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This World Book Day, we meet the people behind mobile libraries serving communities from Nigeria to the Netherlands.
Bicycles, shipping containers and animals, such as donkeys, have all been used as mobile libraries [Biblioburro]
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.
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 Dayon 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
iRead's buses make 44 stops each week at schools and community centres in Lagos state [iRead]
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.
Using music and drama workshops, as well as books, iRead aim to introduce children to important topics, such as sustainable development [iRead]
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
After launching Biblioburro, Soriano renamed his donkeys 'Alfa' and 'Beto' after the Spanish word for alphabet ('alphabeto') [Biblioburro]
"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.
Soriano and his team visit schools and communities in Colombia's Caribbean north [Biblioburro]
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
With the war in Syria now in its eighth year, some children have never attended school [Malek Refai/The Mobile Library]
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.
MALEK REFAI, PROJECT MANAGER, THE MOBILE LIBRARY
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.
The Mobile Library team liaise with local activists to arrange visits [Malek Refai/The Mobile Library]
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
Once expanded, the bus can accommodate a whole class of children [De Bieb voor de Zaanstreek]
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.
The vertically expanding mobile library was designed to travel through the narrow street of the Netherlands [De Bieb voor de Zaanstreek]
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."
Public spaces are having a moment. People from outside the field of urban planning are beginning to notice the vital contributions that they make to our quality of life: inserting nature and cultural memory into the everyday, reminding us of our collective responsibilities, supporting democratic expression. People are also beginning to notice the subtle ways in which those contributions are being eroded by threats of privatization, corporate appropriation, and apathy.
Most acutely, this moment is brought to us by Apple, which has begun an aggressive retail rebranding effort to re-conceptualize its stores as “town squares,” and wrought a wave of well-founded concern. Technology continues to beckon us away from the need to leave our homes or interact face-to-face with other humans. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, it would follow that opportunities for such interpersonal interaction become a luxury we begin to seek, a call to remember our origin as social beings.
Not to give technology too outsized a role in this moment, politics also plays a part: political progress often demands a physical place to exercise our first amendment rights (or to fight for them). Large, visible public spaces are a natural home. Americans in particular have recently discovered that places we treat like public spaces—airports, for example—are, in fact, the domain of private companies, or are at risk of being ceded to private companies. When we see public spaces as a physical extension of our rights, we begin to approach their true value to our society.
So what should we be asking about public space in this moment?
Public space is often touted as a key to “building a sense of community.” To my mind community building means strengthening meaningful interpersonal relationships; forging a dynamic, shared identity; fostering stewardship of the place; and creating a sense of belonging that is confident enough to openly welcome newcomers. But setting aside an area with a few trees and some benches hardly guarantees that a space will do any of these things successfully (see #PlacesIDontWantToSit). So it’s worth investigating how exactly good public spaces do this, and how we could design them to better do so in the future.
We might initially evaluate a public space by its physical characteristics. What defines its edges? A space, after all, is only as good as what defines it, be that buildings or fences or trees or a line of chalk. Do these edges comfortably contain the space, while possessing enough permeability to be inviting? What does it use to invite in a passerby? A large sculpture or monument? What does it use to encourage the passerby to linger? Green space? A concert stage? How does it scale with its context—is it oversized for a small coastal village or undersized as a state capital square—and how does it scale to the human bodies that pass through it?
The campo in Siena, Italy is often touted as the ideal public square: it has an iconic tower monument that announces itself above the rest of the urban fabric and a well-tuned edge defined by humanely-scaled buildings with inviting pedestrian alleys between them. The slight slope in the pavement invites both tired travelers and lunching locals to recline in the warm afternoon sun. And its physical dimensions allow an average human to discern the identity of another human from nearly any point within it.
I can distinctly remember, during a cross-country bus tour in college, stepping off the bus on Main Street in Greenville, SC. We were greeted by wide sidewalks with bountiful street trees, well-paved crosswalks that invited us to surf from one row of shops and storefronts to another, punctuated by public art, and terminating in a park overlooking the river. With places to sit and some protection from the elements, the street invited people to interact and to linger. This was my first personal “aha” moment that a street could be more than just a corridor for the efficient movement of automobiles—if its physical elements were designed well, it could be just as vital to the health of a place as a park.
Yet, as much as designers of the physical environment may be hesitant to admit this, no amount or configuration of tangible elements can magically create an intangible sense of community—people are ultimately responsible for this. But designed spaces can create a hospitable environment for such community to develop.
What characteristics do these environments share?
They provide space for interpersonal interaction—pleasant to occupy for enough time to eat a meal or hold a long conversation and scaled for individuals and groups. Physicality is critical. Being face to face with another person (or group of people) causes different patterns of engagement than across the screen of a smartphone or behind a faceless computer keyboard. Public spaces may also invite proximity to “otherness:” interactions with people you might not meet in private places built for groups with common socio-economic status or leisure activities.
They balance safety and freedom. Our instincts as social beings, almost like gravity, draw us to physical centers for momentous occasions: consider where people congregate after a major sports victory, or for a protest. Everyone in a community should feel welcome and safe, even if they are there to speak critically to the powers that be. There is a disconcerting trend of allowing privately-owned public spaces (POPS) to take the place of actual spaces that belong to the public. These POPS don’t have to allow protests or rallies that might be perceived as “uncomfortable” or “off-brand,” but that are nonetheless vital to democratic expression.
They invite play, by both children and adults.Researchers in a number of disciplines have noted the importance of play to human flourishing, and what better places to provide access to this than public ones? It’s easy to brush off play at home or in the office, but when a giant waterslide is setup in the middle of a public square, it’s hard not to notice on your walk home. And sometimes encouragement to play doesn’t need anything more than some open space to run, chase, or be tagged ‘it.’
They’re visibly shaped by the people who occupy them. The cultural and artistic artifacts, iconography, and programming respond to the past and present of the people within the community, and are dynamic enough to change gradually in the future. Through these physical representations, regular inhabitants begin to develop a sense of belonging and ownership within the local, shared identity. Such identity fosters stewardship, not only of the space itself, but also of the people within those places.
If left without any intervention beyond maintenance, many public spaces would continue to slowly evolve into these kinds of environments. But there are municipal governments, urban planners, and community groups that care deeply and have a significant hand in shaping streets, parks, and plazas—and now a general citizenry who is paying more attention. While these spaces don’t change overnight, it would do us well to consider the trajectory in which we’re steering them. To steer them better, we need to include the concept of buen vivir in our calculations.
Buen vivir, Spanish for “the good life,” comes from indigenous traditions in South America that replaces our paradigmatic goal of “individual affluence” with the right to a balanced ecosystem and a community’s “collective well-being.” This well-being is defined broadly, encouraging the self-determination and flourishing of a rich cultural diversity and a high quality of life that isn’t built on the exploitation of others.
How does buen vivir intersect with the design of public space?
Public spaces bring plants into our asphalt, glass, and silicon-filled cities and towns. This equalizes access to nature for those who can’t often escape to the countryside or who live in a density that doesn’t allow for private yards, and also encourages resources be spent maintaining and nurturing this nature.
Public space can challenge the over-dominance of the hegemon by supporting minority cultures. Using art or iconography or a configuration of space that allows for particular cultural activities to take place easily, public space can provide equitable exposure and recognition. It also allows for greater self-determination by minority communities if we ensure that they are present at the decision-making table.
Likewise, those with decision-making power need to look for ways to break down the narratives of exclusion that so often plague public spaces. This doesn’t mean allowing parks to become havens for nefarious or reckless behavior, but it does mean encouraging both the homeless and the corporate executive, the disabled and the abled, to occupy the space with accommodation and dignity. It also means disconnecting the unfortunate link between “improvement” and “displacement” by allocating resources to overlooked public spaces, even if they’re not in a neighborhood that promises higher real estate tax values in the coming years.
Public spaces are both an end and a means to an end, a sculpture worth displaying, and a slab of marble that will be carved anew by the interaction of whatever assortment of people pass through it each day. When authentically rendered, they present a powerful tool for society that should be appreciated, protected, put to work, and stretched with new ideas and inputs. Now is the time to stop taking them for granted. The ultimate responsibility to build community and to sustain democracy belongs to each of us individually—we should challenge ourselves to make time to be the public who occupy these spaces and define their course.
Ben Willis is an architect at Union Studio Architecture & Community Design, a firm in Providence, RI working to save the world from sprawl. He serves as an ACE mentor and is an avid a cappella singer. Find him on Twitter: @gbenwillis.