Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What's Wrong With Book Drives

Bouncing off Filipino Librarian's post on book donation programs and Tin's reply to A Nation of Non-Readers, the book drive isn't exactly the most effective method for spreading literacy--in fact, it's more of a placebo to the educated rather than an actual solution for the illiterate.

My main complaint about book drives is that it lacks focus. On the surface, typical book drives look like a good program: you spread the love of reading by donating books--books that you don't read or need anymore. We're looking it from the perspective of the giver in this case. However, in order for a program (any program, be it a book drive or something else) to be effective, we need to look not at who's initiating it but rather from the point of view of the recipients and ask the question whether they're truly benefiting from it. And the fact of the matter is, general book drives are a hodgepodge of donations, the equivalent of a garage sale. Will some books be picked up and read? Probably. But not all of them will have a use for everyone.

That's not to say book drives are bad. The intentions are good but the method is sadly inefficient. Book drives need to have focus and better yet, a concrete plan and goal.

That's not to say every book donation drive is like that. The blogs mentioned above point out AHON foundation which has a concrete book list that they need instead of randomly soliciting books. And back in grade school at Xavier, we'd have annual book fairs at the library and there was a program where they'd solicit books for other children. The good part about it--while not as specific as AHON foundation--is that you were encouraged to donate books that had the Newberry seal on the book. (Yes, the system is flawed, but it was a good start.) In Ateneo de Manila University, there's a similar book drive for the students--old text books are donated so that the next batch of students can purchase them cheaply.

If we actually want to foster change, it's not enough to simply have good intentions. We need good business plans and randomly donating a book isn't necessarily the right direction that we should be taking. In fact, it's such a basic thing yet we've perpetuated random book drives for too long.

What every organization needs is to define their agenda and work a plan from there. For AHON, it aims to educate kids so obviously, they'll need books that educate. Read or Die wants to have a stronger spec fic presence at the Fandom Cafe so they're soliciting fantasy and science-fiction books to put up in the place. Here, the goals are aligned with the solutions.

Of course the solutions don't end there. I think follow-through is important and in any organization you're supporting, it's important to find out where the funds go and how they're spent. When we give to charities, do we ask how effective the charities really are? Personally, my brain stops working the moment I take out my wallet and drop my donation. That's why I call book drives a placebo for the educated--it makes us feel good irregardless if we've actually benefited society or not. Honestly, to those who have the wealth, donating money is easy (not that we don't need financial donations). Donating time, on the other hand, is something more precious to people with money. (Of course those with time but not money similarly devote much-needed service into their chosen causes.) But I do think it is an important question to ask when we're supporting any organization--how are our donations being utilized and spent?

Perhaps the greatest sin of book drives isn't that it's ineffective, but that some people's sense of compassion ends there. "I already donated a book, my duty's over," is as mentality that one might espouse. With contentment dies the motivation to innovate and to change.

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