Organized in 2006, The Library Project (TLP) establishes libraries in rural elementary schools and orphanages across China where children often have little more than textbooks as reading material. The mission of TLP’s five-person team is to contribute to poverty alleviation by supporting education. Through book drives and individual and corporate donors, the organization has donated 225 libraries in 19 provinces and plans to add another 125 this year. I spoke with founder and executive director Tom Stader about the impact TLP is making on children’s reading in China.
Q. What first led you to start The Library Project? How
did you come to see the need for more libraries in rural
A. I saw there was a need for books specifically to orphanages in northeast Dalian when I was working there. Some of my friends and I started to do a small book collection and we collected 6,000 books through emailing our friends. We told them we’d like 300 dollars for books and chairs and everything. The kids loved it. It really improved the orphanages. The happiness of the kids went up. The kids used it as a place to hang out. It’s the brightest place in the orphanage. I then moved to Vietnam, but people kept giving me money for libraries. Then I had to make a decision to stay in Vietnam or go back to China. China had more need so I moved back.
Q. How do you determine which schools and orphanages
receive libraries? How much time does the process usually
A. To be honest, 98% of our libraries go to elementary schools. Only about 2% go to orphanages so I’ll speak specifically about elementary schools. We’re very donor driven. Every company or individual has a specific place they want to work and help. Then we work with local government run charity associations and the local board of education. We have them provide us with info on schools, and we make a choice of the neediest schools in that region.
The length of time is a moving target. In certain instances, it has taken 2 days but it’s usually 1 to 2 months.
Q. What is involved in installing the libraries?
A. We never build physical structures, and that’s something we won’t do. We just work with the structures the schools have currently. We provide tables, chairs, paint, bookshelves, and books—a library in a box. We basically have two kinds of libraries: large and small (for a more detailed breakdown click here). Large libraries go into schools that have an extra room. Smaller schools that have between 4 and 100 students generally don’t have a room for a library so we provide a reading corner with 1-2 bookshelves and the books go into one of the classrooms.
Regarding the library, generally the school chooses the librarian. Many of the schools we work in only have one teacher or two teachers. We give a 15-minute crash course in how to manage a library, how to check books in and out, and how one of the students can become librarians. Getting the kids involved is huge--how they can use the books in a classroom setting.
Q. What response have you gotten from
the communities where your libraries are?
A. They love it. They are incredibly involved. In our smaller schools we not only provide a library but also paint the classrooms. We purchase bright colorful paint and supplies and we ship it to the school with a how-to guide. Then we get the teachers and community involved. The parents are already engaged when we come to install the library. The parents have already seen their school improve so they’re excited about it. The parents and students all know that the books are able to be used and brought home.
Q. How did you decide to focus on
elementary schools versus middle and high schools?
A. How I kind of see China’s development is that they focus on different regions. When China was improving the education system (which I think they’re doing a pretty great job with right now) they were concerned with universities then high schools and then elementary schools and all those schools were urban. Now they’re starting to get to the rural schools. The elementary schools are the last to get funding. If we’re going to rural high schools, they have great libraries and teachers and facilities.
Q. How does CSR factor into the
funding and support you receive?
A. We have two examples of CSR. We work very closely with companies in China that are donors. We rarely work with a company that we don’t get involved with. We try to integrate right into their company and them integrate right into our organization. Depending on how much time they have, and how large and how much time they have, we adapt to them.
Cummins (a large engine company) has 20 locations around China. Eleven of those locations participated in The Library Project last year. I believe they donated 43 libraries. The way we structured this was they made a cash donation and then we had each of the locations go out into their local communities and find rural elementary schools that needed a library. They then sent us a report with what the needs are and what their recommendations were for the library. We gave them our recommendations and provided books to them. They went out and used our plans for the library and bought books, tables, chairs, desks, etc. We taught them how to donate a library. And how to use their employees as volunteers. They then provided the library and it was a huge smashing success. They are going to be doing it for a second year. That to me is how I would like to see CSR move as it gets larger companies involved and getting people physically involved and getting their hands dirty.
Most of our corporate donors aren’t that involved. What we’ll do is that we’ll control the materials but then we’ll plug them in during the library donation. We donate the library, and they get to work with the children introducing the library to them.
Q. How sustainable are the libraries once they are
A. We check after 6 months to make sure the library is being used. If it’s being used ok, then fantastic we just call every few months to see if there is anything need. If the books are not being used, then we retrain the librarians. We never take the books away. It’s an incredibly sustainable projected. Most schools have 20-50 students and we give libraries between 250-800 books.
Another thing that is kind of interesting is that in a lot of our smaller schools, the local community checks the books out too. The parents, the guys down the road, will check out a book. That doesn’t happen in the larger schools but in the smaller schools where it is very community based.
Q. What is your view of literacy in China?
A. The literacy rate in China is incredible. I would say we are not a literacy organization. We don’t promote literacy. The education system in China is doing a great job. What we’re doing is providing the infrastructures so kids have more interesting things to read, beyond textbooks—common books, books on the monkey king and Powder Puff girls. Books that kids get excited about reading.
Q. What plans are in the works for TLP in 2010?
A. We’re going to provide a total of 125 libraries over the next 12 months. We’re also going to open up our Vietnam office in Saigon. We’re going to just keep plugging away, and keep innovating on our libraries—getting books of higher quality and doing more book donations. Right now we do book donations in about 50 cities and have collected about 50,000 books. We’d like to at least double that this year.
For more information on The Library Project visit their homepage at http://www.library-project.org.