Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Penrose books rekindling life at war-torn University of Liberia

At a time when some American libraries are wrestling with a digital future that may no longer involve books, there are still places in the world starving for any volume they can get.

The University of Liberia is one of them. And a determined group at Penrose Library and the Iliff School of Theology is working hard to see that its hunger for books is fed.

Late last month, 43 cartons of duplicate library books, more than 4,000, culled from the stacks at Penrose were picked up from a theology school apartment — where they’d been boxed and stored — and shipped toward a new use in a ravaged nation.

Upon arrival, the books will join about 7,000 other volumes sent to the Liberian university since last March. It’s part of a grassroots effort by seven people from throughout the United States to restock the shelves and help Liberia turn the page on violence and suffering.

In Colorado, support for the effort has come from Penrose, Iliff, private donors and the Tattered Cover Book Store.

“Those books are going to be on the shelf and somebody’s going to be doing research out of them by next month,” says Michele Hovey, adjunct professor in peace and justice studies at Iliff and sparkplug for the program in Denver.

The University of Liberia, once one of the most influential learning centers on the continent, has seen decades of civil war scar its buildings and strip its shelves. Now the university, like its fledgling legislature and new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — the first woman elected president of an African nation — is struggling to rekindle its education system, which virtually stopped for more than 10 years.

“Education is highly regarded in Liberia,” said Hovey. “Part of nation-building is getting the university back up and running. It’s a very patriotic thing to be going back to school.”

Liberia, a nation about the size of Tennessee in the crook of Africa’s west central coast, needs all the help it can get. According to World Health Organization and Central Intelligence Agency reports, more than 80 percent of the nation’s 3 million people live on less than $1 per day. Malnutrition is “widespread” and the risk of major infectious diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and typhoid fever is “very high.” Life expectancy is 41 years for women, 38 for men.

The country is occupied by a large UN peacekeeping force, is drowning in debt, is a crossroads for international drug trafficking and has an unemployment rate of 85 percent.

“Only one-third of the capital city had electricity and running water,” said Hovey, who visited in March to provide training to the legislature through a program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The trip took her group to the University of Liberia, where she saw an empty library and classes delayed by lack of chairs.

“Students were sitting by the hundreds gluing them together,” she said.

After returning to Denver, Hovey contacted Penrose Library Dean Nancy Allen, who set the “Liberian book-lift” in motion.

“It seemed a wonderful, wonderful way to help rebuild their collection and help our space needs,” Allen says.

Librarians chose appropriate books from those being culled, collated the cataloging information and wheeled the volumes to Iliff for storage. The Tattered Cover donated packing boxes and DU and Iliff students provided labor. Private donors and Hunt Alternatives, a Boston foundation for social change, paid shipping costs. Just getting the books to Maryland, where they were to be loaded on a ship to Liberia, cost more than $1,700.

“It’s just happening,” Hovey says. “It’s very gratifying.”

The books in the shipment were selected across a range of subjects intended to support a general liberal arts education, Allen said.

A spot check of a few cartons revealed books on science, politics, business, poetry and literature, including The Crucibleby Arthur Miller; Cannery Row by John Steinbeck; Native Son by Richard Wright and The Traitor by Herman Wouk.

“Everyone in the country is nation-building,” Hovey says. “Every child on the street, every cab driver, every man with his hands cut off from the conflict — everyone — is talking about what they’re doing to put this country back on its feet. It’s very inspiring.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, March 2007.

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