BLOGS  >  AUGUST 31, 2023

Freedom to Read Inc. Works with Local Activists to Create and Maintain 21st Century Libraries on Eleuthera Island in The Bahamas


Susy Siel is an educator on a mission. This teacher librarian founded Freedom to Read Inc. (FTR), whose mission is to change lives for people in The Bahamas by providing free access to literacy. There are now several FTR partner sites serving as public and school libraries with an additional three new school libraries in development now, all on the island of Eleuthera in The Bahamas.

Siel was born in Michigan. Her parents were private pilots who took their little family on incredible flying adventures from US destinations to Venezuela to The Bahamas. The Beach family (yes, that’s right, Susy’s maiden name is Beach!) found a “home” with a Bahamian family in Gregory Town, Eleuthera, whom she often visited in her youth. Back in 2002, as a professional teacher librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Siel decided to do something for the people she loved on Eleuthera. And so, she began with the goal of working with local leaders and stakeholders in various settlements to set up or renovate existing libraries with the intention of providing free access to literacy as a way to improve literacy rates on Eleuthera.

In 2005, she took a leave of absence from her position in Kenosha and began connecting with existing libraries in The Bahamas. In 2012, Freedom to Read Inc. (FTR) was formally established as a US 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Siel, now the executive director of the nonprofit, claims that FTR couldn’t have accomplished what it has without Matt Follett and Don Rokusek. Matt was her sales rep in Kenosha and began supporting her projects by donating boxes of books to FTR, that were then sent on to The Bahamas. Don has helped her by providing laptops, scanners, and barcode readers along with access to Follett Destiny® online cataloging software to catalog library collections and aid in creating fully functional library spaces.

Many challenges arise throughout the process of setting up libraries – including logistics, ensuring a site is building-ready, and has internet capabilities, air conditioning, roofing, working bathrooms, and other running utilities. These are just some of the tasks on Siel’s plate for the development of each site.

“If I didn’t have Follett in my corner, we wouldn’t be able to make this work,” Siel recalled, “We just wouldn’t.”

Siel is excited to return to her education roots by strategically placing new library locations within existing schools to impact the entire island of Eleuthera: Deep Creek Middle School in the far south, The Children’s Place Library in the far north, and the Emily G. Petty Primary School in the central part of the island.

Freedom to Read Inc. believes that libraries have several functions, including facilitating communication for Bahamians – they provide Wi-Fi and computers along with books, games, puzzles and much more. Locals also see these spaces as meeting places for their teams and businesses.

“If you don’t have a library in your settlement, you don’t have access to literacy where you live,” Siel further explained. These libraries span the island, which is important, because travel is limited and difficult. Therefore, bringing a library to nearly every settlement is imperative for the program.

“If you are a literate person and have a literate society, you can do anything.”

Siel looks to include current, accurate, and authoritative texts in these new and updated library sites. When she started this project, she took what she could get, relying on friends and family to donate their books. Now she focuses on brand new books, or donations in good condition and uses her skilled experience to curate these library collections.

At Kenosha Unified (her former school district) her standard was to offer books to her students within a five- to six-year-old copyright range, and that was her cutoff. She’s maintained that standard within her collections in Eleuthera.

“If I wouldn’t put it in my library in Wisconsin, I wouldn’t put it in a library in Eleuthera.”

She incorporates Bahamian cataloging codes in these libraries, appreciating the fact that their coding system is slightly different than call number practices in the US.

“The current shipment from Follett contains all brand-new books.” Siel boasts, “The collection is magical – when you walk in and see all the choices, that’s so exciting. Providing library spaces where children can explore their intellectual curiosity is key. There were a few existing libraries on Eleuthera when we began, however they were rooms containing older books, not necessarily in good condition. We have worked alongside our partners on Eleuthera and with Follett to elevate the book selections to exceptional collections. These students and adults wanted books; they just didn’t have access.” 

Siel now has experience cataloging books thanks to Don Rokusek’s tutelage on how to manage Follett Destiny

She has volunteered hundreds and hundreds of hours to train the Bahamian librarians in cataloging and circulation and establishing a flow of the space they work in. Now, with so much experience cataloging on Follett Destiny software, Siel is easily able to attest to several benefits of having access to Destiny Library Manager:

  • Patrons can see what is available at all our other library sites.
  • The librarians can run reports for overdue books and fines.
  • Librarians can work on collection management.
  • FTR can use the data in fundraising efforts and also to analyze perceived usage at each site.

What is next for Freedom to Read Inc.?

“With our 12 existing sites and three new school library sites coming on board, I’m imagining we will be working on maintenance and upkeep in the foreseeable future. There is continued support and training for attendants, programming, and school to library partnerships to build and encourage.”

This mission, which began over 20 years ago, has without a doubt, a strong and hopeful future. If you would like to learn more about Freedom to Read Inc. and/or would like to volunteer or support their mission, please visit freedomtoreadinc.org.

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