to Tonga on Sunday, July 21. In those three weeks we would learn the genesis of the Northern Lights Library and write our goals for the mission, in the month following we accomplished those goals and laid the librarianship foundation for the first public library in the Kingdom of Tonga, and in the year since we have continued to support Kato Havea, a Tongan native and the heart and founder of Northern Lights Library, in her efforts.
Tonga and Samoa were devastated by a tsunami in September 2009 while Kato was living in Alaska. After five anxious days, she finally connected with a young cousin in Ha’apai, Tonga who assured her the whole family was safe despite losing their home and all of their possessions. Then that eleven year old boy, whose connection to his far off cousin was the bookshelf she kept stocked, asked a question that would change Kato’s life. He said, “Our books are gone. Can you send more books?” That afternoon Kato picked up four children’s books and returned to her office. Staring at those books she decided she would not just replace her cousin’s library, she would build a library for all of the children of Tonga. Books had opened the world to her and she wanted to “Provid[e] the children of Tonga an opportunity to explore the world through books.” (Northern Lights Library vision statement)
Spring 2013 was time to ship the donations, approximately 50,000 books and serials, from Alaska to Tonga. Through Operation Handclasp, a United States Navy Pacific partnership, Kato was able to send the books to Tonga on a navy vessel. Other organizations and NGOs were part of Operation Handclasp including Project HOPE, a medical NGO. When the ship arrived in Tonga, Project Hope’s Dr. Lynn Bemiller volunteered to assist with the Northern Lights Library project in her spare time. She asked her son, Eric, for direction in sorting the books, and, when she learned there was no librarian to continue the project, she offered to ask Eric to travel to Tonga to help. The community would host Eric and me, and we would go as Project HOPE volunteers so as to travel under an established nonprofit.
Preparation for the trip included conversations with Kato to understand her and the community’s vision as well as conversations with Janet Lee who helped us focus our goals and set realistic expectations. We arrived at the Princess Kaimana Northern Lights Library in Havelu, Tonga with three goals for our month: weed, organize, and classify the donated books; figure out day-to-day library operations; and organize a library committee. Two weeks after walking into the library we had touched every item in the library, weeded 10-15% of the items, and organized every book by type – children’s, adult fiction, adult nonfiction, reference, and textbooks. Three days before we flew home we had classified every book using a borrowed print Dewey from 1972. Interviews with community leaders and the chosen librarian helped me write collection development and library management policies for the Princess Kaimana Library. We designed library shelving and the layout for the library and trained and encouraged the librarians in basic librarianship. Our final goal was modified when we realized that the concept of committees was too western. We changed our focus to ensuring that the library had stakeholders by reaching out to the community and finding interested parties. Throughout the month we worked closely with Lady Tuna and Vika, two community leaders and members of the local government. We met parents and community members who wanted the library and saw its value to the community. Finally, we met a retired school librarian volunteering in the local high school who was willing to introduce the librarians to the school librarian community and assist with the Princess Kaimana Library. In 19 working days we accomplished every goal and laid the framework for the Northern Lights Libraries in Tonga.
Libraries are so deeply engrained in American and western culture they can be taken for granted, so for me being in Havelu for a month was inspiring. The people of Tonga have libraries, but only small collections in their schools. A public library will allow children more access to reading material, laborers access to philosophy, and the community to medical and health care materials. A year after we committed to this project Eric and I had the opportunity to present at ALA and draw more attention to Northern Lights Library. We are continuing to support Kato in her efforts as she works to establish Northern Lights Library as a nonprofit so she can complete her first two libraries, Princess Kaimana and a yet to be named library in Ha’apai near her cousin, the inspiration for this whole project.