Today, we celebrate the book. It might be a book full of words and pictures, or it might be full of clean empty pages. Either way, a book that can fit in a pocket or a small bag, together with the ability to read those words or fill those pages, gives the owner a freedom and power that few other items can give.
A book can transport you to the past, to the future, into other lives, countries and worlds. It can supply boundless knowledge and information. An empty page can be filled with thoughts, ideas and stories. It’s a place where creativity can be limitless.
Across the UK today, many children will be celebrating World Book Day by going to school dressed as their favourite literary characters. There will no doubt be lots of Harry Potters, Hermione Grangers and, no doubt, some Voldemorts, racing round playgrounds with wands and broomsticks. Most (although not all) of these children will learn in classrooms filled with books, they will have access to school and town libraries. Many will have received a free pack of books at 12 months and again between 3-4 years in order to encourage an enjoyment of reading. It is well evidenced that children who read for pleasure are likely to do better at school, as well as be more socially, culturally and emotionally prepared for life.
It is a very different story for many children across the globe, particularly those in poor or remote areas and in fragile or conflict-affected states. Gaining the literacy skills needed to read books can be very challenging – for children, parents and teachers. Access to books, in languages that children can read, can be very restricted, resources have to be shared and the quality of materials can be very poor.
Many projects supported by the UK Government’s Girls’ Education Challenge are tackling this problem head on. To date, over 7 million textbooks and students kits have been disbursed – sometimes making the final leg of the journey by donkey when roads have been closed by snow and debris! Some projects are using mobile libraries to provide children with a greater selection of books and materials.
The STAGES project in Afghanistan has established 21 mobile libraries to provide library access to students and community members in Faryab. For both parents and children, the opportunity to borrow books represents an important way to build literacy skills and create a culture of reading.
The mobile libraries are weatherproof metal boxes with wheels that can easily be moved from community to community. Each mobile library includes some fifty books; storybooks, dictionaries and books on religion.
The libraries are the responsibility of trained volunteer librarians who are responsible for orienting users to books, keeping a register of users and taking the mobile libraries to communities.
One library user talks about her experience:
”One day I went out to bring water from the pump and I saw a group of girls walking towards a nearby house, chatting and smiling. They were so happy that I thought they were going to a wedding. I asked them what was so exciting and I was surprised to hear about the mobile library in our community so children can read books and study.”
“I went home and asked my mother for permission to join the girls and meet the librarian and borrow some books. The librarian showed us how to borrow books and explained how to take care of them at home. The mobile library was actually a box full of books and we were so excited! I chose my favorite one and from that day I have been borrowing books. Now I can read one or two books in a week, depending on their size. My favourite are cultural, social, history and cooking books.”
“Reading the books has really influenced me and I am learning a lot. The libraries help us improve our knowledge and helps our community develop an interest in reading and studying. Everyone in the community is very happy about the mobile libraries.”
Many GEC projects are using innovative technology to educate and inspire children in the classroom. Indeed some of this technology will ‘leapfrog’ the steps that we have seen introduced in schools in the UK. But whilst this progress is new and exciting, we should not forget the power of the page, be it empty or full of words, to impart knowledge and stories, inspire creativity and motivate young people.
As renowned author Stephen King has said, "Books are a uniquely portable magic". This World Book Day, we celebrate that magic, and everyone that is working to help spread it around the globe.
Clare Convey is a member of the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) team. The GEC is investing £300 million in the education of a million of the world’s poorest girls to expand their opportunities and improve their lives.
Photo Credit: Bridge International Academies