In 1998, John Wood, an executive at Microsoft, took a life-altering vacation to Nepal. During the course of the trip, he met a regional school inspector who offered to show him around a rural school, swarming with students but bereft of books. As Wood left, the school’s headmaster is said to have told him, “Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books."

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He has—many times over. Room to Read, the NGO that Wood set up after quitting Microsoft, has established at least 5,000 libraries in schools across Asia and Africa; its Indian chapter alone, in the five years since its inception, has set up at least 2,300 libraries in government-run schools in eight states. Room to Read buys children’s books at a discount from publishers such as Scholastic, at a cost of Rs30-40 per book.

In the New Delhi office of Room to Read, a big print of the cover of Wood’s book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, translated into Hindi, hangs on one wall; it features Wood grinning, standing next to a yak-like creature bearing a sack of books. Shelves of slim children’s books run around the large front room. “We select our books extremely carefully," Rajesh Bhattacharya, Room to Read’s development officer, says. “They should be age- and environment-appropriate. Many library programmes omit that."

Room to Read has four primary streams of activity in India. Its Room to Grow scheme selects and sponsors girl students through years of education, providing mentoring and guidance along the way. “I was in an area in Rajasthan recently where for five decades no girl child has gone to school," Bhattacharya says.

Engrossed: Students pore over library activities at a Room to Read project in Cambodia. Jayson Morris / Room to Read

The library campaign is clearly Room to Read’s favoured child, however. Tying up with state governments, Room to Read stocks each library with 800-1,000 books and offers library support for three years. “We don’t always get a good response from the state government, and then the teachers have to be won over," Bhattacharya says. “But now schools and states are really beginning to own their library programmes."

At the 500-student-strong MCD Primary School in Andrews Ganj, New Delhi, the library is a room on the first floor, with rugs on the floor and three cabinets of books off to one side. The unlocked cabinets are the ones from Room to Read.

“We insist that our books are openly accessible," Bhattacharya says. “Too often, government schools tend to lock up their books for fear of damage, but it also deters the children from reaching for them."

The Room to Read books, however, look pleasantly well-worn, as books should. They were stacked neatly by class level, and I was shown a scrupulously kept register of issued books. As I watched a library training workshop for teachers, I noticed that every single child wandering the corridor outside would stop and, with a smile, peer around the door.

One teacher at the school, who asked to remain anonymous because she wasn’t authorized to speak to the press, says that she has seen slow but steady progress in her students’ reading skills since the library opened last year.

“Unfortunately, sometimes the teachers don’t have the time to follow up with their students about their reading," she says. “Having a library, and having designated reading periods, is a good way to make sure that they keep improving their reading." And only by reading, as Bhattacharya says, “can they develop their imagination, and begin to envision brighter things around them".


If you want to volunteer

Volunteers at Room to Read can visit project libraries to read to children, or lead them through one of the many scheduled activities during the school day. A more pedagogically intensive way is to volunteer to teach Room to Grow candidates in their external tuitions, at one of Room to Read’s many tuition centres. The best way to sign up to volunteer is to log on to the Room to Read website and fill out a volunteer opportunities form.



Rs5,000 for this charity can

Buy 140 books for a school library

Sponsor six months of an individual girl student’s Room to Grow programme. A full year’s programme, which costs Room to Read Rs10,000, includes not only a scholarship and textbooks, but also mentoring, career guidance, and external tuitions, if necessary


People like us

Akshara Foundation, Bangalore

Money: For Rs4,000, a donor can buy a learning kit for two children for a year, providing them with reading charts, educational puzzles and blocks.

Time: You can volunteer for activities such as teacher training, etc.

Contact: ‘www.aksharafoundation.org’ or call 080-25429726

Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children, Delhi

Money: An upcoming campaign to publish and distribute books for children in the areas of Bihar affected by the recent floods in the Kosi river will run to publication costs of Rs50,000 per book title.

Time: At the AWIC’s Kathavachan projects, volunteers visit schools, hospitals and libraries.

Contact: ‘www.awic.in’ or call 011-23311095

Pratham, Mumbai

Money: Even Rs250 can buy a Pratham learning kit for a child.

Time: You can help develop teaching and learning material, or assist in monitoring.

Contact: ‘www.pratham.org’ or call 022-23851542