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“Gift of The Asia Foundation”—An Iconic Program and Its Director

September 27, 2023

By Dinusha Wickremesekera

The bookshelves of almost 10,000 schools, universities, and technical colleges, government offices, civic organizations, and public libraries in Sri Lanka hold books bearing the seal “Gift of The Asia Foundation.” From the capital city of Colombo to the smallest villages in the remote countryside, it is common to hear, “I read books from The Asia Foundation,” “I got specialized publications from The Asia Foundation,” and, especially, “is that nice gentleman from the books program still there?”

Anton Nallathamby at work with the Asia Foundation seal. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

It is safe to say that these books, donated by the Foundation’s Books for Asia program, have had a profound impact on reading in many parts of Asia. In Sri Lanka, Books for Asia commenced in what was then Ceylon in 1957 and continued until the Foundation temporarily closed its office in 1970. When the office reopened, in 1980, Books for Asia returned at the invitation of the government.

Relying at first on donations from American booksellers and publishers, Books for Asia soon developed partnerships with the Sri Lankan private sector. Commercial banks, private businesses, alumni associations, and social service clubs have donated funds to support the acquisition, shipment, and distribution of more than 100,000 books for Sri Lanka each year—almost 5 million in 42 years.

Books for Asia has not only filled the shelves of libraries with high quality books; it has also supported English-language instruction, helped to train librarians, and assisted in the publication of new works in Sinhala and Tamil. Books for Asia has also extended its Sri Lanka programs across the Indian Ocean to the Maldives, providing much-needed books for children, students, and professionals and even bringing Maldivian librarians to Sri Lanka for training.

Memories of Books for Asia in Sri Lanka, 5 million books later. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Anton Nallathamby

This story of Books for Asia in Sri Lanka is inextricably tied to one man, Anton Nallathamby. His retirement this year marks both an end and a beginning: the end of distributing physical books, and a new commitment to digital content.

When the Foundation reopened in Sri Lanka in 1980, our country representative, Frank Dines, was looking for a person to lead the distribution of the first shipment of 5,000 books. He gave the position to an energetic young librarian who would eventually become one of the Foundation’s longest-serving employees and whose passion and commitment—through insurrection, civil war, tsunami, pandemic, and economic crisis—are reflected in the millions of books that bear the Foundation’s seal.

That young man, Anton Nallathamby, had joined the Sri Lanka Library Association (SLLA) just out of school. He went on to become a chartered librarian and a member of the SLLA Council. He was working at the Institute of Cost Management Accountants (today the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) when he was offered the job.

At that time the Foundation had just six employees in Sri Lanka, and Books for Asia was a central part of the Foundation’s programs. Sri Lanka had just liberalized its economy, and there was a growing demand for English-language proficiency. Previous policies had prioritized the vernacular languages, and there were few teachers of English and limited books and teaching materials, particularly outside of Colombo and other main towns.

Children’s books in English, Sinhala, and Tamil created by Books for Asia. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

From American publishers to Sri Lankan readers

When Mr. Nallathamby distributed that first shipment of 5,000 books in 1981, he recorded the inventory by hand. In just this year of 2023, over 200,000 books have been distributed in Sri Lanka, and a computerized database tracked each and every one. Mr. Nallathamby has worked with over 95 percent of the libraries in Sri Lanka, ensuring that each receives the books that they need. What hasn’t changed is the recognizable seal, bearing the name of The Asia Foundation and the promise that the books are not for sale.

Looking back, Mr. Nallathamby is proudest of the network of academics, professionals, and librarians that this program helped to establish and nourish, not just in Sri Lanka but in the Maldives as well. He also recalls with pride the day in 1984 when the president of Sri Lanka, J. R. Jayawardena, visited the Foundation with his wife. They came to thank the Foundation for the special collection of books on international relations donated to the Presidental Secretariat library, and they took the opportunity to learn more about the Foundation’s work.

Distributing over 100,000 books a year has been a major exercise in logistics, often made more complex by challenging national circumstances. During the civil war, the Peace Secretariat became a key logistical partner for deliveries to libraries in the embattled North and East. During the pandemic and the economic crisis that followed, the postal service, private couriers, and local transport networks were enlisted to make deliveries to local libraries. One Books for Asia team member who first joined as a computer specialist developed such a fascination with these constantly changing logistical puzzles that he set off to study logistics overseas!

Since 2012, Books for Asia has augmented its shipments of books from the United States with books in local languages. More recently, the Foundation has begun to work with local writers, illustrators, and publishers to commission new, locally written children’s books in Sinhala and Tamil.

Now, the Books for Asia program is transitioning, winding down shipments of hard copy books. The undistributed inventory of books has shrunk to zero, a number unseen since 1980, and the bookshelves are empty. But the end of this durable and successful program is also a new beginning. While Books for Asia will no longer be distributing physical books, the program is going all in, in the digital realm. There, other challenges await, including the digital divide and the uneven access to digital information in Sri Lanka.

Forty-two years after the restart of Books for Asia in Sri Lanka, the shelves are finally empty. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Mr. Nallathamby will be retiring after 42 years as one of the best-known faces of the Foundation in Sri Lanka. He has been a respected colleague, a tireless team member, a mentor, and a friend, who has left an indelible mark on libraries and readers throughout the country.

As The Asia Foundation moves forward with its new digital platform, LetsReadAsia.org, the legacy of Books for Asia and its dedicated staff, led by Anton Nallathamby, will provide the bedrock on which new relationships will be forged, and the culture of reading will continue to flourish in Sri Lanka.

Dinusha Wickremesekera is a justice and gender consultant for The Asia Foundation in Sri Lanka. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation. Next year, in 2024, The Asia Foundation marks 70 years of working on the ground in Asia and the Pacific.

Related locations: Sri Lanka
Related programs: Let's Read

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