What can you do with that stack of books on the bedside table before they fall over and bury you?

For the last 19 years, the Parole (Annapolis) Rotary club’s Books for International Goodwill (B.I.G.) has provided an answer that not only solves the problem of an abundance of books for many of us, but also contributes to increasing literacy while helping the environment. B.I.G. volunteers have collected, sorted, packed and shipped more than 7.6 million books to underserved populations in the U.S. and abroad. They believe it is the largest volunteer-based book distribution project in the world.

B.I.G. is the signature project of the Parole Rotary club, helping to fulfill its mission of “making a positive difference for youth today, so they will make a difference tomorrow.” The funding for B.I.G. comes from the Parole club’s regular book sales, as well as other fundraising efforts.

Book Recipients

Potential recipients find out about B.I.G. through the Web (www.big-books.org) and fill out an application indicating what kind of books they can use and how they will utilize the books. Applicants must develop a plan to distribute the books free of charge to local educational institutions.

B.I.G. ships in two ways. Shipped in bulk, books are sorted into a limited number of categories, while those in bad physical shape or inappropriate for shipping are removed. The largest volume goes out in 20-foot containers holding 15,000–20,000 books (a virtual library in a box). B.I.G. has shipped more than 300 containers to more than 30 countries.

While most of the containers go to English-speaking countries in Africa, there is also a demand for books in English in a variety of countries where English is a second language.

In order to assure container shipments will be properly handled on the other end, B.I.G. asks recipients to pay a small portion of the shipping costs to cover local logistics, so as to give them some “skin in the game.”

B.I.G. also has shipped hundreds of individual boxes to U.S. military personnel, individual teachers, Indian reservations and prison libraries. In these smaller shipments, each book goes out with a label indicating the Rotary and local Annapolis connection. “Thank you” letters from recipients of both the large and small shipments indicate the value they place on the books.

The fact that recipients request repeat shipments tells a great deal about the quality of the sorting and book selection process. As one teacher put it, “For the first time, my students have books to satisfy their curiosity.”

Big B.I.G. Volunteers

B.I.G. utilizes volunteers not only from the Parole Rotary, but also from other Rotary clubs, as well as organizations, students seeking their required volunteer hours and individuals committed to literacy. Volunteers get the satisfaction of promoting literacy, while those who donate get the satisfaction of keeping their books “alive.” More than 1,000 books — donated by schools, libraries, publishers and individuals — are dropped off at the B.I.G. warehouse each day.

The Prince Frederick Rotary club holds a regular book drive to support B.I.G.’s efforts. The Single Volunteers organizations in the area and the Naval Academy Midshipman Action Group provide a regular supply of packers.

An ancillary benefit of the project results from the fact that thousands of cubic feet of previously discarded books no longer end up in the landfill, reducing the environmental impact. Prior to B.I.G.’s creation, the Anne Arundel County school system was paying to dump replaced textbooks into the landfill.

B.I.G. is currently in a transition from one warehouse to another, and many of the scheduling and operating routines have been disrupted. Check the web site for the location of the new warehouse and instructions for donating books and dates for upcoming book sales. The effort expects to be back in full operation by the first of the year.

Stephen Frantzich is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He can be reached at 410-293-6865. He’s a member of the Parole Rotary club.