Books are not obsolete!
May 30, 2008
As I pack my bags for Book Expo America, where I will meet with publishers whose generous donations are improving the lives of millions, I am struck by the high level of participation by the publishing industry and the general public. About 25,000 people will gather in Los Angeles for three days to discuss the latest trends, hear talks from bestselling authors, and get up-to-speed on this year’s must-read titles. Moreover, we are there to celebrate the importance of books and learning.
No matter where you live, education is a key factor in development; and everywhere teachers, parents, and educators face enormous challenges. We are all familiar with schools and libraries that lack materials, supplies, or the budget to improve their collections. While there are clear needs for improvements in education in the U.S., the situation we see on the ground in Asia is far more dire. For instance, the U.S. public library system, started by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the late 1800’s, offers a variety of tools — from books on every subject imaginable to free internet access and reference materials on DVDs – supported by tax payers. Very few Asian countries have anything comparable, and therefore access to information is inadequate and exacerbates the disadvantages faced by even the most ambitious.
At The Asia Foundation, we focus our resources on providing books and educational materials to nearly 20 countries and have been doing so consistently for over 50 years through the Books for Asia program. We see how valuable books are and how they represent the hopes and aspirations of parents, village leaders, and policymakers. Although some areas of Asia enjoy growth and modernization, most developing countries in the region need greater access to educational materials in local languages and in English to advance and participate in the global economy. In Asia, there is no discussion about books becoming obsolete.
The impact of free and uncensored access to the world’s ideas and experiences is immense and tangible. At Books for Asia we see our donated books about
first-aid and health used to provide instruction on how to treat victims of natural disasters. We know that some of today’s leaders, such as Grameen Bank’s Muhammad Yunus, were able to advance their education with books donated to their local universities. We know from government representatives that our book donations have helped them draft legislation and establish international standards and policies.
The books we donate travel from our warehouse on the San Francisco Bay in California to some of the most remote places in Asia. Our donations in Malaysia travel on river boats to reach the otherwise inaccessible public libraries of Sabah and Sarawak. To get to the most remote areas in Timor Leste and Sri Lanka, we’ve coordinated mobile libraries that travel from village to village. In Mongolia, Books for Asia’s mobile library has clocked more than 16,200 kilometers (over 10,000 miles) to reach all 21 of the country’s provinces. In Afghanistan, since early 2002, we have distributed more than 200,000 books. After more than three decades of war and instability, thanks to American publishers, information is freely flowing to more than 80% of the provinces of Afghanistan where the main recipients are high schools, teacher training centers, as well as government institutions and civil society organizations.
Although China is developing at a rapid pace, there are many pockets where access to books, especially in English, is almost non-existent. Last year, our partner was able to visit Chifeng Institute in Inner-Mongolia and bring more than 1,000 new books to 8,000 students. He reported that the few English language books the Institute did have were over a decade old.
In all of the countries where we work, we rely on dedicated educators and librarians to request books and materials. It is through their advocacy that we know where to fill needs. In Pakistan’s Qila Lachman Singh high school for girls, Samina Atta, an English teacher, uses oversized, colorful English-language text and picture books donated by Books for Asia. She told us that reading helps her students “acquire language skills and connect the books to their own lives.” Samina’s commitment to teaching English is preparing these girls for life in the wider world. In Phuket, Thailand, teachers worked tirelessly to coordinate shipments to schools and rebuild and stock libraries in tsunami-affected areas with donations coordinated by the Association of American Publishers and Scholastic.
To make all of this possible, we rely on publishers to donate their overstock to Books for Asia. For many students, this is the starting point on a lifelong journey that begins with reading and continues by increasing their knowledge about the world and their rights and responsibilities within it. Such an informed citizenry is critical for a just, peaceful, open, and prosperous Asia.
Melody Zavala is the Director of The Asia Foundation’s Books For Asia program.
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