Books and Literature as a Way to Transform Urban Spaces

I grew up with my nose in a book. In fact, usually more than one. I read voraciously, waking up an hour earlier than necessary before school to start the second or third simultaneous novel; staying up way past my bedtime to finish it. But for all the authors and characters that defined my childhood, from Dickens to Tolkien (with inevitable side of Harry Potter), I took libraries for granted. I loved reading, but saw the library itself as unremarkable, a middle-man between me and my books.

And then I found myself in southern Chad, in a place marked by poverty and political instability and refugees and crumbling infrastructure that barely ever existed in the first place–all things I was prepared for–and one thing that I had never thought about, even if now it seems obvious. An utter information disparity, because of the ways libraries and instantaneous access to information have been the invisible crossbeams of my life.

Across the world, libraries are embracing their ability to impact their communities and to effect change. The form it takes is different. In Maputo, Mozambique, Mindy Brown started a social enterprise library/literacy program to fill the giant, unaddressed gap. In a city without a public library, the subscription based lending library provides English and Portuguese language resources to middle class Mozambicans, while the mobile unit visits impoverished rural and urban neighborhoods to conduct literacy education for children.

In Kehl, Germany, which sits just steps across the Rhine from Strasbourg, France, I found public bookshelves placed in the central square. A wonderful example of the sharing economy in practice, there was no library card required; anyone was free to add, borrow, or even take from the collection as they liked.

Perhaps an eventual library in Moundou, Chad will take on a completely different form and structure. Buying and holding physical books, building a traditional library from scratch, would be an enormously expensive challenge. When I had a chance to meet the Canadian and French ambassadors during International Week of the Francophonie (La Semaine Internationale de la Francophonie), I suggested that the Francophonie spearhead partnerships with French and Canadian public libraries to create “reading rooms” equipped with e-readers and access to those libraries’ electronic lending catalogs.

Yet while the needs of places like Mozambique and Chad are gaping and obvious, it might be less clear that even in the midst of well-organized, well-funded resources like the hundreds of American public library systems, there may even be families that don’t realize what world lies at their fingertips. Children who unlike me, aren’t growing up with their noses in books, and don’t even see their local library as accessible.

This is why Literary Lots is so important–to bring the library outdoors, to use books and literature as a way to transform urban spaces, and to plant a new love of reading in a whole new generation.

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