February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Palo Alto School to Be Recognized for Starting 13 Libraries in Africa

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With the help of school librarian Cynthia Curtis, students at Hanes Magnet School in NC work on packing books for the ALP. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Curtis.

Last year, Cynthia Curtis, the school librarian at Hanes Magnet School—located in a low-income neighborhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina—filled a giant cargo container of collected books that were headed for 48 school libraries to be built in rural Botswana. She didn’t do it alone, but with the elbow grease, investment, and support of her students, the surrounding community, and Hanes Magnet. Curtis, who has been a librarian at Hanes Magnet for the past eight years, has participated in the African Library Project (ALP), a grassroots nonprofit organization that starts libraries in rural Africa by providing books, for the past four years.

“Every year, [the kids] ask me are we going to the African Library Project, because they have books from over the summer,” says Curtis. “They feel like they are doing something beyond themselves.”

ALP-logo-resizeThe ALP partners donors (often times schools) in the United States with recipient schools in Africa, placing the responsibility of book collection and raising the funds for shipping the books on the donors, while the ALP takes care of the logistics like pairing Africa schools with donors and getting the books through customs to its destination school.

“The project makes it easy for people to participate, because they do all the groundwork,” says retired-school librarian, Ann McQueen, who worked at Jordan Middle School in Palo Alto, California, for the past 17 years, before retiring this year. This year, Jordan Middle School will be receiving the Compassion in Action Award from the ALP in recognition for its contributions over the past eight years in collecting over 13,000 books to start “13 libraries in Ghana, Lesotho, Botswana, Malawi, and Swaziland,” according the ALP press release.

McQueen, who got involved in the ALP in 2006, after a librarian in her district had asked her if she wanted to get involved, has been instrumental in spearheading the school’s book collection for ALP.

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Retired Jordan Middle School librarian Anne McQueen. Photo courtesy of Ann McQueen.

“I am honored to be recognized by ALP for the many book drives we did,” says Ann McQueen to SLJ. “I am especially pleased that they honored, not me, but rather Jordan Middle School as the recipient,[because] it was very much a group effort.”

This year Jordan Middle School sent books to Ghana, and McQueen said it wasn’t (and hasn’t been) hard to drum up support and enthusiasm in the school and surrounding Palo Alto community for the book drives and fundraising. According to McQueen, one way she collected books was to designate a single day as the day every student had to bring in a book to donate.

“That day we collected, we [had] 700 to 800 books,” she said.

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Books en-route to Mohale’s Hoek High School in Lesotho. Photo courtesy of ALP.

Other ways to gather support for the project? To raise money for the shipping costs of the books, Curtis’ school allowed students who donated a dollar to skip wearing school uniforms for a day.

Chris Bradshaw, the founder of the African Library Project, says about McQueen, “Not only has Annie opened the eyes of Jordan’s students to the challenges of getting an education in Africa where most schools have no books, she has offered the students a way to do something about it. I know I can count on her and Jordan Middle School year after year.”

Bradshaw, who’d spent her junior year of college in Sierra Leone, did a field trip with her son years later in Lesotho, a mountainous country in southern Africa. They were riding ponies with no roads or water for miles, when her son, bored, pulled out his book; she asked her native travel guide whether the country had libraries, and his reply? A single library in the capital city. The concept of an entire county having one library made her think—she partnered with a member of of the Peace Corps in Lesotho, who also happened to be a former librarian, and together they established five new libraries in Lesotho.

In ALP’s second year in operation, Jordan Middle School began conducting book drives for the effort.

“School librarians have been some of our most ardent advocates and supporters,” says Bradshaw. “Of course, they’ve already dedicated their lives to giving increased access of information to kids.”


Botswana Primary School Library. Photo courtesy of ALP.

Developing a love of reading for children in remote areas of Africa is a different experience than for children in the United States, Bradshaw tells SLJ.

“Most kids [growing up in rural Africa] have never read a book. They are very remotely located, and most of them don’t have electricity. Many of them are hours away from a road.“

According to Bradshaw, the donor recipient side must provide the space, book shelves, the librarian, and a library committee in order to qualify for a library.

Those interested in donating can go to the ALP website to see the selection of participating donor recipient countries, grades, and ship dates for books. In addition, librarians interested in setting up a small library in Africa can read the book How to Set Up and Run a Small Library in Africa published by the African Library Project in 2012 that offers helpful tips about setting up a library, covering classification, borrowing, fundraising—and even how to keep bugs out of the books.


Boys from Lesotho enjoy Dr. Suess’ “The 500 Hats.” Photo courtesy of ALP.

In addition to the minimum of the 1,000 books each donor must raise by a certain date, the donor must also raise approximately $500 to cover the cost of shipping the books.

The ALP website contains a link to various forms of fundraising for shipping costs. This past year, McQueen’s school did a garage sale organized by two teachers, in which the students brought in donated items from their households. At Curtis’ school, kids wrapped Christmas gifts at Barnes & Noble and used the money earned for shipping costs.

“The kids realize there are kids less fortunate than themselves,” says Curtis, who works at a low-income school.

“This is an opportunity to provide [children] an education about the developing world through this service project. Opportunity to turns their students into global activists,” says Bradshaw. “They’re so compassionate, and they want to do something about it.”

The Compassion in Action Award will be presented on September 20, 2014 at an African Library Project gala in Portola Valley, California.

For more information on the African Libraries Project visit: www.africanlibraryproject.org.

You might also want to read on SLJ:

For Your ‘Global Awareness Toolbox’: Ways to Engage Your Students in Global Thinking

How a VA Middle School Librarian and Her Book Club Raised Funds to Provide 15,000 Meals for Students in South Sudan

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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  1. Thank you SO MUCH for posting this article! It gives me a starting place to be able to do the same thing. This summer I had the opportunity to keynote the South African school librarian conference …the passion and pride I saw in school librarians, both rural and urban were amazing! Taking a tour of their facilities, I saw how everything they had, even if it was old technology and books, were treasured. I’ll be using these resources to help those I had the opportunity to get to know have more. Couldn’t be more well timed! Kudos Cynthia!!

  2. This story is an inspiration!!! Our local school libraries are closed and this story gives me such hope. What an amazing example of inspiring compassion AND the love of reading onto those that have so much less then our students.