What does it take to get 20,000+ books into the hands of children who need books? People who love books! Because as any book lover knows, people who love books, love to share books with others.
Take Lily Jordan, a Northwood High School senior, who has been filling up three mini lending libraries in Chatham County for the past two years. As a National Honor Society member, she needs to complete 20 service hours per school year, and when she was looking at a list of service opportunities, the mini libraries piqued her interest. “In school, I love English and literature, and during the pandemic books became my escape,” Lily said. “I really got into dystopian novels—I think because they allowed me to detach from my world.”
Lily also said she realized how fortunate she was to have quick and easy access to any book by driving to the library or a bookstore or ordering off Amazon. “But not everyone’s that fortunate,” Lily said, “And it pains me to see people that don’t have books at their disposal.”
To help those who may not be able to afford to buy books or visit a library regularly, Chatham Reads, part of the Chatham Education Foundation, has placed eight mini lending libraries around Chatham County. Volunteers like Lily help keep them stocked. Many of the libraries are off the beaten path such as the one Lily stocks at the Learning Trail within The Nature Trail, a mobile home community of mainly Latinx families in the northeast part of the county. “You can tell this neighborhood really enjoys the little library as there are usually very few books left when I come to refill,” Lily said. “Sometimes the kids watch as I fill up the box and get excited when they see a book they recognize.”
All of the little library books are free and, unlike a traditional library, do not have to be returned. The philosophy is “take a book, love a book,” rather than “take a book, leave a book.”
The books themselves come from a variety of sources, all gathered through Chatham Reads. Last year, neighborhoods including The Preserve and Briar Chapel held new and gently used book drives; Primrose School students hosted a book drive; McIntyre’s Books gave a discount to customers who purchased and donated a book; a few publishing houses provided free copies of books; and others were purchased, often at a discount, with donated funds.
Besides supplying mini libraries, most of the books are given away at free book fairs at Chatham County schools with high percentages students from low-income communities. In April, CEF gave away nearly 6,000 used and 14,000 new books during its Books on Break program. Students at five elementary schools each got to select several high-interest books to take home and keep forever.
The task of getting all of the books organized and ready for the mini libraries and book fairs takes a lot of book lovers! Kathy Havens, program manager for Chatham Reads, holds multiple book sorts each year. At the last one in January, 10 volunteers sorted about 2,800 books. Not only do the books have to be sorted by condition—new, used and very used (i.e. needs to be recycled)—but by age and reading level. Books on Break books also need to be in new condition because the kids selecting the books shouldn’t feel like they are getting seconds or leftovers.
Many of the volunteers at the book sorts are regulars. Jonathan Szabady, who works with Allen Tate in Pittsboro, has done at least four book sorts and has helped with setting up the Books on Break fairs. The latter is his favorite part. “I love going to the schools and seeing the kids ‘buy’ the books,” he said. “My mom and sister are both teachers who focus on reading, and I think it’s important to help people who don’t have books or aren’t motivated to read.”
Some of the other regular volunteers who help sort have agendas of their own. Jillian Stein, for example, keeps an eye out for books suited for children from birth through Kindergarten to use as part of the Chatham County Partnership for Children’s Raising a Reader program. She pulls out books, which don’t have to be brand new in her case, and places them in the Partnership for Children’s centers around the county. It’s a win-win. Jillian finds books she can use and Chatham Reads gets some help organizing thousands of books.
Melissa Smoak, a teacher at the Chatham Youth Academy Development Center, helps sort books geared toward teenagers while looking for books that aren’t too violent, as all of her students either have triggers or mental health issues that make certain topics upsetting. Paperback books are one of the few things the teens can have in their rooms. No pens, pencils or hardbacks. “The kids love getting the books,” Melissa said. “They feel really special to get new books and are so excited when I bring in a new assortment.”
Besides the places already mentioned, books from the sorts are distributed to preschools, the Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA.
Chatham Reads can always use more book lovers to hold book drives, sort books and set up Books on Break fairs. And soon they’ll need someone to take over filling the three mini libraries in North Chatham as Lily is headed to UNC Charlotte in the fall–that is unless she can convince her parents, who have been helping her pick out books and fill up the libraries on the weekends, to take up the cause.