Think Outside the Building: Not Your Typical Libraries

In spite of all the ways that libraries have been reinventing themselves over the past few years, when most people hear the word library they picture a building full of books.  But this does not work for everyone, as many people around the world cannot get to a traditional library.  Here are some of the non-traditional ways libraries come to them.

Biblioburro.  Schoolteacher Luis Soriano grew up in a remote poverty stricken area in Colombia and he knew that the children who live in those areas today have no access to books, yet books and knowledge are the way out of poverty. So he got to thinking that he had two “unemployed” donkeys, a small collection of books, and Saturdays free – and Biblioburro was born.  Luis has been packing up about 70 books each Saturday since 1999 bringing them to children to borrow, often reading to them, and even helping with homework. Publicity from a local radio station brought donations pouring in and he now has almost 5000 books in his rotating collection. Biblioburro has inspired a 2011 PBS documentary as well as a children’s book.

No donkeys? No worries! Not all parts of the world are blessed with donkeys but other types of animals can do the job as well. For example, in the desert where there are plenty of camels, the Kenya Public Library has been using a camel caravan to deliver books to the nomadic tribes of the desert since 1985.  A nine camel caravan carries books for the people and camping gear for the traveling librarians.  Meanwhile in Mongolia, Dashdongdog Jamba has almost singlehandedly covered 50,000 miles on his camel over the past 20 years, bringing books to the children of the Gobi Desert. Elephants can be found doing the job in places like Laos and Thailand.

Floating libraries.  Some areas just can’t be reached by animals at all, for example, the western coast of Norway during the frigid winters there. The people who live in remote areas along the fjords are literally stranded all winter, so in 1963 a boat called Epos was specifically built to bring a library of 4000 books to them. Often events and entertainment are provided as well. During other parts of the year, Epos operates as a tourist boat. On a much more primitive scale, a custom built library raft can be found somewhere on a lake in Minnesota for two weeks. Started as an experimental public arts project in 2013, it sports bookshelves along the sides holding books in plastic cases that were created by the artists involved in the project. People simply float on up to check out a book.

Tank library, aka Weapon of Mass Instruction. Transporting books by wheel, whether as primitive as an oxcart or modern as a bookmobile, is a common way to deliver books directly to the people, but one vehicle stand out. Artist Raul Lemesoff has transformed a 1979 Ford Falcon into something that resembles a tank. It carries about 900 books throughout Argentina to cities both large and small. The use of the Falcon is meaningful as it was favored by the death squads who kidnapped citizens during the military dictatorship of the late 70s and early 80s, making it a symbol of fear. This Ford Falcon spreads knowledge, not fear, becoming a symbol of peace through literature.

Pop-Up libraries.  These have been gaining in popularity, especially in public libraries, to reach people who just don’t come to the library. Often using some type of portable cart, pop-up libraries may follow a set schedule where people can check out and return books. Many, though, simply pop-up where the people are, such as commuter train stations, bus stations, parks, senior centers, or even the beach! Some libraries follow community events and set up there much like a vendor. Often this is a good opportunity for libraries to give away their donated or weeded books.

Levinski Garden Library for Immigrants and Migrant Workers.  Not all non-traditional libraries are mobile. This one is located in a park near a bus station often used by immigrants and migrant workers, providing a safe place for them to read. It was started in 2010 as a social art community project and has no walls or doors, but is simply a single illuminated bookcase supported by the wall of a public shelter.  A smaller children’s structure sits nearby.  One of the unusual things about this library is that its books are shelved by emotion. When someone finishes a book, he is asked how it made him feel, choosing from one of the categories, such as amusing, bizarre, boring, depressing, exciting, inspiring, sentimental, and so on. Each emotion is color coded, and each reader’s response is permanently recorded in the book by a colored sticker. The book is then shelved according to the most recent reader’s reaction.

Think inside the box! Finally, there is at least one library that is still located in a box, literally!  The huge seven story tall Square Head sculpture by Sacha Sosno in Nice, France, resembles a person with a box covering most of its head. It houses a public library on its bottom floor and library administrative offices on upper floors, making it the largest and only truly occupied structure in the world. Though it appears to be solid stone, it actually is covered in a finely perforated aluminum mesh, letting light in as well as letting people see out.

If you would like to know more about these non-traditional libraries and others, visit these links:

The 10 Weirdest and Most Wonderful Libraries in The World

Biblioburro: The Donkey Library

The Book Boat Epos – A Floating Library –

The Camelback Library –

Floating Library Project (Minnesota) –

The Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers

Pop-Up Libraries: Meeting Patrons Where They Are

Reading inside the box

Weapon of Mass Instruction

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