At Cambridge parish, every book has a happy ending

CAMBRIDGE -- It is a problem unique to the modern world: a surplus of books. Homes, schools, universities, and offices all grapple with the question of what to do when there is no room left on the shelf to accommodate a growing library. Too often, the final chapter for these texts is the dumpster.

St. John the Evangelist Church in Cambridge is committed to alleviating this problem, while simultaneously combating illiteracy. The parish has recently teamed up with Hands Across the Water, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to collect used, unwanted books and ship them to communities in need around the globe.

Laura Marshall is spearheading the effort at St. John’s. She set up a collection bin at the church, and almost immediately parishioners began filling it.

“They respond by participating,” she said. “Our parishioners don’t talk. They do. That is the beauty of St. John’s.”

Recently, the Knights of Columbus have joined the effort. With their help, the parish has collected over 3,000 books.

Hands Across the Water provides the bin, pick up and distribution of the books. With headquarters in Stoneham, the organization is expanding its reach throughout New England. Founder Jane Miller Webber, a former JAG officer in the Air Force, said she is “deeply grateful to Laura Marshall and the parish,” for their commitment to collecting and recycling books. Webber started the organization in 2000. The idea arose during her military career, which brought her face to face with the international problem of illiteracy.

“I figured the world needed one less lawyer and one more humanitarian,” she said.

She is now committed to volunteering full time for the cause. In the seven years since it began, the organization has delivered over five million books to communities in need. The charity has reached places in the United States, such as the Appalachian region and the areas battered by Hurricane Katrina. Around the word, it has expanded libraries in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Most recently, the group is preparing to supply books to schools and libraries in war-torn Iraq.

Webber explained that the libraries in many communities in these countries are so undersupplied that book circulation is not allowed. In fact, even attempting to remove a book from the library can be a criminal offense. Adults and children alike wait months just to get an appointment to look at a book within the library walls. This is ironic, she pointed out, when here in the United States students have to be cajoled into using the library.

“There is a serious book famine globally,” Webber said. “And in Massachusetts we throw books in the trash.”

Webber believes those with access to education have the responsibility to share it with others.

“God created wealth, but He left it to us to distribute it,” she said, quoting the adage.

Hands Across the Water accepts all books, including text books and children’s books. Books written in English are particularly important to developing countries, since it is the international language of business. Both hard and soft covered books are accepted. Books with mildew, mold or missing covers or pages cannot be collected. However, books with other earmarks of normal use, such as highlighted passages and handwritten notes, are still great candidates for recycling.

Beyond the value of eliminating waste and improving opportunities for education, Webber believes her program may be laying the seeds for peace.

“Literacy is a key stepping stone to peaceful resolutions. With literacy, people use debate and argument to settle differences instead of resorting to violence,” she said.

Both Marshall and Webber acknowledged that the program is just as life-enriching for those who give as those who receive.

“This is my heart-child,” remarked Marshall. Added Webber, “God blesses those who follow their hearts.”