“Most of the children I meet have never had contact with a book. Their first encounter is with a textbook,” says Camille Quine, founder of Little Libraries. “It’s not surprising then that our kids don’t know how to read, or have a love for reading.” To address this absence of reading materials, particularly during children’s most formative years, Camille conceived of Little Libraries – small wooden bookshelves that contain about 120-140 children’s books. To date, she has delivered 120 of these libraries to early childhood development centres and schools across Cape Town’s townships, determined to distribute even more…
What motivated you to start doing something for the greater good?
We all know there are people ‘out there’ in need of support, but it’s easy to just say, “Ag shame, those poor people…”. But, the reality is, just 40 km from where we are sitting, there are people with absolutely nothing. It’s shocking that all of this is going on so close to where we live.
What was the “a-ha” moment that motivated you to start Little Libraries? / Of all the hundreds of things that you could do – how did you come to do the specific activity that you are doing?
I had to visit ECD centres in the townships for another project I was working on. I would ask the practitioners, “What do you do with your children?”. They told me: “We sing and dance and play” – all things that you don’t need materials for. I felt a bit shell-shocked after these visits, and so my husband suggested we put together a bookshelf and some books, and give it to just one of the schools I’d visited. Friends helped us collect books, and before we knew it, they wanted to help more and more, until it became ‘a thing’! I have now delivered 120 little libraries.
How do you source the books and materials for your little libraries?
I get books in two ways: from individuals or companies that approach me with books they have collected through their own book drives, or I purchase books with donated monies. I never choose stories that children in the townships won’t identify with, but rather try and get books with animals and fantasy characters. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of books that reflect local children and their lives. Some people give me flack for giving away books that are largely in English, but I don’t think that should be a deterrent – especially for children who have no books at all. Whilst I try and find them where I can, Xhosa book are a little more expensive. The people who read to the children, translate the stories in any event – so the children get to hear the stories in both languages, which is a positive thing.
As for the bookshelves, these are made up by an NPO that commissions and upskills homeless people to build them; it’s about people paying it forward…
What’s YOUR golden rule when it comes to book donations?
I’m happy to give away secondhand books, but refuse to give books with missing pages, scribbles, etc. Just because people have little, it doesn’t mean they can be given just anything; I always ask myself, ‘would I give this to my own children?’.
Can you give some realistic insight into the process of donating books to the communities you work with?
Building a network in the townships was very important: firstly, to get around as people are sometimes dubious of you as an outsider so you need to build some trust. And secondly, it is important to find the worthiest people who will get Little Libraries. I asked the recipients of our first Little Library if they knew people who needed books… I now have five ladies who have proclaimed themselves to be “working” with me; they are not remunerated by me, but they speak about Little Libraries at community forums, etc. There’s never a lack of demand and I actually wish I had a truck (not a Mini) to drop off these books.
How do you measure the impact the project is having?
I don’t have a scientific way of measuring the effects yet, but when I come back months later, and the children are excited to see me, I know they associate me with something cool… it’s like a short code for enjoyment.
Have you used social media for the Little Libraries project in any way?
I’m not a social media person, but I did set up a Facebook page. I write the stories and my son posts them for me. I also try and give people who donate, pictures of the recipients – people like to see who their donations have gone to.
What’s next for Little Libraries?
I’m now trying to get children a clever cupboard in addition to a little library. This is a cupboard filled with games to help develop fine motor skills, such as threading and beading, as well as paper and glue. People seem to have a romantic attachment to books- “I spent the weekend in bed with this amazing book”. This makes it easier to collect books. No-one seems as keen to provide paper and pens, and so kids will arrive at school having never handled these materials before. To date, we have only delivered Cupboard 29. This amounts to a quarter of the people who have asked me for one. I am also trying to introduce the idea of sponsors to sustain Little Libraries so they can be replenished with new books, but people seem to prefer to sponsor a moment in time, meaning it’s easier to get once-off donations.
What has Little Libraries meant to you personally, and for the communities you work with?