Patrick Weil really wanted to hear some good news out of Haiti. The small Caribbean country had spent the 20th century suffering through social unrest, brutal dictators, large scale massacres, and HIV infecting one-fifth of its population. The 21st century has been no better. The 2010 earthquake crippled Haiti’s infrastructure, while displacing millions. As of this year, it remains the poorest country in the West.
Weil — a Sorbonne history professor — knew the global community was trying to help Haiti, but he felt something was missing. The outpouring of humanitarian aid from all corners of the world brought relief in the form of food, clean water, medicine, clothing, and supplies for shelter. It was what wasn’t brought that initially got Weil’s attention.
No one was bringing any books.
As a historian, Weil knew the part books have played in lifting people faced with the most dismal of circumstances. Throughout the centuries, access to reading material has enabled people to greatly improve their station in life. While this is usually associated with poverty, it has also worked in the aftermath of natural disasters, as well as man-made ones.
Shortly after the First World War, the United States supplied books to the French government to help badly wounded children deal with their suffering. Other countries have followed suit after the Second World War and the Yugoslavian conflicts of the 1990s.
With all this in mind, Weil established Libraries without Borders (LWB) in an empty corner of his apartment in 2007. He hoped to start a non-profit organization to get books into the hands of those who needed it most. His effort was met with disbelief and derision.
People thought he had to be kidding. Did he really believe people in desperate need of food and medicine care if they have something to read?
Yes, he did.
“Being able to read, write, and express in the worst humanitarian catastrophes helps victims to cope with the trauma of disaster and to hold on to their humanity and identity,” Weil stated to his doubters. “They (books) cultivate the human spirit and provide distractions to help disaster victims cope with trauma.”
Immediately after Haiti’s earthquake, Weil worked with UNICEF to create ‘storyboxes’—children’s books in airdropped across Port-au-Prince. He then set-up mini-libraries in all the aid camps he came across. He then initiated the BiblioTapTaps (bookmobiles), whose drivers provided not only books but information on cholera prevention. Since then, Weil’s organization has provided books during emergencies in several countries, including Chad, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Tunisia.
With 25 employees and 500 volunteers, Libraries Without Borders is no longer run out of Weil’s apartment. His belief that “dignity through books, writing, and learning should not be denied to victims of humanitarian disasters” has brought him international support. And he finally did get some good news out of Haiti when one of his workers reported on “how stories about mighty lions of funny frogs were able to transport children from dire-post earthquake conditions; they provided escape from the trauma.”
Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library