The new Ideas Box from Libraries Without Borders/ Bibliothèques Sans Frontières is fun, smart, and inspiring. The comprehensive vision behind it and the resulting design hold lessons for anyone interested in library outreach. It takes a significant step forward in framing an ideal outpost library that can reach into the gap as an element of humanitarian aid in the wake of a disaster when basic services and cultural institutions are unavailable or inactive.
Over the years we’ve seen almost endless innovation in library outreach tools—from low-cost book drops in rural settings and ever flexible mobile alternatives (including librarians on bikes) to remote vending units in malls and transit stations. Not to mention riffs on libraries from voices outside the official library landscape, such as the delightful Little Free Libraries and the savvy Uni Project. I am basically a fan of them all. They infuse libraries throughout culture as they help get books and materials to people who may not be able to touch the traditional library building. And several such outreach programs, developed on the fly on the heels of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, brought critical Internet access, books, and other services to populations in crisis. This is the urgency that informs the development of the Ideas Box.
The portable unit, also referred to as a “humanitarian response device,” is actually a set of six colorful, multifunctional boxes that neatly stack onto two pallets. It came into being following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Libraries Without Borders was there, at UNICEF’s bidding, to set up tent libraries and deliver library materials to children. After bringing resources and access to that devastated setting, Libraries Without Borders launched an Urgency of Reading Campaign in an effort to have cultural and intellectual needs included more formally in international aid efforts on an ongoing basis. The Ideas Box, created pro bono by noted designer and architect Philippe Starck, is a concrete tool toward that end.
Last month, I had a chance to see the Ideas Box in person at its launch gala in the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum. The grand ballroom was a counterintuitive setting in which to explore the contents and capacity of the color-coded “components.” There, one unit set on pallets showcased the package as it would arrive on-site. Another was deployed across the room, with the contents of each component—library, IT, management, cinema, storage-turned-seating—on display and the tech arrayed for use.
The six colorful elements hold a thoughtful range of technology and materials, including 250 print books, 5,000 ebooks and 50 ereaders, four laptops, digital courses, a film collection and screens, HD cameras, board games, and supplies to make arts and crafts. This combination of offerings, built out at a net cost of $60,000, creates an intellectual lifeline. It enables people to engage in four main strands of activity framed by the project: connect, learn, play, and create.
Fresh from the unit’s first trial this February in a refugee camp in Burundi, in southeast Africa, the Libraries Without Borders team was ready to share the box’s features. What materials get added, noted Sylvain Courret, the point person on IT, is defined by the local context. The book collection and online materials are selected for each setting. With lots of preloaded digital content, there is depth offline, and several types of connectivity are enabled so people can both take in information and link out to the world. The organization has even thought out how to help sustain viability after its facilitator departs with the development of a local team, led by what Courret called the “Head of Box,” who masters the unit’s capacities and works with a local partner to meet ongoing operational costs.
The thinking around this box is a beautiful thing. The project’s mission is expressed in the attention to detail, the complexity of the content, and the elasticity of the modules themselves. Moreover, the Ideas Box makes you want to discover what’s in it, engage, and take good care of it. It is an elegant response to a pressing problem.