The ability to read, to access reading materials, and to process what we read is essential to our day-to-day lives, not just as bluestockings but as productive citizens. And yet for too many people in the world, these things we take for granted—literacy, access to books, and affordable education—are rare luxuries. Fortunately, because book people are awesome people, there are a number of organizations out there striving to bring literacy and books to those who need them most.
This week in the Bluestocking Salon, Bas Bleu decided it was high time to give credit where credit is due to some of the hardest-working people in the book world. We’ve pinpointed five book-based organizations whose work, whether at home or abroad, is doing great things for people—particularly young people—and communities in need. Because if there’s one thing we can all (hopefully!) agree on, it’s that literate, educated children are our greatest hope for the future.
Room to Read
In 1998, John Wood headed to Nepal for a much-needed break from his life as a Microsoft executive. A chance meeting in the Himalayas with a local education resource officer drew him to a nearby village school, where he was stunned by the lack of books available to the students. The school principal bid him farewell with a polite request: “Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books.” A year later, Wood quit his job at Microsoft to found Room to Read, an organization devoted to building schools and establishing libraries in rural communities. Since then, RTR has expanded to thousands of communities in Asia and Africa, its education and literacy initiatives broadening to include Girls’ Education, a program devoted to providing long-term education to girls, and the Local Language Initiative, a publishing venture that creates high-quality books written in the local languages of individual communities.
Librarians Without Borders/Bibliothèques Sans Frontièrs
You’ve probably heard of Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontièrs, but Librarians Without Borders is a relative newcomer on the world stage, founded in 2007 to supply books, train librarians, encourage local publishing, and promote access to information and culture around the globe. They work to help immigrants assimilate to their adopted communities, preserve cultural heritage, provide resources during humanitarian disasters, and more. The librarians we know wear many hats in their quest to make their communities a better place to live and thrive, so it’s no surprise that Librarians Without Borders’s mission is “to address the structural causes of economic and human under-development through the promotion of better and innovative educative practices, providing access to life-long learning and training, helping disseminate information and knowledge, reducing the digital divide and promoting cultural heritage.”
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library
Country-music superstar Dolly Parton makes no secret about her hardscrabble childhood: She grew up in the mountains of east Tennessee, the daughter of an illiterate farmer whose household of fourteen could claim ownership of only a single book—the Bible. Fifty years later, after a storied career in music and movies made her a millionaire, she created the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Fueled by Parton’s personal fortune, the organization mails one book per month to enrolled children (free of charge!) from the ages of birth to kindergarten. DPIL’s goals: To foster a love of books and reading from an early age and to ensure that every child has access to quality, age-appropriate books, regardless of his or her family’s income level. Today, the Imagination Library mails books to children in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and has been proven to drastically improve early-childhood literacy for enrollees. Our favorite detail: Every child’s first book from the program is The Little Engine That Could.
Specifically focused on low-income communities around the country, JumpStart is dedicated to helping kids develop the language and literacy skills they need to prepare for school. Beyond simple reading and writing skills, JumpStart works to build knowledge and confidence, encourage resiliency and a playful spirit, and promote kindness and patience. Perhaps most importantly, JumpStart works to bring together entire communities—schools, families, and volunteers—to provide children with the support they need. As an AmeriCorps partner, most of JumpStart’s volunteers are college students, which totally overturns the notion that college kids only care about keg parties and sorority mixers!
Co-founded in 2002 by author Dave Eggers, 826 National is a bit of an outlier on this list because it focuses primarily on writing, not literacy skills. But what good is literacy if no one’s written anything worth reading??? Seriously, strong writing skills are key throughout life, be it for term papers in high school, the SAT writing section, college theses, business plans, cover letters, grants, emails to your boss… Plus, the 826 centers located around the country provide students with after-school tutoring; workshops in bookmaking, playwriting, cartooning, and other creative skills most schools lack the resources to cover; even publishing projects guided and edited by established writers.
These five organizations are just a handful of the many doing great work around the world. Are you familiar with a literacy organization our fellow bluestockings should know about? Tell us in the comments!