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In 20 Minutes, This Brilliant Kit Creates A Full-Size Library For Refugee Camps

The Ideas Box, the brainchild of the nonprofit Libraries Without Borders, fits the equivalent of a small-town library on two standard shipping pallets.

A typical library can take years to build. But a new library kit, designed to travel to remote refugee camps or disaster zones, can come together in less than 20 minutes.

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The Ideas Box, the brainchild of the nonprofit Libraries Without Borders, fits the equivalent of a small-town library on two standard shipping pallets. It comes with books and e-readers, tablets, laptops, cameras and other creative tools, and a range of digital tools like Khan Academy. Since camps might not have internet access or power, it comes with its own. The boxes that hold all of the devices convert into tables and chairs.

The project was first inspired by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. After Libraries Without Borders built dozens of tent libraries for disaster camps, the organization realized how important the libraries could be in helping communities in similar situations rebuild.


“We started to see that there was this space between post-disaster relief and economic development–a gray space that a lot of other organizations weren’t filling,” says Allister Chang, executive director of Libraries Without Borders. “And we saw just how important it was to have a library for the local community to do their own reconstruction.”

After building more libraries in disaster zones over the last few years, the organization partnered with Phillip Stark to design a kit that could make libraries simpler to set up. “We’ve been trying to think through the most efficient way to bring these tools to communities that have been hit by conflicts and disasters,” says Chang.

The first kits rolled out earlier this year in three refugee camps in Burundi, a small country that hosts more than 50,000 refugees, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Life in the camps is hard; beyond daily struggles for basic supplies, there is limited access to education, even though the majority of refugees are under 18.

In the camps, the durable kits were set up in simple thatched huts. In a natural disaster, they can also be set up with essentially no construction.

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“You don’t need to build the physical structure for a library,” says Chang. “This is not meant to replace libraries. If we have an earthquake or a hurricane tomorrow somewhere, it’s meant to bring those resources to the community immediately. Because those resources are, as we learned in Haiti, so important for that community to build itself back together.”

Before setting up an Ideas Kit, the organization works with the local community to determine which content is needed–what local health organizations might need, or schools, and which languages are needed. In the Burundi camps, resources come in both Swahili and French.

Like a regular library, the Ideas Box issues library cards, which users swipe every time they check out a book or use one of the online resources. The organization can track how much each resource is used. So far, over 3,000 refugees have signed up for cards. A small local team runs the library, after three months of assistance from Libraries Without Borders staff.

Beyond educational support for students and training for adults, the centers also have an emphasis on creativity. Refugees, or someone recovering from a natural disaster, can use cameras, art supplies, and other tools to help fight boredom and alienation. In one of the Burundi camps, a 20-year-old refugee organized a poetry slam and started a camp newspaper. Someone else organized a sustainable development fair.

Libraries Without Borders also plans to use the kits in other settings; next year, they’ll bring an Ideas Box to an immigrant community in France, and they may also soon work with Native American communities. The organization is also considering how to bring use the kits to create pop-up libraries in low-income communities in the U.S.–perhaps inside older libraries that aren’t getting much use.

“There are communities, for example, in Alaska that don’t have any of this infrastructure, struggle with very low literacy rates, don’t even have cell phone reception,” says Chang. “There’s such a dearth of access to these kinds of tools.”

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The organization’s main focus, though, will continue to be bringing the kits to disaster zones. Next year, Libraries Without Borders plans to build new Ideas Box programs for Syrian refugees in Jordan. They’re currently raising funds to make that happen.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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