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Vashalice Kaaba

We often talk about leading library services from within libraries. But what do you do if you want to provide library services and don’t have the luxury of four walls? On this show Vashalice Kaaba, PhD Candidate of Information Studies at Florida State University, talks about spreading literacy, no walls needed. She was inspired by work she did in the Peace Corps in Uganda spreading literacy and saw similar needs in the U.S., so developed a project called “Library in a Box” that addresses the pressing issue of literacy access in underserved communities.

Support for the Uganda Wanyange Primary School Community Library Project can be provided at

Vashalice Kaaba’s recommended library leadership book: The Experimental Library


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Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

This is Adriane Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights in the profession. 

We often talk about leading library services from within libraries. But what do you do if you want to provide library services and don’t have the luxury of four walls? On this show, Vashalice Kaaba, PhD Candidate of Information Studies at Florida State University, talks about spreading literacy. No walls needed. She was inspired by work she did in the Peace Corps in Uganda, spreading literacy and saw similar needs in the US—so developed a project called Library in a Box that addresses the pressing issue of literacy access in underserved communities. Enjoy the show! 

Vashalice, welcome to the show.

Vashalice Kaaba:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s really nice to be here.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: It’s a really nice to have you here. Today we are talking about spreading literacy. No walls needed. This is something that is part of the Library in a Box project that you developed to address the pressing issue of literacy access within underserved communities. Will you please tell us about this?  01:39 

Vashalice Kaaba:

Absolutely. So, the Library in a Box initiative or project, depending on how you want to call it, is something that I came up with. It initially started when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, Africa from 2015 to 2017. 

At the school I was an elementary teacher, and also English teacher, and also the community librarian there. We noticed that we simply did not have enough books. The library did not exist at the time when I was there. It was essentially just a shed where they kept books. So, it grew out of that need. We ended up doing a community building grant that ended up building their first library there. We’ve just been keeping that going. Then that further extended into all the work that I do with literacy, libraries, and keeping that same love for that, and bringing it into Library in a Box

Pulling that as inspiration and spreading literacy and library access in places where simply they just don’t have access to it, or don’t have enough access to library services. So, that’s how that ended up coming about.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2:  That’s important work. And, you’ve developed an innovative approach to dealing with this. What was the creative process that gave birth to the Library in a Box concept?  03:13 

Vashalice Kaaba:

Pulling back from my time there, I was just sitting at my desk—work desk here at home one day, and I thought there are so many places here in the the global South, which comprises usually sub-Saharan Africa, different countries in South America, and can also comprise certain places here in North America as well, too. But thinking of those places, and also a lot of rural communities here in the United States, I thought to myself, if there is a place that does not have access to libraries in general, or does not have enough library access, or library services to provide their information needs, how would they get this information? That was the question that started my research. I wanted to make a way for everybody to get access to library services. 

That’s when the concept of Library in a Box came, which is essentially a physical box where everything that’s in that box. You can essentially start your own community library. And, it doesn’t require you to have a Master’s in Library Science or a PhD, or anything like that because my first official introduction into working within librarianship, I was simply just the community librarian for the school. I didn’t have a degree or anything like that in librarianship. So, just from my experiences of teaching myself—self-taught librarianship, grassroots librarianship is what I really champion with Library in a Box

Within that box is everything from books, curriculum guides, an e-reader—just basically anything that you can use to create your own community library. It’s pretty low cost. I did not want to make it super expensive or anything like that, and I do want it to be so that other libraries in other communities can replicate. So, you would take this box, create your own library. That can look like a traditional library, like bolstering services that are already available. It can literally be like a community library that started out of someone’s house. However, you need your library to meet the needs of our community, Library in a Box is malleable enough to where it can meet those needs, and help you provide those services.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3:  Grassroots efforts can be essential to providing resources to areas where getting into the physical library itself can be difficult. How does the Library in a Box concept dismantle barriers obstructing library access and promote diversity?  05:40 

Vashalice Kaaba:

Well, it essentially meets the community where they are. When I talk about barriers, I always talk about my life growing up, going to our library, my home library. I lived at our home library. Love it—shout out to Bruton Memorial Library in Plant City, Florida. That’s my home library. Love it. 

I would check out books by the bags, and the main reason I was able to spend so much time, and essentially grow up in that library, is simply because my mother had a car. If my mother did not have a car, where we lived, which is very rural, in rural Florida—Bealsville, Florida/Plant City, Florida—there’s no public transportation there. So, if my mom did not have a car, there’s no way I can go to the library every weekday, or every weekend, or  have access to those services. 

I wanted to make it so that people who did not grow up privileged in that way, the same way that I did with having access to reliable transportation, or just having librarians, or having a library with multiple librarians who were able to help five-year-old or six-year-old Vashalice go through the stacks and it not take away from the other patrons.

I want everybody to have that feeling of going to the library and knowing that their needs will be met and that they feel seen, and they feel loved, and they feel heard when they go there. 

Even when I go back now, a lot of the librarians that I grew up with—one in particular, she’s the executive director of the library now. She gave me my first library card—all of that. I want people to have those experiences. So, Library in a Box provides that in areas where traditional librarianship, or librarianship as we see it in the west, may not exist or simply may not work depending on where you are. 

Where I was in Uganda, libraries—how we think of them here wouldn’t really work in that concept. So, we had to be very creative as far as how we created the community library. It started out as a school library, but quickly grew into the community library because the school was the hub of the town, of the village—it was the hub. It started for the school,  then it branched out in the communities and we started, of course, with programming for the students, but then it turned into programming for the entire community. Everything from helping people learn how to type, how to create resumes, giving them a safe place to study for exams. All of that was made possible simply because a library was there. It gave them a third place, outside of school and working in their homes. 

And, that’s very important, because you see the disappearance of third places. Libraries, I mean, are great as far as filling that void, because they are a third space and a viable third space. So, I say all that to say Library in a Box creates that in places where you don’t have your brick and mortar libraries, or you have a building or something, but there are no librarians there. How do I become a librarian? How do I become a community librarian when there’s no one here to show me what to do? That’s what Library in a Box provides— everything from an easy to understand curriculum, to guides, ideas, low to no cost programming ideas. I want this to be as incredibly affordable as possible so it can be replicated in multiple areas.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4:  So, what does a Library in a Box look like?  09:26 

Vashalice Kaaba: 

It will look like…I forgot the name of the box, but it’s almost like a box that opens up. I don’t know if you’re aware of Insomnia Cookies? The boxes that they use—Insomnia Cookies, they deliver cookies until 3 a.m. Wonderful company. Love them. [laughter] But the boxes that they have, they open up—they almost look like laptops, the way the boxes look. So, those type of boxes. 

Within that box you’ll have all the materials you need to get started. Everything from: here’s a guide; here’s some facts; here’s possibly some books; here’s an e-reader. Here are all these things to get you started. That is going to be our first iteration of it. The goal eventually is to scale up the boxes—improve, or rather, they do more than just do the initial creation of the community library. 

They continue to meet you where you are. So, you have no library, no access to library services—we have a box for that. If you have a rule, where they may not have all the—they have some services, but they don’t have others. We have a box for that. If you’re in an area similar to Florida, where I am, where there is a lot of censorship going on, things of that nature, and certain books that you want to get access to are not available because of that. There’s a box for that. You can have full autonomy of how you set it up for your community, and that falls into meeting a community where they are, and what they’re at. 

I’m a big proponent when it comes to information, that information should be available and free for everybody. However your community wants to cultivate that, that’s on you and your community. It’s free for everybody to make it malleable for where they are, and what their community needs are to circumvent that. 

That’s what it’ll look like. It’ll literally look like a box. And, then as we go forward, as far as research, gaining research funding, things of that nature I have a couple ideas of what I want the final iteration to look like, but as of now, I’m keeping that under wraps because we are doing a lot of great work to get that off the ground and get that secure. But that’s essentially what it will be.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: Thank you so much for painting that picture. I can now see it in my mind’s eye and imagine the good it’s going to do when someone opens that box. What are the ways that librarians can scale or replicate these efforts in various community settings?  11:46 

Vashalice Kaaba:

The way that I’m envisioning—scaling as of right now is buttressing the library services that may, or may not already be available. As far as scaling, different iterations of the box, for example, it’s having a box that’s tailored for children—children’s literature, things of that nature, because that’s one of my core research interests. That’s what my dissertation is on, black children’s literature, so having a box that caters to that. Having a box that caters to adults and their needs, as far as library services are concerned. Going linear as of right now, versus going up as far as different iterations are concerned. The way libraries can use Library in a Box is almost similar to like the bookmobiles, if that makes any sense? 

Standing on that legacy of the freedom libraries and things of that nature that were prevalent back in the ’60s because of segregation, Jim Crow segregation in the South, in the United States. It being that, as we know, to run and maintain and operate a mobile library can be very expensive, especially if like in my community, for example, we used to have a mobile library that would come out, but because it was so expensive to come out and because people would come, or either people didn’t really know about it, or we had people that would love to have it—just right at their doorstep. They bring it out for special occasions, because it can be really pricey, so it can be scaled for that. 

In areas of services where you would have a bookmobile, you can have Library in a Box instead where you can create boxes, or you can create packets or things of that nature so people can have access to library services, access to books, all of these things without having to break the bank. Like, we have to go gas up the mobile and bring it out, then we have to have the librarian there. They have to also moonlight as community engagement and all of that. It cuts the middleman out for all of that, and that’s how I personally envision libraries using it, using it either in tandem with the bookmobile, or using it in place of a bookmobile as far as scaling is concerned.

To be very transparent with Library in a Box, we are still in the development stage. A lot of ways as far as scaling, and funding, and things of that nature we are still in the process of building that out a bit. One of the things that we’re currently working on now is just really getting a good framework together as far as curriculum is concerned. Again, I have a couple things that I want to keep under wraps, but as far as training future librarians—people who may not have that direct path to librarianship, or may not even know that that’s a viable career path, we want to introduce that to them, and then create more community librarians—staying on that mantra that anybody can be a librarian. You don’t have to have a master’s degree. You don’t have to have a PhD. Anybody can be a librarian. Really just giving people the support that they need, and the knowledge and the information that they need to go forth and carry out that work. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6:  I don’t think we can emphasize enough that sometimes there aren’t walls, even walls of a bookmobile. And, that’s why spreading literacy with no walls needed is so important. What recommendations would you give to librarians as they first jump in to spreading literacy with no walls?  15:24 

Vashalice Kaaba:

One way they can definitely do that is through internet access and community outreach. I’m always going to be a fan of libraries who have that strong community outreach. You know your community, you know your patrons. A lot of the work that you do becomes a heck of a lot easier because you know your demographic. You know your people. 

I know for me to get that buy-in, as far as a library, or making sure that the community had input of the library, I literally went out into my community and literally went door-to-door and told people about our library. Now, in that particular setting, that made sense because it was literally almost like a village, if that makes any sense. It was really easy to circle the block and go and see everybody, and everybody knows me because all of the community’s kids went to school. I was everybody’s teacher. They saw me walking around. So, I already had that buy-in by way of me being a Peace Corps volunteer. I just really strengthened that and made sure that the community knew who I was. 

We would share meals, we would eat, we would hang out. I would always be at the library so they knew who I was, so when I came to them with an idea, or This is some programming we want to do we would love to have you come out. People got to know me and immediately when I said, We’re doing this program. People were like, Okay, we’re coming. They would immediately show up and it would be like an event. There’s nothing to do on a Saturday night, the library is having an event. Let’s go. Everybody would come. 

That’s one way I suggest—really get into your communities. A library is only as good as this community engagement, in my personal opinion, because if you don’t have the patrons, you don’t have the library. It becomes just a storage place for books and computers and things of that nature—so definitely community outreach. 

As far as spreading the word—partnerships are really incredibly helpful as well, too. I know for me, the way that I learned about the library was through partnerships with my school where the librarians will come out every year. I’ll never forget because they will come out every year, talk about how awesome the library was and bring applications for us to take to our parents to sign up for library cards and things of that nature. They would always come out. So, building strong partnerships. If your library either doesn’t have the manpower, or women power, or anybody power to come out and do that community engagement, get with partners who are already based in the community, so that link of work you don’t necessarily have to do because you already have that built in. 

For example in our community, one event that we did that was incredibly successful was called Barbers and Books. It is a program that’s done quite a bit here, just in the United States, but more so in barbers and salons where the children would come in and they would read to the barbers as payment for getting their haircut, or getting their hair braided, or things like that. 

We built that partnership out so when the kids go get their haircut, or anything like that the barbers will be like, Hey, what are you reading? What’s going on? Or if we wanted to do an event and get the word out, we would take flyers and we would put the word-of-mouth out to the barbers, or the people, or the salon owners, things like that. 

So again, very much grassroots, but everybody passes through there because as is the custom for the children in Uganda, they cut their hair really short—boys and girls. All of them had to go to the local barbers. They had to see them. When the parents bring their kids there, they’ll be like, Hey, did you know? Teacher V is what they will call me because they couldn’t pronounce the Vashalice. Everybody called me Teacher V. They’ll be like, Yeah, Teacher V is having an event this Saturday. We were going to go out and see what’s going on.You should come and bring the kids. 

That’s how we did it. We partnered with our store keeps. We partnered with our barbers. We partnered with our salon owners. We had workshops for adults. We were really big on partnerships. And, it wasn’t just in our community, we also partnered with different organizations in the different regions of Uganda as well, too. In central Uganda, northern Uganda, southeastern Uganda. We have big events where we would all come together. We would all load up and go and meet them at a school, or meet them at an organization, or a place, or we would do hybrid—hybrid events, or letter writing campaigns because, internet was very expensive at the time, so we didn’t have that type of capability. We had to get really creative. We would film some of the events. We would burn them on DVDs and pass them around. We got incredibly creative with how we got the word out and how we partnered with other people. 

Definitely community engagement, and building partnerships for when you don’t necessarily have that power to just go out into the community because of the responsibilities that you, of course, have as a librarian. So, that’s one of the two of the ways I would suggest. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7:  Vashalice, I love that, that community engagement, that outreach and getting out there and spreading the word. And, I love the idea of having kids at the barber shop with books, I mean, can anything be better? It’s just so wonderful. Is there anything else you would like to share?   20:49 

Vashalice Kaaba:

Two things, first of all I really, really just want to drive home—anybody can be a librarian. I did not want this project, or this research project, which again, is very much—it’s heavily based in academia right now because we want to make sure that the research groundwork that we lay out is very strong—meaning it’s something that other communities, other countries, other people can replicate. I don’t want it to be in a silo where I’m the only person who can do this type deal. I want it to be that everybody can do this, but if you need assistance, if you need help, sure, feel free to come to me for assistance and consulting and things of that nature. But, we’re very much heavily based in research, currently, right now. But, with that being said, I don’t ever want it to be said that this is not for everybody—for all the people, like any and everybody can be a librarian. I want to do that. 

Then I also want to really embrace and really promote that false culturalshipness when it comes to libraries. For example, the library that I—they still consider me their community librarian in Uganda, so I never stopped being their librarian. Then I connected them with one of our museums in my hometown, Bealsville, Florida. We have a historical site, Glover Elementary School, which also doubles as a Black History Museum of Florida. We’re in the process of doing partnerships with the two schools—so having that meeting of community. 

I would encourage libraries—if they either have programs like that, or even want to create programs like that, do sister libraries where you link up with libraries that may, or may not be, from anywhere in your state, even in your country. It’s easier than you would think to get something started like that. It can literally be as easy as a letter writing campaign, or having one person that knows a librarian that is in a different country than you. Having those kinds of exchanges are really impactful. There are definitely organizations within our field that support that international, that global librarianship. 

I really want people to lean into that because this is literally how Library in a Box was born—from the experiences, and the library services, or lack thereof. Giving the situation that I saw here in the States and how they almost mirrored each other when I went 8000 miles elsewhere. I really want to encourage libraries to start programs like that where you have those cross-cultural experiences.Then also just a shameless plug talking about the library that I still am considered the community librarian in. We are in the process of doing a little bit of refurbishing. So, we are doing a bit of fundraising, doing some refurbishing for the library.

Unfortunately Covid, heavy rains, and a termite infestation, of all things, came and knocked out half of the book supply that we had. It’s been really rough for the school to get the library back to where it was when I left, only because the funds that they set aside to continuously maintain upkeep of the library—when Covid happened, all of those funds went into supporting the community, supporting the students, making sure that everybody had everything they needed, making sure that the school was like a vaccination site.  Any extra nickel, penny or dime that they had, it poured into that, and it’s been incredibly difficult for them to bounce back from that. It’s difficult for us here in the States. You can imagine what that looks like in an underserved community as well, what that looks like. 

We are in the process of fundraising so we can get funds together. We go back and continue with that work and help them get back to square one again, and go from there. We are doing that, and I will give you the link for that as well. If you kindly don’t mind, sharing that out, that’s a great way to build that cross-cultural thing supporting libraries, and everybody coming together to make sure all libraries, regardless of where they are around the world, have that support. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8:  If there’s anyone who wants to support those efforts in Uganda, what would they do?  25:36 

Vashalice Kaaba:

The project that we’re doing, it is working with a non-profit organization called Hearts 4  Community Action. They were the ones, and Peace Corps who partnered with me to write the initial capital building grant that took one of the older buildings that were on campus where we were able to get the electricity, internet, all of that—totally trick it out and make it look amazing. We added desks, all of that—where it was very much welcoming for the teachers, the community, and the children that went to the school. 

Hearts 4 Community Action has been really wanting us to get back to that work. Again, the name of the campaign is Help Us Rebuild the Library. The name of the school is Wanyange Elementary Primary School. We are in the process of building them a library. We also have an Amazon link as well, where you can purchase books so we can replace the ones that were unfortunately eaten by termites. We can replace those books. We can have enough money to where we can buy binding to where rains, pests, things like that can’t get in it and ruin the books—just really bringing the library back to where it was. Essentially that’s the name of the campaign. Help Us Rebuild the Library.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9:  Thank you for giving our listeners the opportunity to be part of that work. Vashalice, do you have any favorite management or leadership books or resources, and why?  26:59 

Vashalice Kaaba:

I actually have one that I’ve been reading pretty heavily. I don’t know if you can see it or not. I don’t know if it’s backwards or flipped backwards, but the name of the book is called The Experimental Library, by Cathryn M. Cooper. It’s a guide to taking risks, failing forward, and creating change within the library space. This book has essentially been my Bible when it comes to that whole framework. One of the main frameworks that I use when it comes to developing the curriculum of Library in a Box, because it very much leans on  being experimental and using failure—not as a, gosh darn moment we didn’t get this right to, okay, we failed, what can we pick out of this from this “failure” as far as doing this type of research? Then taking a startup approach to how we do framework within libraries. 

I’ve been reading that quite a bit, to the point where I hope the library copy from our FSU library—I hope it makes it back in one piece because I’ve been taking it everywhere [laughter] with me. I’ve been trying to be very diligent about making sure it goes back where it came from, in the same manner that it left, but I’ve been very much flipping through it and reading through it. It’s just really good as far as bringing in that experimental feel to libraries, because as it mentioned in the book librarianship at times can be set in its ways as far as the business of librarianship in general is done. This one is very much an advocate for shaking that up, and having really big and bold ideas, and just running with it, and experimenting, and doing all these things. I’ve really been loving that book very much.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #10:   Thank you. In closing, what do libraries mean to you personally?  29:00 

Vashalice Kaaba:

Libraries to me means I have a place where I can be me, and I belong in that place. Our local public library, Leon County Public Library, is here. Then also my home library at Florida State University, FSU Libraries—that place, that feeling of belonging and of course, having that support, like every single librarian that I’ve come across, whether it’s academic librarians, when I do my research work, and my graduate assistantship work, which is like a dream come true. Nothing makes me happier than being a graduate assistant at FSU libraries. 

When I go to Leon County’s Public Library, I always feel welcomed. I always feel loved and supported. Just having that space of belonging and just keeping that feeling of when I was a little girl going to the library. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have that through line go throughout—my public home library all the way up here in Tallahassee, Florida that’s what libraries mean to me, a place of support, love and belonging. I owe a great debt to libraries and librarianship as a whole, which is why I am in the profession, and why I am doing this work, because I want to give back to librarianship everything that is given to me.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #11: The support, love and belonging you’re talking about are so important to all of us through libraries, and often harder to get in underserved communities. The work you are doing spreading literacy with no walls needed through the Library in a Box program, expands the access and availability people have to that. So, thank you so much for your work and for being on the show to talk about this.  30:27 

Vashalice Kaaba:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes, tune in to Library Leadership, where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right to your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time. 

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership podcast or our sponsors.