DU Alumni

Morgridge alums help build first public library in Tonga

Morgridge College of Education alumni Rebecca Stephens and Eric Bemiller helped build Tonga’s first public library. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Stephens

Two recent graduates of the University of Denver’s library and information science program had the chance to put their training to the test this summer as they built a library from scratch in the Pacific island nation of Tonga.

The project has its roots in 2009, when a massive tsunami devastated much of Tonga. Tongan native Kato Ha’unga, at that time an undergraduate at the University of Alaska, began gathering books to replace those that were destroyed. Four years and a lot of donations later, more than 45,000 books were dropped off in Tonga by a U.S. Navy ship. It’s there that Morgridge College of Education alumni Rebecca Stephens (MLIS ’13) and Eric Bemiller (MLIS ’12) stepped in to carry out the next part of the plan.

“My mother has been doing medical volunteering through Project Hope for five or six years, and she was in Tonga, and she saw there were all these books and there was no librarian,” Bemiller says. “She was like, ‘Well, here’s my librarian son who’s not working a full-time job — why don’t you have him go out and take care of it?’”

Bemiller enlisted his classmate, and the two set off for Tonga in July. They spent nearly a month there, pruning the collection by 15 percent and setting the books up in a building that previously housed a medical clinic.

“The collections that I think are going be most useful are things like the health collection, because there’s not a lot of health infrastructure on the island,” Bemiller says. “If you have a problem but you don’t want to pay to see a doctor, having access to a medical library is actually very useful. We have a very large, very in-depth collection of medical books; there are a lot of books about basic engineering, basic plumbing and construction and things like that. So a lot of things that are very practical, and have a lot of applications for a country that has a developing economy.”

Taken in by Tongan families during their stay, Stephens and Bemiller became part of the community they were serving, sharing meals with their host families and even joining a funeral procession. The two left Tonga in August, leaving the finishing touches to a local librarian whom they trained. The library is scheduled to open in December, and though Stephens and Bemiller can’t afford to be there in person, they say the project made it clear to them where their priorities lie when it comes to library work.

“It’s connecting people to the information they need,” Stephens says. “It’s making sure people have what they need to succeed. That’s what we did. We set up this library where the children can come, and we have reading material so they can build those skills. We have the practical how-to manuals of remodeling your home or fixing up your car. Going into it, I was thinking, ‘I just graduated; I’ve never worked at a public library,’ but I do have those skills. I do have that training. I can make a difference.”




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