BY KAREN MOXLEY
A tent the size of a small cabin seemed starkly out of place in the
quiet, carpeted entrance of the University of British Columbia’s
(UBC) Irving K. Barber library. Still, the tent remained there for
ten days in January, home to two students determined overcome
the 24-hour fluorescent light and all-night security guards in order
to raise money for children’s libraries in India.
“Books provide ideas,” said Avneet Johal, one of the two student squatters. “When you read a book, you can travel as
far as you want. You don’t need anything apart from words on a piece of paper.”
In co-operation with DREAM — a student–led organization established in 2006 at Queen’s University — and under
the Los Angeles–based charity Room to Read, this ten-day library stakeout is called Live-In for Literacy.
Literacy live-ins were held throughout January at universities across Canada, including Memorial University, University
of Toronto, Concordia, McMaster, Queen’s, Laurentian and UBC. The campaign aimed to raise $40,000 to build
nine libraries in India. Avneet Johal and Seiya Hayashi are the two UBC students who spent ten days eating, sleeping, showering and studying in the library.
“This project is about giving people in the developing world the opportunity and the resources to create something
sustainable for themselves,” Johal said. The writing on the wall The words “everyone has the right to education” were enshrined in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since
that day, education has been a state obligation under international law. It is a key factor in people achieving their
personal goals. It also ensures that people are equipped to defend and promote the rights and freedoms of themselves
While the Indian government made significant improvements in literacy rates and access to education, many people,
especially women and children, are left behind each year. The 2002 All India Education Survey found that 35 million
6–14 year-olds did not attend school. A full 50 per cent of 6–18 year-olds did not go to school. Fifty-three per cent of
girls aged 5–9 were illiterate. And of the girls who did make it into school, half dropped out by the time they were 12.
Access to libraries is important to these children who otherwise might not have access to reading materials provided
in schools. Libraries can empower children by giving them free access to learning materials that lets them see beyond
their immediate lives.
“In some cases, not a single book is available to children to encourage independent learning, intellectual curiosity and
a lifelong passion for reading. Even when children have acquired the skills to read, many children do not have access to books to practice and enjoy these skills,” said Room to Read representative Sonia Torres. These trends continue into adulthood and affect a disproportionate amount of women. In the 2001 Indian Census, for example, only 47.8 per cent of women over the age of 15 could read and write compared to 73.4 per cent for males.Dream big The Toronto subway sparked the idea for the Live-in for Literacy event.
“I saw a sign on the subway in Toronto that said ‘build a school in the developing world for $5,000.’ I told my friend
Alvin about it, and he said, ‘Let’s do it!’” recalls Joanna Sue, DREAM co-founder. Sue, along with Alvin Shin, staged the first live-in at Queen’s University in 2006. DREAM, which stands for Discover the Reality of Educating all Minds, teamed up with Room to Read to establish libraries, schools and computer labs in the developing world. Sue, now a graduate student at Queen’s, says DREAM is very much aligned with Room to Read’s mandate.
“World change begins with educating children,” Sue said. “Education is a means to change your current status. It’s a
mechanism through which people can help themselves out of poverty.” Room to Read encourages literacy development from a grassroots perspective. The charity builds schools and libraries and also works with local writers and publishers to fund the creation and development of new, local-language books. According to Torres, by the end of 2009 the organization will have established over 3,000 libraries in India and published over 70 local-language books.
“The first step toward the lifelong gift of education is putting a book in the hands of a child,” Torres said. “Room to
Read believes that literacy is a right and that every child has the right to an education. With an education, the possibilities for a child in the developing world are endless.”
DREAM now operates the annual Live-In for Literacy event at universities across the country to raise money for
literacy in the developing world. Day in the life of a library-dweller Back at the UBC library, Johal and Hayashi have to abide by the live-in’s strict rules. They have to remain in the library 24/7 and only have five minutes out of each hour to leave their “campsite” for bathroom or other breaks.
“It’s not easy missing classes and living in a roped-off area for 10 days,” said John MacDonald, DREAM co-chair and a
past library camper. “But it’s a lot easier than the lives of the children we’re helping; they don’t have a library to read in,
let alone live in. So with the help of Room to Read and all of Canada, we’re building them nine.”
Johal and Hayashi find sleeping on the ground one of the toughest things about library camping. Yet, there’s lots of
room to lounge in inside their massive, blue, 10–person tent. It has two entrances, one for each of the campers. Inside,
their blue-tinted world is littered with sleeping bags, clothes and books. As for meals, campfires are not permitted in the library, so the classic camping menu of hotdogs and s’mores is out. Instead, Johal and Hayashi rely on friends and “perfect strangers” to bring them food.
Peanut butter and jam sandwiches, subs, pizza and coffee are just some of the goodies being dropped off to the hungry
campers. More importantly, students and staff have been emptying their pockets for the cause as they pass. The boys will miss an entire week of school during their fundraising, but aren’t concerned about falling behind. “My professors have been really supportive,” Hayashi said, “and we’re living in a Learning Centre, so I think I may actually end up ahead in some of my classes.” This year’s live-ins raised $24,000, enough to build five children’s libraries in India. The libraries will be filled with children’s books written both in English and local languages.