The dynamic founders of Bookbridge want to provide access to books and education in developing countries to help break the cycle of poverty. The project that started off as a scout exchange in Mongolia is now expanding.
Children have free access to education at Bookbridge's "teaching libraries"
One in five adults is not literate according to UNESCO statistics, yet the UN's education agency says literacy is "essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy."
Bookbridge wants to help raise literacy levels in the world and its grand plan all began with a short trip to Mongolia, more precisely, to Arvaikheer in Ovorkhangai Aimag province.
"We were really fascinated by the vastness and beauty of the Gobi Desert and also by the hospitality of the people," Carsten Ruebsaamen, one of Bookbridge's co-founders, told Deutsche Welle.
The Bookbridge team set up the first library in Arvaikheer
He and his fellow scouts were invited into the classrooms of many country schools and discovered that English was often taught as a second language; however, there was one snag – "there were no books."
3,000 books in three months
When they got back to Germany they started collecting English picture books and within three months they had over 3,000 volumes. At first, they did not know what to do with them but then they came up with the idea of a "teaching library."
These were conceived as spaces anybody could come to for free, borrow books, follow courses and participate in activities. Moreover, local teachers could find materials to use in their daily classes.
The first teaching library was set up in Arvaikheer and was soon attracting hundreds of people a day. After some time, a local coal mine got in touch with the Bookbridge team. The managers wanted to use the material to teach the miners and other employees how to lead a healthy life.
Subsequently, other companies also started using the library for similar purposes; because the companies had to pay to use the material that was free for everybody else, the teaching library soon became self-sustaining.
This was very much part of the founders' approach to their social business. "It is not something that lives from donations till the end of its life but something that has social entrepreneurship model behind it and helps people to stand on their own two feet," explained Ruebsaamen, an economics and management graduate.
Bookbridge's social entrepreneurship model has already attracted interest from other organizations that have consulted with Ruebsaamen and his colleagues on how to apply it to other projects.
Expansion to Cambodia
Having already set up four teaching libraries in Mongolia, Bookbridge is now planning to expand to Cambodia.
"It was clear that we would stay in Asia because we had already accumulated experience there," project manager Lisa Thimme explained.
The teaching libraries in Mongolia attract hundreds of people every day
"We looked at countries where we had contacts and networks such as the scouts. And then it was a question of deciding where was important in terms of educational needs, the importance of English, political circumstances and security.
"The first to get back were the scouts in Cambodia and they were very enthusiastic."
Reliance on scouting networks and volunteers
Scouts, schoolchildren, students and other volunteers are essential to the overall success of the project because Bookbridge has limited resources and staff.
They help collect books, sort them out, label them, arrange them on shelves in the various teaching libraries.
The scouts are also important contact partners because they are very well-organized and have lots of projects that we can work with," Thimme pointed out. There are some 25 million scouts across Asia.
Abdullah Rasheed, the Regional Director of the World Scout Bureau, told Deutsche Welle that he had offered his support because Bookbridge's long-term goals were very similar to those of the scouting movement: "Scouts want to help build a community and to improve themselves."
"It's a project that works very directly for the benefit of the community, for a need that is very useful, particularly in countries like Mongolia where English is now being picked up," he said, adding that it would be especially beneficial in remote areas where there are few available educational resources.
After Mongolia and Cambodia, Bookbridge plans to set up teaching libraries all over Asia and then perhaps move on to the rest of the developing world.
Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein