How to Start a Library (or Three) in Africa — Spotlight on the African Library Project

African Library Project

I spent my childhood with my nose in a book. Ask anyone who knows me; at this point, it’s kind of the defining feature of my personal history. If you were ever looking for me, you could often find me settled in the oddest of places—sometimes on the couch or my bed, but just as likely under the kitchen table, tucked between a cupboard and the wall, or on top of the slide on our swing set—lost in the world of whatever work of fiction had currently found its way into my hands. I devoured everything from Nancy Drew and the Babysitters Club to Harry Potter and Goosebumps, and I adored the works of Judy Blume, Scott O’Dell, and Lois Duncan. Without books, I don’t know what kind of a person I would be; my insatiable reading habit shaped me into who I am today, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

One of my greatest sources of reading material was, of course, my local library. I read far too quickly and widely for my parents to afford to keep my bookshelves stocked, so the library was my saving grace—I could (and did) bring home stacks of reading material after each and every visit. All of the children’s librarians knew me by name, and I remember how exciting it was to learn how to make use of the card catalog (computerized, of course, because MILLENIALS). My local library was an integral part of my childhood, and so when I heard about the African Library Project, I knew this was a movement that I wanted to be a part of.

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Founded in 2005 by Chris Bradshaw, the African Library Project is a nonprofit organization that facilitates the founding of small libraries in rural African communities. Volunteers in the United States and Canada can sign up to run a book drive, and after they’re matched with a partner school or community in one of twelve African countries, their goal is essentially to collect 1,000 gently used books and raise the funds (approximately $500 USD) to cover shipping costs. (source) From there, the books are shipped overseas, where partners in Africa such as the Peace Corps and local non-governmental organizations use them to establish a small library in cooperation with the local community, promoting literacy and providing access to educational resources where previously there were few.

As of February 2018, the African Library Project has started more than two thousand libraries in twelve African countries, with book donations totaling over two million. (source) Their grassroots model makes it easy for anyone to participate in their mission, and having helped organize two book drives in the past, I can say from experience that it’s a hugely satisfying way to pay it forward. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a lot of work—especially so if you’re a bit of a perfectionist who ends up doing most of that work solo (oops).

After you actually hold the book drive and collect enough books, you have to sort through the donations and make sure they’re in good condition, and you also have to make sure that they fit the organization’s guidelines. Specific reading levels are requested depending on your library assignment, and there are certain donations (holiday-themed books, religious books, and adult romance novels are a few examples) that they ask not be included. Then, once you’ve got your 1,000+ suitable donations weeded out, you have to go ahead and package them all properly, following the instructions given by the organization to ensure a safe trip across the Atlantic. Last step: Get thee to the post office and mail those books to the warehouse in New Orleans!

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Despite the time and effort involved, however, it’s absolutely worth it. Between the two book drives I helped carry out, we were able to collect over three thousand books, starting three libraries—two in Ghana and one in Malawi. It’s an amazing feeling, especially because it takes such a relatively simple blueprint to make such a tangible impact. Just 1,000 books and $500 to start one library—a key resource in the rural areas served by the African Library Project, especially for schools whose educational texts were limited or even nonexistent before the library was installed.

Not only that, but I love the idea of giving these kids I’ve never met access to so many books. With a library at their fingertips, they have the opportunity to get the same enjoyment out of reading that I used to when I was their age. And whether sitting in a classroom in Ghana or sprawled under a kitchen table in Connecticut, we read some of the same books and we went on some of the same literary adventures, and that’s pretty amazing.

For more information on the African Library Project, check out their website. You can find the organization’s principles, facts about literacy in Africa, or make a general donation, or—if you are feeling particularly inspired—you can find out more about how to start your own book drive and help spread the love of reading around the world.

For more in my spotlight series, please visit my Charitable page!

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