When Melanie Sellar visited Guatemala in 2011 to help build a library for a local school, it brought great excitement to the many kids who had never seen one before.
As the founder of Librarians Without Borders (LWB) at Western, she was starting to realize just how impactful her idea had become.
LWB, a non-profit organization established within Western’s Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program in 2005, was created to donate books and build libraries in the smallest, poorest places on Earth.
Sellar, a graduate of the program, credits her friend and classmate Jorge Chimbinda for inspiring the idea.
“He was asking me a lot of questions about libraries and how they work, which I thought was fairly unusual,” Sellar said. “It turns out he was trying to build a library in his hometown in Angola. There aren’t any libraries there.”
Sellar, who was in her final year of the program, later approached the MLIS Student Council with the idea of helping Chimbinda’s cause. The proposal was well received and the council immediately began to plan for the project.
As fundraising for the library continued to progress, the MLIS program began exploring the possibility of creating an organization focused solely on these types of initiatives.
Shortly after, Librarians Without Borders was born.
Since its development, LWB has expanded into an independent, nationwide organization that has chapters at six Canadian universities. Sellar now serves as the co-executive chair of the parent organization, which is run by a geographically dispersed team of volunteers across North America.
Western’s chapter contributes to the funding and awareness of a few specific local and international projects.
Most recently, students from Western’s chapter have been helping supply and catalogue a library in the Kettle and Stony Point Native community, a First Nations reserve on the southern shore of Lake Huron. They have also been helping fundraise for the London Public Library’s A Book For Every Child campaign, a drive established to help supply the local children’s book bank.
On a grander scale, they have fundraised for educational institutions in Nigeria, Costa Rica, Ghana and Rwanda. Their most direct work abroad has been in Guatemala, where two Western LWB members engaged in an 11-day visit to Quetzaltenango, a city of more than 220,000 in 2012.
Suzanne Fernando, 29, was one of them. Along with 16 other volunteers from various LWB chapters, she helped institute the city’s first-ever loan-out library system at Miguel Angel Asturias Academy, a local public school.
“When we introduced that idea to the kids, that they could take books home, they just squealed. I’ve never seen that reaction before. Even the older kids were excited,” Fernando said.
Much to the delight of those on the trip, the 200 books Fernando delivered and catalogued did much more than enable local children to read in their spare time. They triggered a dramatic cultural change.
“Girls going to high school there is an anomaly. Most girls stop going after grade six and are then expected to be a mother, not a student,” Fernando said. “But with the development of this school, there are now girls in those older grades. Some of them were 14 and telling me they want to become engineers. It was very encouraging to see.”
Western’s work at this school in Quetzaltenango has been an annual effort since Sellar and the original Western LWB team first visited to begin the project in 2005.
The numbers – in members and in budget – aren’t staggering. Western’s chapter of LWB currently totals at around 15 members, with last year’s fundraising topping out at an estimated $600. The volunteers themselves cover the rest of the costs. However, the impact their efforts made can’t be quantified.
Current MLIS students Charlene Lee, 25, current chair, and Christina Wilson, 23, former chair, serve Western’s chapter.
“We really do have an opportunity to do things for the greater good with this program, not just beef up a resume,” Lee said.
“The fact that all of this was founded at Western is a huge accomplishment,” Wilson said.
Sellar foresees LWB extending into the United States school system within the next five years, but regardless of how far it expands, Western’s chapter will always remain as the heart of the organization.
“Western has always been a special place for Librarians Without Borders. It’s our home. It’s our nest, where we were founded. It’s great to see how it has grown from there to throughout MLIS programs across Canada,” she said.
“It captures the spirit of why many people become librarians.”