Think Inside the Box

July 15, 2015 | By French Culture

“We can rebuild ourselves through reading, “ says noted French architect and designer Philippe Starck.

That declaration could be a motto for Bibliothèques Sans Frontières (BSF), the French nonprofit with whom Starck partnered in 2012 to create the Ideas Box: a pop-up library and cultural hub meant to engage and empower marginalized communities by offering them books, educational materials and Internet access. Ideas Boxes are currently deployed in refugee camps in Burundi and Jordan; in Paris’s 10th arrondissement; and in Aboriginal areas of the Torres Strait islands. And this summer, one will be coming to Hayden Lord Park in the Bronx, thanks to BSF and the Cultural Services.

Patrick Weil, a historian at the University of Paris, founded BSF after visiting African refugee camps seven years ago. While refugees were provided food and shelter, Weil found that their intellectual life was largely ignored.  But Weil believed that refugees needed intellectual and cultural stimulation, especially when they must remain in camps for an average of 17 years. And not only could books and media help people stave off boredom and alienation — they could also help refugees educate themselves and their children in preparation for a self-reliant future.

At first, BSF focused solely on books, and the organization still maintains a warehouse filled with donated books ready to be shipped off to those in need.  But the UN Refugee Agency’s request for 300 library kits following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti showed the limits of that approach: despite books’ appeal, shipments were often damaged or destroyed, and still left some cultural needs unmet. 

From that experience sprang the Ideas Box. Housed in four durable crates that also serve as furniture once disassembled, BSF’s pop-up library is easy to transport, even in dangerous and inhospitable situations, and can be set up in as little as 20 minutes. Contained inside those colorful crates are laptops, tablets, cameras, a satellite Internet receiver, an electrical generator, a portable cinema, and thousands of books and e-books. Supplied with a $400,000 grant from the Alexander Soros foundation, BSF launched their first Ideas Boxes in Burundi this February. And when riots broke out in one Burundi refugee camp a few months ago, the rioters left one building untouched: the one housing the Ideas Box, where many refugees had gone to read, watch movies, or participate in slam poetry.

BSF is now looking to deploy Ideas Boxes in underserved urban areas where residents might lack easy access to libraries and other cultural institutions.  Paris’s 10th arrondissement was the first such area to receive an Ideas Box, but it won’t be the last: On July 15th in the Bronx’s Hayden Lord Park, BSF, DreamYard, and the New York Public Library will unveil New York’s very own Ideas Box.  In addition to offering books, computers and Internet access, the Bronx Ideas Box will offer arts and technology workshops throughout the summer.  BSF currently plans to leave the pop-up library open through September 5th, but if they can raise enough money, they hope to leave it here for a full year.

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