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All hail the pop up library

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Sarah Glazer introduces Libraries Without Borders, which is having a huge impact on learning in the developing world

When refugees from the Congo rioted over drastically reduced food rations at Burundi’s Kavumu refugee camp earlier this year, they left one barrack unharmed amid their stone throwing. The building they spared contained a portable library – for many refugees their only contact with books or the outside world.

The library had arrived in a cleverly constructed box on wheels, which unfolded in 20 minutes to reveal desks, chairs, laptop computers, books, e-readers and video camera equipment. Known as the ‘Ideas Box’, the brightly coloured boxes had been delivered by a Paris-based charity, Libraries Without Borders, providing an oasis of learning in the camp.

According to the staff of Libraries Without Borders, many of the young people throwing stones depended upon the library to access their Facebook accounts, as well as films and books. Many had participated in its clubs, organised around reading, ‘slam poetry’ and making videos.

Immigration expert Patrick Weil, a historian at the University of Paris who founded Libraries Without Borders, told the story of how the refugees protected the Ideas Box at a panel discussion in London. The panel, part of a UK launch for Libraries Without Borders at the Institut Français (French Institute of London), also featured writers Ian McEwan, Lisa Appignanesi and Kenan Malik.

Weil said he first got the idea for the organisation seven years ago while travelling in Africa to refugee camps. Although the camps provided food and shelter, they offered ‘nothing about intellectual recovery’, he recalled. The camps he visited were devoid of education or reading material – a bleak existence when you consider the median length of stay in many of these camps can be as much as 17 years, he said.

‘What we miss most is culture,’ a young man who fled civil conflict in the Congo says in a documentary filmed at a Burundi refugee camp, which was shown at the event.

At first, Weil envisioned a traditional book collection drive that would send second-hand books from individual donors in France to refugee camps in Africa. And in fact Libraries Without Borders continues that activity today, maintaining a warehouse with 400,000 books, catalogued and ready to be sent to needy parts of the world.

Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Libraries Without Borders set up tent libraries before being solicited by UNICEF to deploy 300 library kits for children displaced by the disaster – suitcases of books in French and Creole that permitted teachers to re-start education. But, as Weil pointed out, sending books can become a ‘managerial nightmare’ as cartons are destroyed in the rain, or break apart when thrown from an airplane.

The organisation’s public call in 2012 to respond to the intellectual needs of people in humanitarian crises drew the attention of the prominent French designer Philippe Starck, known for his sleek interiors, furniture and kitchenware for companies like Alessi. Starck offered to design a rain-proof library-in-a-box for free.

Each Ideas Box contains 50 e-readers loaded with 5,000 books and 250 hard copies of books. A TV and projection screen can be used to watch a collection of about 100 films. Five HD cameras permit participatory journalism and film-making. Laptops are loaded with educational content such as videos from the Khan Academy and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The equipment also allows for workshops on coding and computer programming.

Libraries Without Borders now works in 20 countries and is in the process of sending Ideas Box kits to camps in Lebanon and Jordan for refugees fleeing from the Syrian conflict, and to Australia where it will be used in aborigine communities.

Increasingly, Libraries Without Borders sees an application for the Ideas Box in urban low-income or immigrant neighbourhoods, where libraries may be scarce or ill-equipped, and it has started working with library associations in this effort. In the developed world, it will be sending the Ideas Box to Calais and to a low-income New York City neighbourhood in the Bronx this summer.

Former president of English PEN Lisa Appignanesi, who was born in Poland and grew up in Paris and then Quebec, Canada, described growing up in a house with no books. ‘The library was where I could learn about the place we had come and how the people in that place thought,’ she said.

In July, the Ideas Box was displayed in Liverpool at the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). Libraries Without Borders also plans to test pop-up libraries using the Ideas Box in immigrant and under-served urban neighbourhoods in the UK.

Barbara Band, immediate past president of CILIP, was intrigued when she viewed the Ideas Box at last year’s World Library and Information Congress in Lyon, the international trade event for library and information services. “Instead of cutting libraries, we should be creating more,” she said.

Band called libraries ‘essential in the battle to raise literacy,’ noting that one out of every four 11-year-olds in the UK is reading below their expected level and that one in three children don’t own a book.

Novelist Ian McEwan told an amusing story about trying to give away some 200 books on a summer day when office workers gathered in the square in front of his house at lunchtime. Not a single man accepted a book, he reported.  But women looked through the collection with interest, often mentioned they had read one of the books already, and took one or more that tempted them.

Noting that historically the novel rose in popularity thanks to women readers, McEwan said: ‘The route to children is through women.’ Weil confirmed this insight, noting that women in refugee camps have started to create small Internet businesses and often come to the Ideas Box to work on these enterprises, bringing their children to play with the board games or read books at the portable library.

It currently costs 50,000 euros to produce one Ideas Box, Weil said – a cost that the United Nations refugee agency (Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR) would like to see reduced so that it can order more of the kits for refugee camps. The project has already received support from private donors like the Alexander Soros Foundation and is looking for more donors so it can bring the light of intellectual discovery to more parts of the world.

At a time when budget cuts are closing libraries across the UK, it is sad to think that many children will never have the experience I did, as a child growing up in New York City, with a public library within easy walking distance.

I still remember receiving a gift of The Blue Fairy Book, the 19th Century collection of fairy tales by Andrew Lang. My appetite whetted, I arrived at my library to discover an entire shelf of books in the same series–in a rainbow of colours extending to crimson, olive and lilac! With each volume, the stories became more exotic, including folk tales from far-away places like Russia and China, permitting a child of eight to travel into cultures and ways of thinking I could never have known otherwise.

As Kenan Malik, an Indian-born English writer who often writes about racial divisions, said: ‘We live in a world full of borders, but books break down these borders.’

Sarah Glazer is a contributing writer at CQ Researcher, where she writes about social policy, and has written for the New York Times about books and publishing.