Making a Difference with Librarians Without Borders

April 14, 2014

"Guatemala's educational needs are complex. Reading is a luxury. We are there to create a culture of literacy."

GSLIS master's student Brandie Burrows personifies public service. As a former Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, she taught entrepreneurial fundamentals to women business owners and helped establish youth centers. While she was at the home of her host family, the maid thought she was "rich because I had so many books. I tried to explain to her the idea of borrowing books for free. It was a completely unfathomable concept. I realized she had never been to a library. Then, I started thinking about being a librarian." While in graduate school, she searched for her next opportunity to improve conditions for those in another part of the world. When she stumbled upon Librarians without Borders (LWB) in a Simmons GSLIS newsletter listing, she applied to the school that night.

Founded in 2005, LWB is a volunteer-run, non-profit organization founded by "socially-minded librarians who wanted to address the information resource inequity existing between different regions of the world," according to the website. The organization has a board of directors from the United States and Canada, an executive board, and Canadian student committees. They currently support initiatives in Guatemala and Ghana to improve literacy and library conditions in developing nations. As a Canadian-based organization, they accept several international volunteers. Burrows was selected to participate in Guatemala's Asturias program, where she would assist at the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Instead of going sightseeing, she also signed for additional volunteering at the public library in Chajul, Guatemala.

"Guatemala's educational needs are complex. We were working with kids who have never opened a book before. Their parents don't read. Reading is a luxury. We are there to create a culture of literacy," said Burrows. As she explains in her blog, creating an environment that encourages literacy was a tall order for a 15-day trip with 17 other volunteers.

In addition to cataloguing, processing, programming, and organizing resources at Asturias Academy, Burrows and the LWB team worked with the school's principal and founder to set up the first library lending program. The principal wanted the library to be open for the students, but he was not sure about how to do it. Prior to LWB team's visit, the library was open to the students, but books were to be used only on campus.

A "Library Day" event was held in which every class visited the library for 40 minutes to participate in engaging information literacy activities, such as scavenger hunts and bookmark making, and to see the new books LWB brought to the school. A skit was performed to inform students that books were going to be available to check out and take home. "Initially, when we asked the students if they should be able to take books home, they all vehemently yelled, 'No!'" said Burrows. LWB volunteers showed how to treat books when they are in the students' possession. They also reviewed what to do "if you lose a book or your sister gets it dirty." After the informational skit, "the students were beyond thrilled with the idea of being able to read at home. Asturias' hope is to one day make the library open to the community."

"I was taken by how grateful and welcoming the children of Asturias were," said Burrows. "They always greeted us with a kiss on the cheek, they thanked us repeatedly, and at the end of Library Day, each class presented us with a wonderful handmade card. They were some of the sweetest children I have ever met. The teachers were also appreciative."

As a former prison, the public library in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, presented formidable challenges. "They kept the bars up to separate the patrons from the books," Burrows recounts. "When you wanted a book, you asked the librarian behind the bars for the book you are looking for. She goes to retrieve it and you hope it's the right one!"

While it took time for Burrows to refresh her Spanish and acclimate to Guatemalan cuisine, the biggest challenge remains "not being able to help every person who needed help. I wanted to stay there longer. We are not able to give a scholarship to every person who wanted to attend Asturias. It's hard to leave and not know how to continue to help."

However, when she completed her time with LWB, Burrows volunteered for an extra weekend in Chajul, an indigenous Mayan village, where she partnered with another non-profit called Limitless Horizons to visit the Chajul Public Library and meet members of the community. In February, Burrows became Program Manager of the Limitless Horizon partnership with the Chajul Public Library to further literacy in the community.

Although Burrows paid for all travel and lodging expenses, she recommends setting up a GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaign to raise money to participate in volunteer humanitarian efforts. For those considering a LWB experience, Burrows recommends, "I would 100% say go for it! The only advice I would give is be open to the experience. Go into it willing to do whatever is needed."

Burrows graduates in May 2014 and is a user service specialist at Portland Public Library, a coordinator of Friends of Portland's Public Library, and an intern at Maine's Historical Society. In the near future, she is interested in working in an academic library and pursuing a second master's degree. She would "love to see more of the world and how my place in this world fits within that broader concept. If I could go on volunteering at libraries all over the world forever, that is exactly what I would do."

Librarians can become a member of LWB for free by applying on the website. To learn about the latest volunteer opportunities, follow the organization on Facebook and Twitter @LWB_Online or email

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer