There's no good way to distribute books in Laos. With so few books being published, no one has developed distribution systems. Larger cities may have libraries, though often they're filled primarily with books donated from other countries, in languages that most local people can't read, and with content that's irrelevant. In rural villages, most people have no access at all to books.
Right now, with Big Brother Mouse still in its infancy, our primary focus is on publishing new books. But we've also begun to experiment with ways to get books to more people. A library involves too much cost and record-keeping to be practical in a typical Laotian village of a hundred families. But we think a "Book Swap", where people can simply exchange one book for another, could work. The benefits of literacy only become real after people are reading, enjoying, and benefiting from books.
A book party
When we opened our Luang Prabang office in June of 2006, we held a book party for the kids in the neighborhood. Two minutes before it was scheduled to start we were worried... there was not a child in sight. Five minutes later, the room had filled up with 66 kids! Our young authors and illustrators described their work, we read from the books, gave everyone paper and colored pencils, and all the kids drew.
At the end of the party each child selected one of our books. "You own this book," we told them. For most, it was the first book they had ever owned. "You can keep it. Or, if you wish, you can come back tomorrow and exchange it for another book."
We put out a "Swap Box" with more copies of our books, plus every book we'd been able to find in Vientiane that we thought children would enjoy. As with the party itself, we had no idea how much interest to expect.
The next day, soon after we opened, two girls came in to swap books. By the end of the day at least 50 kids had come through. It seemed like a great success. Despite what is often said, Lao children will read if they have books that capture their interest.
We were also able to identify three problems and began to look for solutions:
Problem 1: Books disappeared. We started the day with 43 books in the swap box and ended with 32. This seemed to be because kids just didn't understand how it worked. As carefully as we had explained the exchange idea and posted signs about it, they'd never experienced anything like this before. They saw friends walk out with a book and thought they could walk out with one too.
Solution: For the next week, we made it a point to carefully explain the process to every child who walked in and asked them to show the book they had brought to someone on the staff before taking another. This largely fixed the problem.
Problem 2: Books got abused. New books went out the door on Saturday and came back on Sunday looking as if they'd been in circulation for a year. After three days, covers were falling off. These kids had no experience seeing what happens to books if they aren't well cared for.
Solution: Several steps have helped alleviate this problem, although it's not completely solved. First, we bought a lot of clear tape! When a book comes back showing too much wear, we talk with the borrower about how that will keep other children from getting to read it. We've also developed a game that we include at book parties, in which we encourage kids to list all the ways a book can be damaged, then list all the people who won't get to read it if that happens.
Problem 3: Not enough books. For two weeks, we had a steady stream of kids in and out. Then it slowed down. They had read all of the books we had available.
Solution: We keep watching for opportunities and funds to buy additional books. We've also gotten a little help in a way we hadn't anticipated: while three-fourths of the kids at our Luang Prabang book party said they had no books at home, a fourth of them did. Many brought those books to swap, which gave us more variety, including some old books no longer in print. But for the long-term, the only real solution is what we're doing: publishing more books.
After several months' experience working out the problems with the book swap in our Luang Prabang office, we began holding book parties, and setting up Book Swaps in rural villages nearby. It has developed into one of our primary methods of providing access to books in Lao villages. Come see pictures from a recent book party!