Insights and Analysis

5 Lessons on How to Build a Digital Library Program

September 6, 2016

By Wendy Rockett

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day and a half century later there’s much to celebrate. However, one of the persistent problems faced by schools in developing countries still today is a lack of one of the most essential ingredients to encourage reading: engaging children’s books to build literacy from an early age.

In November 2015, The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia launched Let’s Read! Asia, an initiative to stimulate reading and address the critical shortage of children’s books with the Library For All digital library. The project, which features digitized versions of high-quality children’s books in local languages and English, is currently being piloted in five underserved schools in Cambodia and six in Mongolia. Each school library is equipped with Android tablets that feature all of the books from the library collection.

As the Sustainable Development Goal’s shift from universal primary education to quality education, educators around the world are consumed with the question of how to spark and retain students’ interest in learning. Strategic use of technology can help with this. Here are five things we’ve learned 10 months into the Let’s Read! project.

Content is king. A digital library is only worth as much as the quality of its books. As with brick-and-mortar libraries, the material you’re offering has to be attractive and relevant to keep people coming through the door, so to speak. Not only is the quality of the content important, the quality of the file itself can have a big impact. While books that render beautifully tend to be popular, books that were scanned at low resolution, render poorly on the screen, and as a result, are not read as frequently.

Of course, a fresh infusion of new content on a regular basis is important to keep usage up. Our analysis found that every time a batch of books is added to Library For All, there is a spike in reading activity.

Cambodia books

Examples of books available in the Cambodia library

Examples of popular Mongolian children's books.

Examples of popular Mongolian children’s books.

Technology can affect offline behavior, as well. Data from the Library For All platform show that books have been read nearly 15,000 times on the Cambodia digital library between November 2015 and June 2016, and more than 9,000 times in Mongolia from February through June 2016. Mongolian students spent more than 1,200 hours reading in this time period, while students in Cambodia spent a total of more than 1,700 hours.

Teachers and librarians in the Cambodia and Mongolia schools have observed increased use of the school library where the tablets are housed since the start of the project, indicating that the program has piqued general interest in reading. This is supported by results from a perception survey of participating students at the beginning and middle of the projects (results from the end of the first-year project period are forthcoming), which show an upward trajectory in attitudes toward reading. In contrast, students in a comparable Cambodian school that did not take part in the Let’s Read! program but who answered the same survey did not exhibit a positive trend in attitudes toward reading.

Furthermore, the survey results indicate that exposure to the digital library has led students to prefer reading both print and electronic books rather than exclusively one or the other. When asked which format they enjoyed reading the most – print books, e-books, or both – halfway through the project, 67 percent of Mongolian students and 69 percent of Cambodia students said both, up 14 and 6 percent, respectively, from the beginning of the project.

Complementary reading programs are important. While these early results are encouraging, the novelty of reading on tablets may be a factor in the students’ interest. Supplemental reading programs instituted by the schools as part of the project play an important role in ensuring that sustained and meaningful reading takes place, even after the initial technology high wears off.

In Cambodia, schools participating in Let’s Read! were required to institute one-hour weekly reading sessions in the library. Most of the schools did not previously have class time set aside for free reading so this is in itself a significant shift in school culture. During the library visits, students can choose to read print books or e-books, in effect exposing them to a variety of reading material and formats, and instilling regular reading habits. Reading contests and spelling bees brought reading to the forefront of school life and, in a number of schools, students formed book clubs on their own volition, which had not happened before.

Cambodian students

Cambodian students in the school library during a weekly reading session. Photo by Wendy Rockett

Supportive school environments are essential. Reading programs take time and resources to implement, as do staff training on the digital library, assisting the project’s monitoring and evaluation, carrying out app updates, and troubleshooting the inevitable technical issues. None of these important changes in the day-to-day operations of the schools are possible without an understanding by the school hierarchy that improved reading habits will lead to improved educational outcomes.

Teachers from schools in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts discuss the Let’s Read! project.

Teachers from schools in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts discuss the Let’s Read! project. Photo by Kyle Barker

More can be done, however, to inculcate the value of extra-curricular reading among school staff. During a recent Let’s Read! project meeting in Mongolia, some teachers commented that they would find the books far more useful if they were curriculum-based while others quickly grasped the value of bringing supplemental reading material into the classroom and successfully incorporated the digital library into their lessons. Teacher training on reading programs and ways to incorporate supplemental material into lessons will be explored in the next phase of the project.

Improving e-book technology will help us reach the last mile. There’s currently no good way for e-books to attractively combine images and text, and be delivered efficiently. The EPUB file format used by many e-book retailers and digital libraries is lightweight and allows for multimedia content, but currently favors block formatting of text and images over the imaginative and playful designs that make children’s books so appealing. PDFs are widely supported and preserve the artistry of children’s books but tend to be larger files – problematic in internet-poor contexts – and aren’t built to support interactive features. Standalone e-book apps are another route but they are expensive and time-consuming to produce. E-book technology is almost certain to improve over time, however. With improvements in both the appeal and functionality of children’s e-books, digital library programs can be that much more effective in inspiring a culture of reading.

Wendy Rockett is senior communications manager of The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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