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公益好声音 | Library project a novel experience for migrant children
WANG XIAOYU 2023-06-23 来源:China Daily

Youngsters are offered the opportunity to immerse themselves in literature

"I found it! I found it!" a second grader shrieked with excitement as he dashed to Liao Xixiong, the librarian.

"This is exactly what I've been looking for — a book of Xi You Ji (a historical fantasy also known as Journey to the West) with pictures of Guanyin (a Buddhist deity) in it."

Liao leaned on a classroom desk and scanned the student's library card and the barcode on the spine of the book. "Have a good read, my dear," she said. "Why don't you have a chat with me next time, so that I can recommend a book I like to you?" Seeing the boy rush back to a plastic stool in the corner of the room, hugging the book like a box of treasure, Liao let out a broad smile.

"Reading is a spontaneous act for all pupils, but they need a consistent and stable environment to nurture such skills," she said.

The library, covering less than 20 square meters and holding about 5,000 books, provides such an environment for the children of migrant workers who attend a primary school in Tongzhou district in suburban Beijing.

The facility is part of a project called the Weilan Library, which was initiated by the Beijing Sanzhi Shelter for Children in Distress, a nonprofit founded in 2017 that is dedicated to setting up libraries at private schools for migrant children.

By late October, the project had 82 branches in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong province, and dozens of other cities, and served more than 80,000 young readers.

"A volunteer for our project once said that the kids would 'grow automatically' in between the shelves as long as a collection of books was rustled up for them," said Zuo Qiao, the project's founder and executive director.

About five years ago, Zuo found that many schools for migrant children had a dust-covered room with books, shelves, desks and chairs scattered all over the place. A plaque dangling on the door would suggest that the room was once a library gifted by a charity group, he said.

"Many good-hearted people donated books and set up libraries at these schools, but such institutions often ended up being forgotten and left in darkness in the long run," he said.

Motivated by the belief that every child deserves access to libraries, Zuo and his colleagues started the Weilan Library project.

"Three factors are irreplaceable in any one of our libraries: a large number of high-quality children's books; consistent opening hours; and allowing the kids to make their own choice of books to borrow and read," he said.

The branch at the primary school in Tongzhou serves around 530 students, 30 teachers and other members of staff.

Librarian Liao said that when it opened on Feb 13, the small room was packed with so many students that she and the school managers had to arrange visiting hour slots for different grades.

Volunteer Li Yuchen gives students a reading class at the school. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Now, the busiest hours are usually class breaks and lunchtime.

Some children step in with firm conviction in their eyes and stride toward a section they know never disappoints, while others wander in randomly and without a goal, but end up curling up on the floor, absorbed in a story.

In addition to helping children borrow and return books and organizing the shelves, Liao enjoys chatting with the students about their choices.

"Picture books are popular with the students, and I also ask them whether or not they would read the words written in them," she said.

"Some senior students also borrow harder-to-read literature, and I ask them whether they were able to finish the book and their thoughts about it."

It is easy to spot first-timers who appear to be in a daze when seeing the shelves of books, according to Liao. "I encourage such students to close their eyes, pick a book at random and try it," she said.

She said that she insisted that the library should be open five days a week on all regular school days, and that seemingly obscure books for primary school pupils — such as an abridged version of The Red and The Black by French novelist Stendhal — should remain on the shelves "Even though some days are less busy than others, I want this library to be open whenever a kid feels like roaming around here," she said.

"Some books may sit still on the shelf for months or even years, but I still want these kids to see these books' names frequently so they at least understand that there are such works out there, and that there is a much larger world for them to explore."

Liao said that many students at the school are being raised in single-parent families. Some parents are farmers on the outskirts of Beijing or they live in nearby villages.

A girl borrows two books from a volunteer librarian. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"My impression is that the students here may not be able to spend a lot of time with their parents, so books can be an outlet for them to seek answers to their confusion and questions," she said.

She added that she was taken aback by a student's inquiry about books related to Adolf Hitler.

"Later, I learned that some pupils had come across him on short-video platforms while using their parents' mobile phones for fun," she said, noting that her solution was to add books on military history or those with anti-war themes to the library.

Challenging tasks

Zuo, director of the Weilan Library project, said that finding sufficient staff members and volunteers to operate the school libraries is one of the most challenging tasks for the organizers.

"It takes a great amount of effort to run a library, from preparations such as cataloging books and making lending cards for the kids to the repetitive work of handling book loans, repairing worn-out books and countless other trivial issues," he said.

Zuo said that digital tools have played a significant role in addressing the problem.

"We have set up an online Weilan Library community where full-time librarians and volunteers can sign up for shifts, write work memos or handle financial matters on one platform," he said.

"Also, at 8 pm every night, an intranet message is sent across the platform, detailing which branch is short of staff members so volunteers who have plenty of free time will be able to know which place needs assistance."

Liao said that the branch at the primary school in Tongzhou has about eight long-term volunteers. Across Beijing, most volunteers are full-time mothers, retirees, college students and freelancers.

Li Yuchen, 42, has been volunteering at different branches of the Weilan Library project since late 2019. It takes about two and a half hours to ride on subways and buses from her home in Xicheng district to the school in Tongzhou.

"I love spending time with kids, and working at an on-campus library means that I have the opportunity to communicate and chat with them," she said.

She received training on how to demonstrate picture books for children and began giving classes at the school after obtaining permission from the principal.

"To grab the kids' attention, I introduce myself as Sister Raindrop and my colleague as Sister Cat," she said. "It's interesting to see how they never get tired of interesting stories. They beg me to retell the same story over and over again."

Holding a picture book in front of a class of more than 40 students, Li understood that some students sitting at the back might not be able to see the illustrations clearly or might be distracted from time to time.

"But that's perfectly OK to me because it is not an official class," she said. "I want them to understand that there are different books here for them to choose from, and if they are interested, I am always here to lend a helping hand and share stories with them."

On the window of the library, there is a postcard written by a third grader. It reads, "Even though your library is small, for us it is a grand hall of knowledge and teaches us so much."

A volunteer helps a girl find a book. WANG XIAOYU/CHINA DAILY