Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Started in Lexington basement, International Book Project prepares to celebrate 50 years

Harriet Van Meter got the idea to distribute books during a trip to India.
Harriet Van Meter got the idea to distribute books during a trip to India.

When Ridvan Peshkopia was earning his doctorate in political science at the University of Kentucky, he stopped by the International Book Project's used-book store at 1440 Delaware Avenue to check out the selection. He soon became a regular customer.

By the time he left Lexington in 2011, he had found much more than a supply of personal reading material; he had found a literacy partner.

When Peshkopia took a teaching job in his native Albania, the Book Project helped him stock his university's 75,000-volume library. He was back in Lexington last week, watching as several pallets of books he had chosen were loaded onto a tractor-trailer.

They are among thousands of volumes headed to the library of a university in the Republic of Kosovo where Peshkopia now teaches. More shipments are planned in December and March.

"We need good textbooks," he said. "In my part of the world, we lack medical books, especially, because they are very expensive."

The Lexington nonprofit is on track this year to ship more than 230,000 books to schools and libraries in more than 60 countries around the globe, up from 220,000 last year.

The Book Project will mark its 50th year in 2016, and the celebration begins Sept. 12 with a fundraising party at Arts Place.

The organization has come a long way since Harriet Van Meter traveled to India in 1965 and saw people waiting in lines for hours to get books. She was so moved by what she saw that she placed an advertisement in an English-language newspaper in India, offering to send books to people who needed them. The response was huge.

Van Meter set up an office in the basement of her home on Mentelle Park and started boxing and shipping books overseas. The next year, she formalized the effort as the International Book Project.

"There is still a huge demand for books," said Lisa Fryman, the executive director.

Estimates are that more than 785 million adults worldwide are illiterate, and two-thirds of them are women. Education is one of the biggest factors in enabling children to rise from poverty and live longer, happier and healthier lives.

The Book Project partners with organizations and individuals, such as Peshkopia, who have connections with schools and libraries in needy parts of the world.

Those schools and libraries form multiyear partnerships with the Book Project, filling out online forms describing the kinds of books they need. The books are given free, but partners are asked to help pay shipping costs as they can.

"We don't really have any shortage of books," Fryman said, and they come from a variety of sources. "Our main blocking factor is funds for shipping."

The Book Project receives donated books from people in Lexington and across the country. For example, a woman in Oregon organized a collection of medical textbooks, many of which will be shipped to Liberia soon.

Other books come from publishers, bookstores, libraries and school systems. Fayette County Public Schools recently cleaned out its warehouse and donated 15,000 textbooks. Kennedy Book Store donates college textbooks it no longer cam sell.

Books that wouldn't be useful overseas are sold to the public in Lexington for 50 cents to $5 each at the Book Project's store, which is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Money from book sales, donations and grants covers the organization's annual budget of about $390,000, which pays for shipping and staff costs.

Last week, as Peshkopia's pallets of books were going out the door, smaller shipments were waiting to be sent to Macedonia, Mongolia and Latin America, which receives only Spanish-language books. Each recipient school or library will report back with thank-you notes, photos and videos when the books arrive.

Many of the organization's books stay in Lexington. The Book Project provides each family that earns a Habitat for Humanity home with a bookcase and about 100 books. It does the same for refugees resettled by Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

The Book Project also gives books to the Lexington-based Race for Education's Starting Gate after-school program and the Fayette County Sheriff's Books & Badges outreach program.

The Book Project recently began two pilot projects distributing electronic readers to schools in South Africa and Ghana. E-readers have the potential to cut shipping costs, but they have their own challenges, including electricity and durability.

"The jury's kind of out on seeing how that works," Fryman said. "I think we'll still be shipping books around the world for some time."