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!


  1. It's not boring! It's so, so much fun!!

  2. I still get very upset sometimes empathizing with performance artists who must appear in person and do their art at that moment, if they want anyone to see their art. As a viewer or a listener, of course I am thrilled at the opportunity to see a fantastic and never-to-be repeated concert or play, but when I put myself in the position of the artist, I wonder how he can bring himself to channel his creativity in such an ephemeral form—wouldn’t he prefer, instead, to leave a drawing or an essay, that can be enjoyed in his presence and re-enjoyed after he is gone? I remind myself nearly every time I see a breathtaking performance* that even if I only see them one time, and they never play anywhere else ever again, they live on because of the stories I tell about them, and because of my memories of them, and the way they capture my imagination for years afterwards.

    What does this have to do with libraries! I think I might conceive of live performances in a similar way to the way I relate to borrowed books. If we were lucky enough to grow up near a library, as I was, it seemed as a child sort of unfathomable the selection available and the difficulty in choosing that first book! How many times did I read a book, return it, only to take it out again 3 weeks later? In the meantime, I wondered, who was looking at it? What if I wanted to take it out again, and it wasn’t there? How did I know it wouldn’t get lost, or some little kid smear his jelly fingers all over it and make the pages stick together? I’m sure that happened sometimes, but I lived. And in the interim, I remembered the books I’d read. I don’t think I thought much about how the stories I loved caught my attention until I went to university with people from different areas, and realized that we’d all grown up with a similar set of favorite stories. How did that happen?

    We read it, we give it back, and we remember it. There’s something so delicious about the idea that after it’s out of our hands, someone else is reading it too. Maybe we’ll meet one day and talk about it!

    And don’t even get me started on democracy!

    *remember the Gorillaz’s Monkey: Journey to the West, or Sufjan Stevens’ presentation on the BQE at BAM?

  3. Oh, and I forgot to mention the strangest donation we've gotten-- The district probation officer donated prison labor to clear the grounds of the library so we can survey it. How do we say thank you for that one? Maybe have book day at the prison once a week?

    That would be nice-- like when the Maasai donated 12 cows to New York after September 11. There was no real way to get them over to New York, but it was probably one of the most touching gestures towards the US that came out of that period-- the US said thank you by establishing 12 college scholarships for the Maasai.

  4. The joke about librarians being generous could as well be true! Libraries are places that we dont expect much in terms of cash changing hands and so as modern librarians, we are trained and have come to learn how to give our services for free many a times to people we may not even know. That's what we are, librarians!