December 21, 2007

China Daily: Bookworm looks to help lots of libraries turn the page

When Thomas Stader, director of The Library Project, pulls up to a rural school with a truckload of brand new books, tables and chairs, he and his volunteers don’t bother unloading them. The children swarm the caravan and do it for them.

“They’re building their own libraries,” says Stader. “We call (our arrival) ‘The Madness’,” he adds, showing pictures and video of excited children carrying bookshelves and smiling into the camera.

As China consolidates its rural schools to improve the quality of education in the countryside, Stader has positioned his charity to lend a hand – and “not to get in the way”.

The Library Project, just 18 months old, has helped in the development of 13 libraries in Shaanxi Province and throughout China. By the end of January, Stader hopes to install 25 more libraries, thanks to a recent surge in funding.

Part of not getting in the way involves deferring credit to local partners, says Stader, 34.

“I make it a point to hide The Library Project as much as possible,” said the former graphic designer from San Francisco. “When we provide a library in Shaanxi Province we are not providing ‘The Library Project libraries’, we’re providing Xi’an Charity Association libraries. This idea of giving face is very natural: We could never do as much as we do without the help of our partners and donors.”

Stader left his design job five years ago because, as he put it, he “wanted something different”. But after volunteering at five elementary schools in Thailand, he quickly realized that teaching wasn’t for him. Stader then moved to Cambodia, where he began working with more than 40 charities to develop their marketing materials. Stader later established The Library Project in Xi’an, China.

Stader’s usually reading about five books at any given time, but, for a man who loves to read, Stader has not always loved libraries – at least, not ones that are silent, cold and colorless.

“When I was a child, I hated the library I could actually hear myself thinking, and that is a scary thing for a young child,” he says. “The Library Project creates my personal dream library: Bright, fun, exciting spaces so that children can be children.”

A typical library, which includes tables, chairs, shelves and quality color children’s books, costs about $1,000. Stader is careful to document where every one of those dollars goes on the charity’s website, This transparency, along with the charity’s focus, has impressed donors.

“We wanted something lean that provided the most direct funding to its project with little administrative cost,” said Paul Mauerman, who recently invited Stader to present his charity to a group of University of Maryland business school alumni in Shanghai. “Thomas Stader had a clear, simple vision and was very compassionate about The Library Project. Our feedback from those in attendance confirmed we made the right decision.”

During a trip to a HIV clinic in Ho Chi Min City, Stader noticed a boy who was 80 percent blind sitting in the corner by himself. Not sure if he could read, Stader brought him a big book about motorcycles. “He had the book pressed against his face, reading for three hours straight,” Stader recalls.

Such stories, sad as though they might be, only give Stader more motivation to carry out The Library Project’s positive vision.

“When we see a library with no books, we see opportunity,” he says. “When we walk into a dusty gray library with broken chairs, we see a bight new library with fun furniture.”