had seen the villagers' intense interest in the written
word and the value they placed on education. Many
came to her house to peruse her American magazines,
despite their illiteracy in English. And she had often
seen villagers reading tattered paperbacks late into
the night under the street light
at the Peace Corps compound.
realized that the need for books was great, not just
for the literacy class, but for the whole community.
"I had yet to figure out a project that the villagers
were excited about, and the library set them afire."
and the literacy teacher, local shopkeeper Norbert
Adewuho, sought book donations from local sources
such as the U.S. Embassy library and a grant from
the Friends of Togo (a group of returned Peace Corps
volunteers). They also raised funds themselves,
buying books in both French, the language taught
in Togolese schools, and Ewe (EH-vay), the local
language. The books, which they placed on shelves
in Norbert's popular little store, included state
textbooks, fiction by African authors, books on
agriculture and health, encyclopedias, and American
200 books were Yikpa's first library. To Americans,
accustomed to libraries with thousands of volumes
and computers and Internet access, a few shelves
of books may seem trivial. But to villagers in Yikpa,
that small collection was a wondrous thing.
older man holding a book said to me, 'Before I saw
these books in Ewe, I thought only white people
wrote books,'" Wendell says.
figures proved the library's popularity. Although
Yikpa had only 200 residents, the book sign-out
register logged 2,000 entries in the first month.
The villagers even coined a new word in Ewe for
the tiny library: "book reading place."
the success of the project immediately evident,
Wendell and the villagers came to appreciate the
need for a real library. On a trip home to the States,
Wendell raised $3,000--mostly from family and friends.
In 1994, a two-room library, built by the villagers
themselves, opened for business. Over time the building
has become a true community center, hosting literacy
classes, story times, and discussion groups.
Peace Corps stint completed, Wendell returned home,
married Jurgen Henn, a German citizen whom she had
met in Togo, and took a research job at Duke University.
But thoughts of the village library and how she
might help those in other poor countries stayed
with her. In early 1996 she sent a survey to Peace
Corps volunteers inquiring about library projects
they had initiated.
found hundreds," she says. "The volunteers ranked
as being really important in a community. There
was a huge vacuum."
realization spurred Wendell into taking action.
She quit her job and opened the World Library Partnership
as a general support organization for people trying
to start libraries around the world. From an office
in her home in rural Bahama, North Carolina, where
the walls display posters of African scenes and
events, she oversees the various programs that have
evolved since WLP's creation four years ago.
she established a sister libraries program, similar
to a sister cities program, connecting libraries worldwide
through cultural exchange programs and offering new
resources to poor libraries. The Carolina Friends
School in Durham was paired with her library in Yikpa.
Today there are about a dozen such partnerships.
UP WAS A CONTRACT WENDELL RECEIVED FROM UNESCO (United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)
to produce a manual and research guide on starting
and running a library. UNESCO distributes "Libraries
for All," which has been translated into Spanish,
French and, soon, Indonesian, free to libraries
in developing countries. WLP provides it at cost
in the United States.
years ago, WLP launched its latest program, Inform
the World, a librarian volunteer program, or, as
Wendell likes to think of it, a mini-Peace Corps
for librarians. Last year ten American librarians
spent a month carrying out hands-on service projects
at rural libraries in Zimbabwe. They were a diverse
lot: an HIV/AIDS librarian from the New York Department
of Health; a school librarian from Albuquerque;
librarians from Hewlett Packard, The Boston Globe,
and the World Bank; and two recent library school
they depart, volunteers receive training in book
donation, repair, cataloguing, and funding at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They're
then off to Zimbabwe, where they are paired off
and sent to rural areas.
Ray, a former librarian/information specialist at
the World Bank in Washington, D.C., was a 1999 volunteer
assigned to a library in a school called "Mpumelelo,"
which means "progress." The village had a freestanding
library built by a former Peace Corps worker, but
the building was unusable because it lacked windows
one-room school library had 1,000 to 2,000 books,
but "that's a deceptive number," Ray says. "Most
of these libraries are filled with book donations.
They're not only useless, but very often they get
25 copies of the same book."
Mpumelelo library, for example, had 50 copies of
the Horatio Hornblower series and 25 copies of David
donations are a pet peeve of the WLP because more
often than not, donated books don't fit the needs
of the recipients. "People are well intentioned,
but the reasons people give books are not the reasons
people want books," Wendell says.
general, she says, people give books because they
have outlived their usefulness. Very rarely are
donated books written specifically for developing
countries. Often they're irrelevant; sometimes they're
outdated; occasionally they're even moldy.
donations can put off, or even insult, the recipients.
What the libraries in Zimbabwe really need, Ray
says, are great novels geared toward adults and
speakers of English as a second language. Most Zimbabwean
adults speak English--it's taught in schools from
the early grades on--but donated works such as Shakespeare
and the poetry of John Donne are far too difficult
for them. What the villagers want are works by African
writers--literature they can identify with.
you want to encourage a reading population and use
of a library, you need books that are appealing,
and you need to constantly stock," Ray says. "That's
one of the purposes of the book coupon program."
WLP Book Certificate Program raises money to provide
librarians with coupons that can be redeemed at
an annual book fair held by the nonprofit Zimbabwe
Book Development Council. There, librarians use
the certificates to select books needed at their
particular facility. "A hundred dollars can go a
really long way," Ray says.
at the Mpumelelo library, Ray took inventory, attempted
to weed the collection, sorted new books, and worked
with students who came in to check out materials.
conditions, she says, were appalling. "There are
termite tunnels going all around the room. Books
get eaten by mice; they get eaten by termites. The
shelves lean. When we do inventory, we find things
that are unusable." But even under the most adverse
conditions, the desire for learning survives. Maggie
Hite, WLP's assistant director and volunteer leader
for the Zimbabwe trip, saw a moving example of that
went to one library in the eastern highlands," she
says. "They had built a school and community library.
We were shown shelves with the header 'Our Humble
Beginnings.' On them were books the parents and
teachers had made. Ten years ago they were worried
that their children were not learning to read, so
they pooled their money and bought paper, a pen,
and twine." The concerned parents had gone to a
local tourist spot and sifted through trashcans
for old magazines.
wrote stories in longhand, cut pictures from the
magazines, and pasted them on the pages to illustrate
the stories. Lastly, they bound the pages with twine.
made up the first library," Hite says. "That example
solidifies how important libraries and literacy
can be, and how much people will work for access
to that. I kept that image in mind the whole time
I was in Zimbabwe."
found clever ways to encourage interest in the rural
libraries. Two painted murals on the library walls.
Some brought gifts--a broach, a box of pencils,
a pad of paper--and raffled them off to raise money
and pique interest. Another brought a disposable
camera and announced to the schoolchildren that
she would take pictures of all those who had signed
up for library memberships.
Last year, Hite was lucky to witness an astonishing
sight, possibly the wave of the future in rural
areas: The Electro-Communications Donkey Cart. Developed
by the Rural Library and Resource Development Program
of Zimbabwe, the cart is a small donkey-pulled bookmobile
that can go where motorized vehicles cannot. Aside
from books, there are solar panels on board that
furnish electricity to run a TV with VCR and a laptop
attended a test run of the donkey cart at a rural
school of 100 children. "Ninety percent had never
seen a TV," she says. "We played a video, and those
kids were completely entranced. Now they use it
for entertainment as well as education."
of the mounting political tenion, Wendell cancelled
the July departure to Zimbabwe, and the WLP is trying
to organize a group to go to South America, where
the need for libraries is just as urgent.
has yet to accompany volunteers to Africa. With
daughter Julia, 2, and a second child expected in
the fall, the time is not quite right. Some day
she and her family hope to move there permanently.
For now, she is happy to work on WLP projects, and
plan an expansion of the volunteer and book certificate
programs to other African countries, and to South
still surprised that Laura Wendell, biopsychologist,
somehow turned into Laura Wendell, library advocate,
but from the moment she began working on the tiny
library in Yikpa, libraries have been her passion.
"It's been tremendously rewarding. If I knew then
what I know now, I'm not sure I would have had the
courage to do it, but I'm very glad I did. I hope
to stay involved for many years to come."
more information about the World Library Partnership,
Laura Wendell, 1028 Bahama Road, Bahama, NC 27503;
e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org,
or visit the WLP Web site at www.rtpnet.org/wlp.
Lawrence is a copy editor at News & Record in
Greensboro, North Carolina, where she lives. For a
number of years she was a feature writer for several
newspapers and college magazines.