Interview with Chris Bradshaw, founder of the African Library Project

Chris Bradshaw founded the African Library Project (ALP) in 2005, with the goal of increasing literacy in Africa. Since then, with the help of literacy activist volunteers and organized book drives, ALP has created over 500 small, free lending libraries in various countries of Africa, such as Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi.

On September 11th, 2010 Harambee!, a special party and fundraising event, will mark the project’s 5th anniversary. Harambee (Swahili for “Let’s pull together to get it done!”) will be both a celebration of the organization’s past success and a fundraiser for establishing and sustaining more libraries in rural Africa and supporting its African partners in their efforts to promote literacy, educate their communities about HIV/AIDS, and change lives book by book. For more details about the event, see the sidebar.

Chris lives in Portola Valley, California.
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What motivated you to start the African Library Project?

I spent my Junior Year Abroad studying in Sierra Leone and traveling throughout western and central Africa.  I was deeply touched by the warmth of people and troubled by the potential lost in just trying to survive given the everyday challenges of extreme poverty.  As a 20 year old, I felt overwhelmed by this and did not know what I could do that would have much of an impact.

Fast-forward 30 years to 2004…on a homeschooling field trip to southern Africa with my husband and two children, ages 9 and 13, while pony trekking in the tiny, remote mountain kingdom of Lesotho, I discovered there was just one library in the entire country.  Noodling along on my horse, I couldn’t stop thinking about the US bookshelves overflowing with once-read books and landfills filling up with what would be a precious resource in Lesotho.

How did the first library come about and what was the process of going from one library to more libraries like?

When I got back to the village, I met with the manager of the lodge that had rented us our horses and asked if they had ever considered having a library.  “We have always wanted a library, but did not know how to get books!”  I offered to provide books if the local leadership would provide space and staffing for the library and commit to running it as a village enterprise.  Two months later, I contacted them and they happily reported that the library building was half done! I was committed.  The village decided to give the task of developing the library to a US Peace Corps Volunteer who was scheduled to arrive soon.  I thought this was a great idea.  If you have never seen a library, how would you know what to do?

A little miracle happened next.  When the Peace Corps Volunteer arrived, she was a retired librarian!  Together, along with many generous American book donors, we developed five small libraries throughout Malealea Valley, the first of now 562 African Library Project libraries.

Eventually, I decided to partner with Peace Corps Lesotho to establish libraries throughout the country.  I found it inspiring to work with the smart, capable and passionate Americans who serve in Peace Corps.  They and their villages were ecstatic to get books and many American schools and groups were eager to make a concrete and personal contribution to Africa.

How do you determine which countries (and which towns and communities) will receive book donations?

We’ve grown a lot since our first libraries.  We will work in any stable English-speaking African country where we can find a suitable partner.  Our partners are large African organizations whose mission is library development or education, usually NGOs or government branches, e.g., the Swaziland National Library Service.  Our African partners vet the local library projects, bring our containers in, distribute the books, train teacher-librarians and track results.  We ship 30-60 libraries each year to our partners, year after year, because it is efficient, economical and allows us to have a major impact by building a library movement within a country. 

What is involved in creating rural libraries?

Most African cultures don’t have communal public institutions, as we know them, with the exception of schools.  About 90% of our libraries are in schools and most of these are open to local villagers for checkout of books.  Sometimes, as many as sixteen villages will use a single African Library Project library, as it is the only source of reading material in the area.

To apply, a village or school must provide the space for the library, furniture, staff and a library committee dedicated to establishing and managing the library.  The African Library Project provides a manual on how to set up and run a simple library, the books, and ensures that the staff receive training and ongoing support.

Once the libraries are established, how sustainable are they?

We’ve learned a lot about sustainability since we started!  On my first trip back to visit the libraries, at one site I found our boxes of books had been sitting for six months untouched.  Since then, we’ve changed our systems to provide ownership by the African community from the very beginning of the project throughout.  Training the librarians is vital and providing a tracking system to measure results is helping our country partners find the libraries that need extra support.

Can you tell us a little bit more about ALP’s all-volunteer network?

I love working with ALP volunteers! Our board and administrative volunteers are a passionate and talented group of African literacy warriors who have a solid background in Africa and library development.  What a pleasure it is to work with them.

We have now had volunteers from 30 states and four countries organize book drives to help start a library in Africa.  These schools, youth groups, companies, individuals and families commit to collecting and sorting 1,000 gently used children’s books, raising the approximately $500 in related shipping costs and putting in the elbow grease to pack and mail them.  Children as young as six years old and adults in their eighties have rallied their local communities to help start a library.  Many of these grassroots volunteers report that their book drive really helped pull their local community together around a cause everyone believed in, bringing diverse groups together to work on it.  I love that!  Kids are often the driving force behind our book drives and they report learning all sorts of new leadership skills while organizing their African library project.

Of course our donors love that we are 100% volunteer and that all the books are donated because they know their contribution completely supports our core needs.

Do the book drives and donations focus on books for a particular age group?

Every book drive is partnered with a specific wannabe library in Africa and the book drive organizer collects the types of books requested by their African match.  We are starting and improving preschool, primary and secondary school and community libraries.

Literacy levels are much lower in Africa for two reasons: English is a second language; and without access to books, it is difficult to get really good at reading.  Even teachers top out at about the equivalent of a U.S.  8th grade reading level.  For these reasons, we send preschool-8th grade level books as these are what are requested by our African partners.

Can you tell us about some of the special projects ALP has undertaken in Africa?

In Botswana, there was a huge need for books in primary schools, so we started the “Botswana 100”, an effort to start 100 primary school libraries with the South District of Education.  We got a little carried away though.  We completed libraries in all of the South District and are now covering our third (of twelve) school districts with 199 libraries and counting.  We aim to blanket Botswana’s primary schools with access to books and completely change their educational and development opportunities.  Some wonderful innovations have come from the “Botswana 100”, including a Culture Corner in every library that serves as a little mini-museum to preserve Botswana culture.  One school added an hour to their school day every morning so that the entire school came in just to read!  The district initiated a pilot project for second and third graders to come in for an extra week of school to participate in a reading camp.

For the past two years, we have organized ALP African Partner Summits in Botswana and Lesotho to bring together our international teams and share best practices.  The best ideas have now spread throughout all of our libraries thanks to these conferences.

In Lesotho, where Peace Corps Lesotho is our main partner, the Ministry of Education is gradually increasing their role in library development.  This year we have a pilot project with the Butha Buthe District of Education for 20 schools to begin libraries, assisted by just three Peace Corps Volunteers acting as consultants instead of the usual one-on-one mentoring relationship.

We are working in the countries most affected by AIDS.  Because our libraries are in a unique position to reach young rural Africans, we work hard to raise additional funds to try to provide each library with a fantastic set of HIV/AIDS children’s readers that are set in southern Africa and written for African reading levels.  

Do you keep in touch with the communities you serve? What would you say are the most pressing issues facing them?

Good communication is one of the biggest challenges we face.  Most of our libraries are in remote areas without electricity, running water and sometimes even roads.  In some places, an ALP team visits these libraries to conduct library workshops.  In others, the teacher-librarians travel to a central location to get their training.  We’ve recently implemented a simple tracking system using SMS texting for the libraries to report monthly statistics.

The challenges facing most Africans are daunting: HIV infection rates of up to 30% of the population;  lack of clean, easily available water; inadequate food;  no healthcare and inadequate educational options and resources.  Solutions to all these problems are available, but basic literacy skills and access to information are fundamental to implementing change on a broad scale.

What have been ALP’s biggest challenges and accomplishments so far?

We’ve discovered that getting the books is the easiest part.  American bookshelves overflow with books no longer being read.  Getting the books to Africa efficiently and economically is another story.  Now, we’re shipping 30-60 libraries at a time in containers to African partners that can support large-scale library development of small libraries.

In Africa, there are many challenges.  Developing a reading culture in a continent with a strong oral tradition takes focused effort by teachers.  Many students with illiterate parents cannot get support in learning to read from home.  We must train teachers in basic library management skills as their exposure to libraries is limited to non-existent.  Teachers are not used to having books available so we need to include training on how to best use books in the classroom.  Administrators consider the books a great treasure and sometimes do not want children to use them in case they might damage or lose them.

As for our accomplishments, we’re very proud of the unique model we’ve created that has allowed over 500 book drive organizers from 30 states and four countries to start libraries in Africa. The roughly 25,000 Americans, especially kids, who have contributed to book drives have developed their global consciousness as they learn more about the African continent. During our first five years, we’ve recycled over 600,000 books to provide half a million Africans with quality, carefully selected reading material.  Working with our African partners, we’ve been able to start or improve 562 small libraries in remote areas of eight African countries.  Our African Partners Summits have spread exciting and valuable ideas in rural library development throughout southern Africa while creating professional connections between countries.

On September 11th ALP will be celebrating its 5th anniversary with a fundraising party to celebrate the spirit of  Harambee (a Swahili word that means “Let’s pull together to get it done!”). Looking back on these past five years, how do you see your journey?

Well, it hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve loved it.  We’ve undergone an organic and strategic process of going from one library to hundreds. We’ve had a huge impact, but there is so much more to be done!  I look forward to engaging more and more Americans and Africans “to pull together” (Harambee!) to change lives through what is essentially a simple redistribution of resources.

You have a won a Jefferson Award for public service. Has this recognition helped raise awareness of ALP’s efforts?

Yes.  Because the Jefferson is competitive, winning it lends credibility to those looking at our work, knowing others have taken a close look and found it deserving.  Anything that gives the African Library Project more exposure (like this interview!) has the potential to attract someone who wants to organize a book drive which will turn into a new library.

On a personal note, I find it a little hard to take in.  I love what I am doing and get massive fulfillment from it.  So many people contribute to our success, it seems crazy just to honor me.

What are your hopes for the future of ALP?

I am a pragmatic person who naturally thinks long term. Eventually, I hope to create an international movement that will cover Africa with libraries so that Africans grow up thinking of themselves as readers,  book buyers, writers, book store owners, publishers and book distributors.  I think this will revolutionize Africa and is a concrete contribution ordinary citizens can make to support development without trying to control it.

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