They say a single moment can change a person’s life, and for Palo Alto’s Barb Mackraz it happened in 2013 during a visit to a bare, one-room schoolhouse in Morocco. “A lightbulb went off for me, and I had a vision of creating a library,” Barb said. “I am passionate about reading, and I knew that if I could bring books to the young people in Morocco, it could ignite something special.”
Working from Palo Alto to gather books in English
A few months later, Barb traveled back to Morocco to a town called Erfoud, which is populated by Amazighen people (also known as Berbers) who make up a large percentage of Morocco and often live in rural poverty. When she met high school students in an after school English club who had no library, she was determined to help. Barb returned to Palo Alto with a plan to curate a collection of books that would allow these motivated students to pursue their interest in English through reading.
Curating books to match student needs
“I kept in close touch with the teachers through email to make sure what I was collecting would meet the students’ needs, and I consulted my teenage daughter about what she was reading at Gunn High School,” Barb explained. Through a combination of donations and purchases, she was able to send enough books to Erfoud for a library that would cover a wide range of interests and reading levels.
The first “Purple Library” opens and sparks a movement
The school donated a room and the students worked after school to clean it up and hang shelves for the books. When it came time to paint the library, they picked Barb’s favorite color: purple. In April 2015, she traveled back to Erfoud for the opening of what is now known all over Morocco as “The Purple Library.”
From one library to launching 20 more and counting
The experience of working with the teachers and students was so engaging that Barb cut back her hours at work and created the Morocco Library Project. Following that first ‘purple library’ in 2015, she curated books for another 10 libraries in 2016 and is on track to open 20 more in 2017. Some libraries are small- 100 books or so to serve mostly the after school English club- while others are large enough for a whole school. The Morocco Library Project has also created a “mobile library” that serves five schools in the desert in the far south, in the Moroccan Sahara.
Now Barb is working full-time on the Morocco Library Project (albeit without a salary as all the fundraising goes straight to books), and collaborating with her colleagues in Morocco to expand the impact. “I love storytelling and our next idea is to help the students write their own stories and publish them in anthologies,” Barb said. “We also hope to create an intergenerational effort to preserve the native poems and tales of the Amazighen.”
Partnering with Books Inc. to buy and collect quality books
Local bookseller Books Inc. has been an active supporter of the Morocco Library Project by giving Barb a discount for books she purchases and providing a bin for shoppers to donate books from a designated list. Books Inc. is also working with Barb to set up an online ‘wish list’ for teachers in Morocco that local supporters can fulfill, which should launch later this summer.
Spreading the word about the Morocco Library Project
The Morocco Library Project is now well known in Morocco, although few people here in the United States or even Palo Alto have heard of it. But Barb is hoping that will soon change as she gets the word out and engages support from the broader community. She has received donations from the Rotary Club of Woodside/Portola Valley and just got a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Morocco.
She recently received an unsolicited donation from a group of local women who traveled to Morocco and were taken to a new library underway in Erfoud by their guide. “They loved seeing the library and were amazed to learn it was launched by someone right here in Palo Alto,” Barb said.
But to keep going, Barb needs to engage more supporters in the United States and donors who are excited to get involved in her effort (you can learn more about how to donate here).
Libraries open new doors for girls in rural Morocco
And the libraries that Barb has helped build in in Morocco are opening new doors beyond reading for the students in Morocco who are studying hard to learn English through after school clubs. “In many villages, the libraries have become community centers where people come together,” Barb explained. In a country where many girls in rural areas don’t continue their education after primary school, the libraries are also a haven for young women to access knowledge through books that they would otherwise not have.
In one library, the students were so inspired by reading about Rachel Carson that they’ve formed a local environmental group. A student named Youssef, who is on the Morocco Library Project team, is now headed to a summer program at Indiana University through a MENA scholarship, thanks in part to an essay he wrote about creating the first Purple Library at his school.
Want to know more about the Morocco Library Project?
- Visit the website (www.moroccolibraries.org) to see photos of the libraries and read more about the need for literacy support in rural Morocco.
- Donate to the Morocco Library project here. All donations are tax deductible.
- Purchase books at Books Inc. in Palo Alto and put them in the donation bin in the front of the store.
- Contact Barb Mackraz to get connected to the latest news about the Morocco Library Project. Plans are underway for an online book purchase system, which launch later this summer.
All photos courtesy of the Morocco Library Project.
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