Monday, March 29, 2010

What is it about libraries? Part II

Why are people so generous with their time and resources to help us out? As I mentioned, I’ve never had a response to a project that I’ve been working on like the one we are having with this library. A friend joked that it was because librarians are naturally helpful, and asking them for advice about libraries is something they’ve been waiting for their whole lives. But actually this is something a bit different—it’s not just librarians who are interested in this project, it’s everyone we tell about it.

Ariel and I like to quote Benjamin Franklin in our fundraising spiels. Franklin started the first library in America, saying it was essential for a democracy. We also like to quote Robert Putnam’s work on social capital, and the importance of public spaces. I think all of that is right, but I don’t think that people have primarily reacted to this project on an intellectual level. It’s been personal. So here is my hypothesis about why this project has been so universally appealing (and why so many people are putting themselves out for us!).

I’m going to posit a couple of answers. First, in the States, everyone understands the importance of libraries. We all have used them, and there are famous examples of writers who really developed their literary selves (and escaped poverty!) at public libraries—for me Jack Kerouac and Jack London stand out. We also probably all have some sort of personal connection to someone for whom access to libraries was or is life changing. For me, that person is my mother. She grew up in rural Louisiana and often got in trouble for reading in school during class—a joke among her siblings is to scream at each other “Quit reading!” DeQuincy, Louisiana was, and is, a typical American lower-class town where people were expected to end up not far from where they were. The library for my mother was a haven from her chaotic household, and a window to the outside world. My mother still considers the DeQuincy Public Library a sacred haven, a space that was actually home to her in her childhood. So this theory is safe public space cum gateway to another world.

I think stories like that resonate well with Americans, in a sense we have these stories in our blood. We may not explicitly realize it, but in America libraries are everywhere. I looked up the number of public libraries some time back to see how many libraries we would have to build in Kenya to equal the number per capita in the US. Taking into account the 54 Kenya National Library Services libraries, we would need to build over 2,000 libraries.

Given this dirth, I’m not sure if Kenyans have the same association with libraries that Americans who have universally had experiences with them have. However, the support here has at least matched the support we’ve had back at home. So there’s got to be something there. What is it?

Ok, so partially the public space thing is relevant. When we visit libraries here, they are full of people studying and reading newspapers. When I say full, I mean these libraries are clearly not big enough—they are chock full of people. These people may not be using the library to it’s full potential—I am told users are primarily studying for exams. But it’s a place to sit and read, and people need that.

But I think primarily the button that this pushes in both the US and Kenya is the same, and again it’s something different. This project inspires people’s imaginations—here, I’m not talking about any particular book. I’m talking about the idea of thousands of books, on all different topics, available to people for free. The possibilities are endless and you don’t have to think about any one thing to be inspired. That is the point, you think of millions of things, things you don’t even know to think about.

Whatever the reason that we’ve had so much positive response for this project, I love being a part of it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

What is it about libraries? Part I

I have worked on a lot of projects that I’ve been extremely enthusiastic about, and that other people have been excited about too. But I’ve never worked on something where the response has been quite so positive and overwhelming as this library project. People get excited about public libraries. In this blog, I’ll do a quick review of that excitement, from the experience that Ariel and I have had since founding Maria’s Libraries. In the next blog I’ll hypothesize about why.

In 2006 when I was living in Busia, I sent a note to some friends that there was a library that I wanted to help get books for. I clearly didn’t anticipate the response I was going to get, because when all the books came in, we had no idea how to get them over. In the end, my mother donated the inheritance money she got from my grandmother to ship them over.

In 2008 Ariel and I “launched” the idea of Maria’s Libraries as an organization at a dinner party at my apartment in Brooklyn. We invited a group of people we knew, socially conscious smart friends mostly, to ask them what, how and if we should start an organization. From that dinner party, we got a name, a website, two pro bono lawyers, two fundraising events, and more advice than I can easily describe.

Second, we solicited advice from other library NGOs working in resource poor settings, funders and US libraries. Everyone was perfectly happy to go over and above what we were requesting to help us—none of that competition that often plagues NGOs. We spent hours on the phone with Africa Soma, Friends of African Village Libraries, librarians from Columbia University, the American Library Association and the public library systems in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Rookaya Bawa from the Carnegie Corporation hosted us for breakfast at Carnegie. A whole team of librarians at Columbia University spent several hours filling my head with information and ideas. Students at Columbia’s Earth Institute talked to us about sustainable building. There was only one disappointing response, from a pretty major player in the world of developing libraries internationally, but we learned from their non- willingness to chat as well.

Through later conversations, a friend designed our logo, another friend re-did our website, a pediatrician is doing book collections at this office, we have books stored at friends’ tiny apartments all over New York City, as well as Texas, Maine and Philadelphia. Publishers have sent us books. The woman who runs the Library of Congress Nairobi office lets us stay with her when we are in Nairobi. An architect came over to coordinate the design process. We did spend a lot of time soliciting advice and assistance among our compatriots, but a great deal of what we’ve gotten has been people approaching us, wanting to offer their skills to their project.

And we have gotten all of this for astonishingly close to free.

So that’s in the US. In Kenya the response has also been overwhelming. We’ve been on the National News and the radio. Local publishers are excited to host us on their website, and community members in Busia are working very hard with no renumeration. When we sent out a notice to architects for tender, one of the responses was simply someone thanking us for the work we are doing—he was not interested in the tender. Perhaps most significantly is the telecommunications engineer has offered to hook up all the libraries that we work with for free, and when I was talking to him about the project, he got so excited that he offered to procure the funds for an entire new library in his home village of Ahero, which we are currently working with the Ahero town council to develop. I approached an organization called Kenya Book Foundation to tell him about the library, and he let me know that they sell books (and they're not that cheap, either), so I walked away disappointed. A few weeks, later, the man I talked to called me back, asking me when the Harambe in Busia was and berating me for not demanding donations (which, I am now led to believe, they will give). So the donation tracked me down. . .

I am forcing myself to stop—the list could go on and on, but I’m sensing it might get boring. All in all, the only real challenge that people throw at us about this project is the refrain that there is not a reading culture in Kenya. That discussion is always circular: why would you supply books when people don't read/ why would people read when there are no books. But even in the context of that discussion, people are enthusiastic about the project.

All that is a long way to lead up to the question: What is it about libraries? Why does it galvanize people in such positive ways? Your thoughts welcome!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Karibu Ellie and The Great Book Migration

We are very pleased to announce the arrival of Eleanor Kebabian to our lovely Busia-based team. Ellie is a Boston-based architect who has kindly offered to come and help coordinate get the plans drawn for the library in Busia. She will be working with Nairobi-based architects, the community members who have been active in the library project in Busia, and the Busia district and town planners to come up with a design that can be a source of pride for the Busia community (and which follows all Kenyan regulations!).

Ellie also joins the ranks of those who have lugged books half way across the world for us to the library. However, I think she single handedly doubled the contribution we had made to date by convincing Delta to allow her to bring 500 lbs of books on the plane with her for free! There’s a long list of people we have to thank for this, so let’s go in order:

Thanks to the many individuals, churches, and publishers who donated so many books.

Thanks to Ellie’s family for helping her pack the books and get them to the airport.

A HUGE thanks to Delta for agreeing to let her bring 300lbs on the airplane, and then not blinking when she showed up with 500lbs.

Thanks to the dudes at the airports in Boston and Nairobi for helping her lug them to/from baggage.

Thanks to the director of the Library of Congress’s Nairobi office for helping us arrange transport for the books once in Nairobi and for letting us crash at her house with all that luggage!

Thanks to Maria Wafula who used her wile to get them sent to Busia via Akamba bus for a ridiculously low cost.

Thanks to the boda bodas who loaded up their bikes to bring them from the bus station in Busia to the library (see photograph!).

And of course, thanks especially to Ellie for organizing all of this. The books are of unbelievable quality and range, any community anywhere would be lucky to have them.

Let’s review—for the well over 1,000 books (we are still catelogueing/counting them) Ellie brought to the library, we paid 700 Ksh (less than 10$) to ship them from Nairobi to Busia on Akamba bus and about 300 Ksh (less than 5$) to get them to the library once they were in Busia. An international team effort!

I hope Ellie will start to grace this blog with her thoughts, so keep an eye out for that!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Can local philanthropy work?

Libraries are not income generating. I remember as a child thinking that money generated by late fines were what sustained my local library. The idea amazed me and for good reason—ensuring library use is truly public means that there’s no way that fees from users can sustain the library. Any publicly funded enterprise requires a tricky balance between sustainability and access. This has been something we have come up against time and time again when trying to figure out a sustainability plan. Of course, public funding and attaching something to the library plot like an office complex or a row of shops can go a long way to fund the library’s activities. But for it to truly be able to grow, we suspect that the library services in Kenya can take a page out of the book of library networks in other parts of the world: they need a philanthropic network. Of course, in essence Maria’s Libraries is a philanthropic network, funneling international funding into these projects. But does Kenya really have to rely solely on the notoriously fickle flow of funding from abroad? Is it possible to raise funds locally?

We think that a philanthropic network is possible in Kenya. A sustained effort at funding an ongoing project might be a bit foreign to Kenya outside its churches, but there certainly is a tradition for raising money. Usually, fundraisers are organized in parties called Harambe. People pledge money to help an individual put up a house, help a church buy a motorbike, send a child to school in Kenya or even in America, and quite often to pay for funerals. What we are trying to do is somewhat different—we want funds to build the library, but we also want people to consider contributing every year to help sustain the library. This is not a one-off enterprise, it requires a commitment for as long as the library is in existence.

So we’re going to try it. We have several plans. First, we are having a Harambe on April 3 in Busia. Maria and co are asking Busia-ites to buy bricks (which go for 10 Kenyan shillings, or about 14 cents each) for the building and to bring books to the Harambe to donate to the library. They’re asking individuals but we’re also approaching small self-help and micro finance groups that may have trouble contributing individually but as a group can make a contribution. Second, we’re going to do something similar in Nairobi, organized by the Friends of the Busia Community Library in Nairobi, a group of professionals who live in Nairobi but are from Busia. Finally, we hope to get the Kenyan diaspora involved if we can.

I do sometimes wonder if there are ethical issues involved here. Busia is a poor community—according to government statistics, 65% of the population is in absolute poverty, defined as less than a dollar a day. Do we really need their money? I have trouble with projects that require a certain amount of labor from the local community to “prove” their commitment and create a sense of ownership over the project. I don’t feel the community has anything to prove—the support from Kenyans all over the country has been overwhelming. I know they want libraries, especially in Busia where dozens of people attend our planning meetings, the local politicians make speeches on our behalf, and a team of volunteers had kept the library open with regular hours for 7 months and counting with no renumeration. I do agree that a sense of ownership over the library will make people value it more, and I hope they honestly feel it’s their library (the slogan for our fundraiser in Busia is: It’s your Library!). But actually, we probably could raise the money entirely outside the country with less difficulty than a fundraiser here is causing us. And, although there are relatively wealthy people in Busia, for the most part the donors in America would feel it much less than here.

But we hope that people get used to donating to the library. Of course they understand that funding needs to come from somewhere, but we hope that they connect it to themselves. And who knows, maybe we will raise a truly significant amount of money for the library. Watch this space, will report back!