Saint Paul Helps to End the Book Famine in Africa

Books for Africa founder Thomas Warth teaches kids during a trip to the country.

In 1988, a group of librarians and booksellers got together and shipped a box of books to Africa, specifically to Uganda. Twenty-seven years later, Books for Africa has shipped more than 33 million books to 49 African countries.

Founder Tom Warth, celebrating his 80th birthday this year, has been in the book business a long time. “He built a business out of his garage, literally,” says Books for Africa executive director and Saint Paul resident Patrick Plonski. A car buff, Warth “was going to car shows and noticed the need, the demand for books for people interested in cars,” Plonski says. So he started and grew the company, Classic Motorbooks, sourcing and selling manuals and other car books, then sold the business and retired. He found himself with some time on his hands.

“I went on a trip around the world and to Africa,” Warth says. He visited a library in Uganda, and the library had no books. A librarian, desks and shelves, but no books. “Since I was in the book business, I figured I could trigger some people to send books.” And he did.

“Books for Africa is the world’s largest shipper of books to the African continent,” Plonski says, with computers and digital books being added to that list every day. The company is based in Lowertown, with operations all over the world, including a large warehouse in Atlanta, and a small warehouse off Prior and University. “So we’re collecting books on a continental level,” Plonski says. “And now we also send books out of Paris.”

Plonski got involved in Books for Africa while working on his doctorate in international education at the University of Minnesota. He heard about the organization through his wife, Judy Hawkinson, whose family was active in volunteering—her father was a past Books for Africa board member. Plonski applied for the position of executive director before finishing his degree, not feeling qualified, but knowing the position wouldn’t be there when he graduated. “I was always interested in all things international,” he says. And the interest got him hired.

According to Plonski, the growing organization’s simple goal is to end the African book famine.

“We are one of the richest countries in the world,” Warth says, “with an abundance of reading material, much of it surplus, and you have a continent with a billion people and nothing to read.” Bringing books to the continent can help educate the population, which in turn can help bring the population out of poverty. “The concept of a child growing up without ever having held a book is pretty terrible,” Warth says. Giving them books gives them knowledge, he adds, “and what they learn, hopefully, is to become leaders.”

Plonski agrees. “Books are a tool. The ultimate goal is to advance literacy and education by sending books.”

The organization receives books from all over the world, and in many ways. People can send private donations –the books sitting on your shelf that you’ve already read –but Books for Africa also works with publishers. “I like books by the shopping bag, but I really need books by the semi-trailer,” Plonski says. Local companies such as Lerner Publishing and Capstone Publishing in Edina have partnered to provide textbooks.

While Books for Africa loves to get all kinds of books, there is a particular need for college textbooks, Plonski says. And they always need volunteers. “There are volunteers who are raising money to send the books, there are volunteers who are driving the books to our warehouse and providing donated books, there are volunteers sorting the books in Minnesota and Atlanta, and then there are volunteers in Africa who take the books and distribute them,” Plonski says.

And the volunteers are what make the program tick. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the people here in Saint Paul,” Warth says.

For more information, including how to donate or volunteer, visit the website here.