When Susan Hickey, co-owner of Hearthside Books & Toys in Juneau, Alaska, read The Camel Bookmobile, Masha Hamilton’s novel about an American librarian bringing literacy to Kenyans, she wanted to do something to improve literacy in Africa herself. So Hickey, who had traveled to Africa on a photo expedition, started looking into possible options and found the African Library Project. Based in Portola Valley, Calif., ALP was founded five years ago by Chris Bradshaw, a home-schooling mom who took her children to Lesotho on a field trip when her avid-reader son discovered that Lesotho had just one library in the entire country. The ALP teams American groups, which collect 1,000 “gently used” and new children’s books (preschool to eighth grade) plus $500 to cover shipping costs, with African communities committed to building libraries.
So far ALP has built 350 small African libraries, with 150 of those built just this spring, Bradshaw said. ALP plans to build a total of 209 libraries this year and 300 in 2010—and Bradshaw is hoping more booksellers get involved, calling the project and booksellers a natural match as well as an activity that brings people into stores.
Hickey joined ALP in March, and while getting involved with a charitable campaign in the middle of the recession may seem like bad timing, Hickey discovered just the opposite. “It made people feel better” to be able to donate books to a worthwhile cause, she said. Since March, Hearthside’s customers have collected enough books and money to create three libraries; those books are on their way to two libraries in Swaziland and one in Malawi.
When Bradshaw first started ALP, she enlisted the help of her local independent bookstore, Kepler’s Books and Magazines in Menlo Park. Kepler’s director of programs, Vivian Leal, helped Bradshaw determine the kinds of books that might be suitable for the program. Kepler’s also has a donation box for ALP and has contributed enough titles for one library in Botswana last year and is constantly collecting books for other libraries ALP is working to build.
Bradshaw has been impressed with how American communities get into the program. She tells one story of how on a Friday a first-grade teacher praised his class for collecting the 1,000 books, but told them they now had to raise $500. The following Monday one little girl showed up with the money, having gone door-to-door over the weekend to collect it. Bradshaw has lots of similar stories that include Brownie troops and college students who worked with their local bookstores to build ALP collections.
Booksellers, or any other group that gets involved with ALP, are sent clips from a documentary called House of Books: In Their Own Words: The Story of the African Library Project. When Kepler’s screened the clips, Leal said, the bookstore staff and customers really became excited about building a library where both the need and the possible effect on a community was so great.