Both individually and together, two Upper Midwest nonprofit organizations are reaching beyond America’s heartland to fulfill their mission of making books accessible to all. In 1988 Books for Africa was founded in St. Paul, Minn. Little Free Library was founded in Hudson, Wis., in 2009 and works on all seven continents. The two have partnered on shipping books to Africa for distribution to schools and libraries there since 2013.

Since its inception, BFA has shipped 31 million books to 48 countries on the African continent to, according to the organization, “end the book famine” there by creating a culture of literacy. “It’s all about finding the books, finding the money to send the books, and finding good partners in Africa to distribute those books [to children] effectively,” explains executive director Patrick Plonski, who’s been with the organization for 12 years. BFA was launched by Tom Warth, the founding publisher of Motorbooks International. During a visit to Uganda, Warth visited a library that held just a few books, and most of those were old and tattered volumes. Returning to Minnesota, he persuaded local colleagues to send their discarded books to Africa rather than pulping or otherwise disposing of them.

During the last fiscal year, which ended on June 30, BFA shipped 2.6 million books with a value in excess of $35 million to 27 countries, up from 2.2 million books worth $28 million the previous year. This year to date, BFA has shipped almost 800,000 books with a value of $12 million to 13 countries.

The books are donated by schools, libraries, organizations and individuals, and shipped in containers paid for with donations and packed by volunteers. “We get semi-trailer loads of books from Follett,” Plonski noted. Books are warehoused and prepared for shipping in BFA’s Atlanta warehouse. Books are shipped in 40-foot containers that can hold 22,000 books. It costs $10,300 on average to ship each container by sea to Africa from the U.S.

Like other entities that handle books, BFA is moving into the digital age: last year, it shipped 223 computers to Africa as well as books. “We want to do more with digital content,” Plonski said, “e-readers have become part of the mix.”

Little Free Library Takes on Big Projects

LFL began partnering with BFA two years ago, building and shipping to Africa sturdy wooden structures meant to store books outdoors; once the library boxes reached their destinations, they were filled with books supplied by BFA. LFL’s founder, Todd Bol, is one of 45 members of BFA’s advisory board.

Five years ago Bol built a wooden structure for his mother’s yard with a sign urging passers-by to take a book or leave a book. LFL has come a long way since; the nonprofit reported $1.2 million in revenues last year. Today, there are approximately 22,000 registered little free libraries in all 50 states and 70 countries, as well as unknown numbers of unregistered structures. Approximately 3,000 of the registered structures are in Minnesota and in Wisconsin.

But LFL is not resting on its laurels: for the past two years it has stepped up its efforts to empower underserved communities with little free libraries full of books. In 2012 LFL launched its Books Around the Block program in Minneapolis, in partnership with the city’s public school system: 100 little free libraries in the Mill City are designated as containers of books for infants to eight-year-olds. The program is expanding beyond the Twin Cities: there are currently about 500 Books Around the Block libraries nationwide.

More recently, LFL is spearheading a new initiative in which under-served communities in urban areas throughout the nation that are designating themselves as “literacy friendly neighborhoods” are provided with signage and little free libraries.

“Each neighborhood determines how the program will be implemented there,” Bol said of the initiative. “The thinking is that this [structure] is a symbol of a better neighborhood, one that you want to live in, one that you want to participate in. It’s an exciting way to bring books to neighborhoods that need them the most.”

Many of the structures intended for use in these inner-city neighborhoods are being constructed as corporate team-building exercises and then donated by those companies or organizations. A number of publishers already are donating hurts and remainders to keep the structures filled and replenished with books. Lee & Low currently is involved in discussions with LFL about providing multicultural children’s books specifically for this initiative, particularly books, publisher Craig Low says, that are centered “around diverse readers and intergenerational relationships.”

Bol is a man on a mission, a mission that gives a nod to late Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) with the mantra, “we all do better when we all read better.” Bol is hoping that eventually, global literacy rates will approach 100%. Such a worldview isn’t unusual in a region where citizens pride themselves on their civic responsibility and where adult literacy is among the highest in the nation. “Minnesotans and Wisconsinites are good people, salt of the earth,” Plonski said, “they want to step up and help people all over the world.”