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Bookstandard -- March 23, 2007
Author Masha Hamilton Treks through the Desert in the Name of Literacy
By Kimberly Maul

Children gather around as the traveling Camel Library enters the settlement. They watch as the librarian displays the books under the tree and they each pick one book to borrow. One of the few ways these children and communities ever get books, the Camel Library is a growing trend in western Africa and author Masha Hamilton is helping to spread the word in the United States.

Hamilton was so struck by the image of a library that travels by camel through the deserts of Kenya that she wrote a novel based on the idea, went to see it for herself and is now mobilizing other authors to get involved.

"I cannot tell you how moving that experience was," Hamilton said, explaining that she and her daughter went out on several trips with the roaming library to semi-nomadic settlements around Nairobi, Kenya. "We drew immediate attention as foreigners coming to the area. But as soon as the books began to be laid out, we were sort of irrelevant. The books were the important things."

But before Hamilton took her first steps with Camel Library, she wrote her novel, The Camel Bookmobile, which is set to be published by HarperCollins in April. After her oldest daughter told her about the original camel library, Hamilton said she immediately came up with the outline and idea for her book, which follows an American librarian who goes to Africa to help the library.

"I did research the real camel library, but I didn't go at that point because I wanted to be true to my story," said Hamilton, who spent ten years overseas as a journalist. "I didn't want it to be reporting. I really wanted the fiction to have its own inner truth and resonance."

Three years, and one finished book, later, Hamilton and her daughter went to Kenya, where they partnered with the Garissa Provincial Library to take trips with the camels.

The traveling library there, which was started around 1997, has 12 camels that go out in groups of three to four settlements a day, four days a week. "As soon as we got home," Hamilton said, "we packed up boxes of books to send."

On Feb. 13, Hamilton launched a website, aiming to get others involved with the Camel Library by donating books. Hamilton said that with its small collection of books, multiple trips through the bush and, like any library, lack of returns, the library's collection has dwindled.

The website includes several ways to send books, including ordering through the library's Amazon.com wish list or sending boxes individually. Already, more than 150 authors have participated in the book drive, including M.J. Rose, Jonathan Ames, Jennifer Egan and Neil Gaiman. Other booklovers, like publishers, libraries and individuals have also pitched in.

"These librarians are amazing and inspiring, just walking across the bushes like they do to bring these books to these places," Hamilton said. "Book by book, box by box, we could get a thousand new books to the Camel Library, which would be a really meaningful contribution."
 

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