Books for 20 million

Harry Boughton
Opinion - International Wednesday, 20th November 2019

Book Aid International does not just distribute books: it targets them. Harry Boughton reports

Our warehouse, in Camberwell, wasn't designed for book distribution - it was built to make violins! But over the years we've transformed it into a hugely efficient space, which can house up to 250,000 books. In 2013 we could send just 600,000 books a year. Last year we sent 62 shipments carrying 1.28 million books, all donated by our generous UK publishing partners.

Each book we receive into our warehouse is unpacked, scanned into stock and then packed in a shipment tailored for each of our 96 partners - a process that would be impossible without our invaluable volunteers, many of whom are from the publishing industry.

The books that our partners need vary a lot. The Malawi National Library requires completely different books for its branch libraries from those needed by a small NGO working in a Greek refugee camp, and it's our job to make sure everyone gets the books that suit them. The job is made much easier by our publishing partners, who fine tune their donations, providing exactly the sorts of books our beneficiaries require and sometimes even shipping pre-picked donations to us or to a partner overseas.

When the books arrive in a country, our partners distribute them throughout their communities' networks of libraries, schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and refugee camps. Their local knowledge ensures that the right books reach the people who need them most.

More than 20 million people have access to the books that publishers enable us to send every year - and behind that number there are countless stories of books changing lives. Last year, we heard from a women's group in Zimbabwe who told us about how they use the books: "All of us care for orphans. By reading books we came to appreciate that we could start a project to help ourselves. Here people like keeping animals, but culturally in Zimbabwe women do not keep animals. By reading books on rights, we discovered it is not wrong to go up against some of the traditions. So we started a goat project. Each one of us contributed a goat - we had five to start with, and now we have 27 goats. The goats provide the group with security in hard times, as well as milk."

But of course, despite publishers', volunteers' and our partners' best efforts, things don't always go to plan. Many of the challenges we face will ring true to many warehouse teams - constantly juggling space, a leaking roof, waiting for hauliers to appear or the odd unwelcome furry visitor in the night. Other challenges are a bit more unusual. Finding a safe shipping route for our first shipment of books to Mosul, Iraq, took us a full year. Eventually the books travelled overland through 11 countries, before crossing the Turkish border into Iraq after an unexpected delay in Bulgaria waiting for final customs approval.

Even with well-established sea shipping routes, we still face surprises. Last year, we included a donation of wonderful puppet books for our partners in Uganda, but unfortunately customs decided that the puppet books were toys. After several weeks of debate by email over what exactly constitutes a toy, the books eventually cleared customs and found their way to libraries across the country. With our experienced logistics team, there isn't much we haven't been able to overcome - but we know the next challenge is always just round the corner!

Every week we receive dozens of book requests from around the world, and our biggest challenge is being able to meet them. We make the most of the space we have, with every square inch of our warehouse full of books and our overflow warehouse space generously provided by Sage in Peterborough, but with demand for books continuing to grow we must find ways to process more books and reach more people round the world.

In Mosul alone, we have committed to donating 50,000 higher education books by 2020. Last year we extended our hours of operation until 8pm and developed new partnerships with publishers - today we have more than 120 active book donors. By 2020, we hope to be sending 1.5 million books a year. If you would like to help by donating money, giving books or volunteering your time on your own or as a group, I would love to hear from you. Please get in touch:

Photos: (top) Harry Boughton in the Book Aid warehouse; (above) members of a Zimbabwe women's group with one of their husbands and their goats

Harry Boughton is Book Aid International's head of operations. This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Book Fair Show Daily.