Buses in Lagos, shipping containers in the Netherlands and even a couple of Colombian donkeys are enjoying a new lease of life as bookmobiles, spreading knowledge in their communities.
Travelling from place to place, mobile libraries around the world aim to bring the benefits of reading to those without access to books.
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The idea has been around since as early as the 19th century but – despite the availability of ebooks and increasingly widespread internet access – mobile libraries, also known as bookmobiles, have not disappeared.
Instead, they are adapting to meet the needs of their communities by providing not only books but workshops and training or simply a human connection for people living in remote areas.
To mark World Book Day on April 23, Al Jazeera speaks to the people behind the mobile libraries putting books in the hands of communities in Syria, Colombia, Nigeria and the Netherlands.
Bringing books to kids: iRead Mobile Library, Nigeria
Funmi Ilori believes it’s her calling to bring books to children in Nigeria‘s Lagos state.
When the educational psychologist and social entrepreneur was asked to write down a big, unachievable dream at a leadership conference in 2004, building Africa‘s biggest library was what came to mind.
From visiting houses with two baskets full of books, Ilori has grown iRead Mobile Library, the country’s first mobile library, according to Ilori, whose four buses have visited over 3,000 children so far.
“Libraries are one of the most important spaces for every community,” says Ilori. “I saw a huge gap [in Nigeria] because, even though public libraries exist, they are scarce and children are not able to travel far enough to enjoy the public libraries’ spaces.”
While the reaction from parents and children has been largely positive, local councils have caused delays in iRead’s service by insisting they pay fees to operate.
The buses make 44 stops each week at schools and community centres, as well as a monthly trip to rural areas outside of Lagos state.
Each child who visits iRead can choose from around 13,000 books and receives a library bag and a review book in which they can write down what they thought of the book they borrowed.
iRead’s team also host workshops to educate children on topics, such as sustainable development using songs, drama and art.
Ilori and her team of 12 plan to apply for grants to expand their fleet to 14 buses within the next five years, enabling them to extend their work across Nigeria.
The donkey library: Biblioburro, Colombia
“The first time people saw me up on the donkeys, they laughed,” says Luis Soriano, the founder of Bibliburro, a donkey-powered mobile library that travels around northern Colombia.
“They said he’s gone crazy. The circus has come to town.”.
Taking its name from the Spanish words for library (“biblioteca”) and donkey (“burro”), Biblioburro began more than two decades ago when Soriano, 48, first hit the road with his two donkeys: Alfa and Beto.
A teacher by trade, he wanted to improve his pupils’ access to books after noticing that many of them were not progressing as expected in school.
“I visited each of their homes and I realised there was a real lack of books,” Soriano tells Al Jazeera. “So one day, I decided to visit them with books.
“At first, I carried the books in my arms, but it was too far between the houses, so that’s when I decided to go by donkey.”
When he began operating in Colombia’s mountainous Magdalena Province, in 1997, the area was difficult to access by car, so donkeys were an ideal solution.
Using specially designed saddlebags, each donkey can carry up to 150 books.
Over the years, Soriano has grown a network of donkey libraries, encompassing around 20 employees, as well as a brick-and-mortar library in La Gloria, Soriano’s hometown, and a digital programme.
“The rural population have difficulty accessing technology,” explains Soriano. “So we take laptops, which we charge overnight and whenever we can get electricity, to rural areas with our modem so children can learn about the internet.”
Improved infrastructure and government investment in expanding libraries in the last 20 years has improved access to books and education for those living along Soriano’s route, but his work with Biblioburro continues.
The project now receives funding from a regional NGO and runs a lifelong learning programme with the National Library of Colombia.
“When I started, I could never have imagined that 20 years would pass so quickly, but when it’s work you enjoy, you don’t count the hours or think about when it will end.”
Education and escapism: The Mobile Library, Syria
In July last year, children in the rural areas of Syria’s Idlib and Aleppo provinces met an unusual sight: a brightly coloured van full of books.
Visiting schools, mosques and other public places, the Mobile Library is a project that aims to encourage children’s education through reading in areas where many schools have been forced to close because of the country’s ongoing war.
In October 2017, more than 1.75 million children in Syria were not attending school and one in three schools were out of use, according to Save the Children.
“Reading books instills a sense of openness,” says Malek Refai, the Mobile Library’s project manager. “We are trying to help young people to find their way to the future.
“Maybe they can find something interesting or something they are passionate about by accessing these books,” he tells Al Jazeera.
Reading books instills a sense of openness. We are trying to help young people to find their way to the future.
So far, the seven-person team, that works as part of Syrian NGO Dari Sustainable Development, have been able to reach around 4,000 children.
The team were inspired by mobile libraries launched during conflicts in other countries, as well as by their experience protecting books during the years-long siege of Daraya, a suburb of the capital, Damascus.
“We constructed a secret library [underground] to save the books from shelling,” says Refai. “This increased our interest in books and libraries.”
Modified with shelves and lighting, the Mobile Library houses a collection of around 2,000 children’s books, acquired through a complicated process of brokering between bookshops in Idlib and Damascus.
“I don’t know how exactly [we] managed to get them,” Refai confesses.
War creates a raft of challenges for the team, including negotiating with the various groups controlling the area and ensuring that staff and visitors are safe.
Occasionally, the project has had to suspend its services, most recently because the region’s unpaved roads became impassable during winter, but Refai and his team are committed to providing education and escapism to the region’s children.
The reading container: BiebBus, the Netherlands
Aimed at children between four and 12 years of age in the Netherlands’ Zaan region, the BiebBus is a mobile library uniquely suited to its environment.
The bus’ design is based on a standard 12-metre shipping container that expands to reveal a “treasure room” that houses the books, while the container becomes a glass-floored reading and play area with computers.
Once expanded, the bus can accommodate a whole class of children.
“Because of all the narrow streets, a conventional mobile library was not an option,” says Pien Jongenelen, senior communications adviser for The Library for Zaanstreek, who runs the BiebBus.
“[It] would require too much parking space, so architect Jordden Hollander designed a smart solution, he developed a vertically expanding mobile library,” she tells Al Jazeera.
There are now three BiebBussen that, combined, reach some 10,000 school children in the Netherlands each year, returning to locations on a monthly basis.
“Unfortunately, it’s financially impossible to offer every area its own permanent public library, [but] we think it’s very important that boys and girls who attend primary schools in the Zaan region have access to a vast collection of free books,” says Jongenelen.
“Children learn how to read at school, at the library, they learn that reading is not only imperative, but can also be a lot of fun.”