It started out as a simple challenge, proposed by a professor in a freshman seminar class. But since 2009, the Penn State African Library Project has grown to collect enough books to support more than 30 libraries.
Michael Gottfried was first introduced to the African Library Project during his fall 2009 freshman seminar, taught by Professor James Nolan. Nolan asked that his students hold a book drive to help build libraries in Africa.
But Gottfried (senior-earth and space science secondary education) decided to make it much more than one book collection.
“It really struck me because it was such an easy way to make a big difference, because you are collecting books and that is leading to providing an education for thousands,” founder of Penn State’s African Library Project Gottfried said.
During the 2009-10 academic year, 1,000 books were collected and 10 libraries were started in Swaziland. Though books were collected beginning in 2009, the organization did not become official until 2011.
When Gottfried returned home, he reached out to his community for more books to help with the drive on campus. But he ended up with too many and decided to start a separate book drive in his hometown in New Jersey . He collected about 10,000 books, allowing for the formation of more than nine libraries in Botswana and Swaziland . He continued his efforts during his sophomore year, collecting about 4,000 books.
In addition to collecting the books, each library requires $500 to aid in shipping costs, which must be raised through fundraising.
The organization has collected about 38,000 books, equating to 33.5 libraries. There are more books than libraries because some books are not specifically sent to Africa, and some libraries have more than 1,000 books in them, Gottfried said.
And the organization is still going strong on campus this year. On Jan. 18, the African Library Project teamed up with the African Students Association to host a book drive and literacy simulation called “Today’s Readers, Tomorrow’s Leaders.”
Hosted by Miss Africa PSU Daiyon Kpou , the event showed students how being illiterate inhibits people from correctly performing everyday tasks.
Attendees visited six different stations that provided tasks written in a foreign language. The students then had to decipher what the message said and perform it as precisely as possible. One station had students figure out which cup had the safe drinking water, while another asked students how many pills to take to treat cholera.
Because Kpou (sophomore-biology) is from Liberia — a country where the literacy rate is nearly 60 percent — she said she wanted to have an event that would make people more aware of the problem.
“Liberia really has a hard time growing and developing because there are not enough educated people,” she said. “So, I felt that instead of just talking about illiteracy it would be good to have people experience it for a little bit.”
But Kpou is not the only student who has firsthand experience with the problem of illiteracy. Current President of the African Library Project Lola Pedro lived in Nigeria for five years, and thus knows what it is like to live in a country where so many people are not provided with an education.
“I have been through some of the worst parts of Nigeria, so I know what it is like when children do not have libraries that they can go to,” Pedro (junior-crime, law and justice) said.