Books as building blocks in Bolivia: BiblioWorks

The premise behind BiblioWorks is simple: Books build communities.

Over the past four years, the nonprofit has opened six libraries across Bolivia, mostly in rural areas, with the help of Peace Corps volunteers and Bolivian churches, authorities and nonprofit agencies.

Young readers: Children in Morado K’asa, Bolivia, celebrated the opening of their first library in 2005. It was built by contributions through an Asheville-based online bookseller, and the project’s success led to the creation of BiblioWorks. Courtesy BiblioWorks

BiblioWorks grew out of Biblio, an online bookseller launched in 2000 by Asheville residents Brendan Sherar and Allen Singleton. The company, which specializes in rare and out-of-print titles, had always planned to engage in some form of social entrepeneurship, the two note, but the idea of building a library in Bolivia was born out of happenstance.

Around the time the company was brainstorming ideas for good works, Sherar’s sister, Megan, was volunteering with the Peace Corps in Morado K’asa. The impoverished community had come to the conclusion that it needed a library to help educate its young people, and Megan told her brother.

“We said we are a book company, and that’s kind of what we do, so it was almost serendipity,” notes Brendan. “The first library we built more or less from the ground up, and it only cost about $6,000 to build and put books in.”

To fund that first project, which opened in 2005, Sherar and Singleton tapped their network of booksellers for donations. The two founded BiblioWorks later that year to pursue similar projects aimed at fostering literacy and education.

Sherar says he’s visited Bolivia several times over the past few years, and seeing the country’s poverty and political unrest firsthand has given him a deeper appreciation for the challenges its people face.

“What happens is this cycle of poverty that never gets broken. The best and the brightest get out and never return. They’re trying to create a cycle where the community helps educate kids that stay and help communities develop and grow,” he says. “They’ve really thought about sustainable ways to address their problems.”

Over the past year, BiblioWorks has focused on training librarians and working with local officials to ensure their continued involvement, says Singleton. For example, the nonprofit might commit to providing 500 books and a copier if the community commits to hiring a librarian who gets training through BiblioWorks.

“Building the libraries and putting the books in is almost the easy part,” notes Singleton. “Sustaining them is the more difficult part.”

And though the organization plans to keep building libraries, it’s also stepping up its efforts closer to home. BibloWorks recently received a Rotary Club grant to put libraries in the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry’s homeless shelters and in the Buncombe County Detention Center. The group is also looking to expand its board of directors.
Info: BiblioWorks, 2002 Riverside Drive, Suite 42G, Asheville NC 28804 (800-813-9432; www.biblioworks.org).

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