February 14, 2019

US-China Peoples Friendship Association

Written by Ed Krebs for the US-China Peoples Friendship Association

Here is an impressive record: 2,600 library projects launched, one million children impacted, and 1.8 books distributed. This is the work of The Library Project, launched in 2006 by Tom Stader and some friends as they taught English in Dalian in the northeast. From that local effort a little more than a decade ago, The Library Project has developed into a reading dynamo for that million children and older students throughout China. Tom’s early colleagues decided to go back to their jobs, but Tom knew he was onto a worthwhile thing.

USCPFA-Atlanta contacted Tom Stader because we were looking for a new rural education project to replace our earlier one, which went very well until concern arose about whether our funds were being handled properly. We tried to locate a good successor—something reliable, in rural education mostly for girls, and willing to accept a project at the scale of our budget. We came close a couple of times, but couldn’t locate an operation that would work with our relatively modest scale of operations. Then about a year ago, Sylvia suggested that we get in touch with The Library Project—she wrote about their work in the Review a number of years ago. She referred to that issue and found that Tom Stader was the person to talk with. She and Tom exchanged a series of e-mails to clarify our concerns. Tom welcomed our interest and was happy to deal with our level of giving, and over several months in 2017 we worked out a “Reading Corner” for a village school in Henan. Everything about our discussions with Tom was “right,” and we sent $3,000 to The Library Project. Tom e-mailed us in late October 2018 that our “Reading Corner” had been set up at the school.

We also got the address for the Project’s office in Xi’an. I made a trip to China in September and with a few days in Xi’an, I visited them. Chief administrator Nichole He welcomed me. First she showed me around their suite of six rooms, including a small kitchen and bathroom, two multiple-use rooms, and most importantly, a large workroom with two long tables, another smaller desk, and a couple of bookshelves that hold books representative of those placed in their libraries. All the work stations have computers, and each staff member has her own role: corresponding with projects, ordering books and making sure they reach the place they’re supposed to, checking out new inquiries, keeping in touch with contributors.

The staff consists of eight younger women, most in their middle thirties. Only five were in the office that day; Nichole told me that the other three were in Guizhou province looking at projects already launched and visiting other places to evaluate them as potential sites for new libraries. Someone else will be next to travel, as the staff members rotate the travel and office aspects of their work. While one of the rooms in the suite was being used to store books, not many were on hand. They had realized it would be more efficient to have suppliers send books for new libraries directly to the sites, saving time and money.

Back in Atlanta, we had wondered what kinds of books would be included in our Reading Corner, which is for first- to third-grade elementary school students—who without better facilities in their home village would have to travel 30 or 40 miles to a larger town to live in a dorm at the tender age of seven or eight. The youngest of those students have almost no acquaintance with any kind of book, so my introduction to The Library Project’s work next led to the subject of “kiddie lit” in China—which turned out to be most interesting: Children’s literature has become an important field in China. The goal of a project at the lowest grade level is to introduce kids to books—opening books, getting the stories from them, and establishing a love of books. Children’s literature includes beginning level stories by Chinese authors, but also includes translations from children’s literature in other countries. Sometimes there’s not much to translate: how to translate a picture? Nichole noted that they had not seen at first that picture books are the best place to begin in some cases. So the growing field of children’s literature in China is basic to many of The Literary Project’s activities. For children somewhat older, of course there are levels beyond picture books.

Tom was away on the day of my visit to the Xi’an office. We were able to get together in Beijing, though, almost at the end of my own time in China. We met at a big Starbuck’s in Sanlitun, the area where many foreign professionals live. I learned a lot more about The Library Project in our talk of about an hour. I was surprised to see that this leader of an amazing project in China, one that has established some 2600 libraries in schools at every level, in all but three provinces—that such a person would wear his hair in a ponytail. “Yes, I don’t look the way people expect I will!” he observed. Tom was an art major at Northern Arizona University and had gone to China in 2003 to teach English. “The first library was in ’06,” he said. Tom and his friends started that first library because they saw a need in the place where they were living. This is a great part of the story: Tom and his friends wrote home to get support for their first project, and they got a good response from family and friends. This approach continued to work well. But things were not yet rolling as Tom had begun to hope they would. He decided to keep working on The Library Project, and his friends went back to their jobs. At first he continued that same approach to fund-raising, and continued to get enough funds to do a lot.

In time, The Library Project attracted support from various businesses, some Chinese and some international. By now, these sources sustain Tom Stader’s ever more ambitious program. The goals have changed, “from access [to education] to literacy to education,” as Tom puts it. As we of USCPFA-Atlanta learned, the bigger funders are not all that matter to him. This idea man expressed some impressive leadership principles in our short interview, all relevant to the work he has done. “Lots of people have helped me—some for one hour, some for one year. It all adds up,” he says. This same kind of thinking is a big part of his relationship with his staff. Tom isn’t a dynamo wand-waving CEO: “I don’t tell them what to do; they tell me what they are doing.” It is clear that everyone involved is focused and dedicated. Tom’s approach has led to great success: The Library Project is reaching the “millions and millions of left-behind children,” as Tom noted, and also has begun to work in Vietnam. They would gladly work with any USCPFA chapter or group of chapters to start a new project!

Notes: The Library Project’s corporate supporters include Cummins, Sika, Volvo Trucks, Applied Materials, and Brady China. An internet search of these and other supporting companies will be most informative to a non-business seeker like the present writer. Much more information on The Library Project’s work and the range of their supporters is available at www.library-project.org.