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Buy the Book

By Lory Hough, on September 4, 2013 4:11 PM

For Jen Soalt, Ed.M.'03, starting a literacy nonprofit was a labor of love — and a necessity. Reading has always been a passion for her, and as a teacher she wanted to share that love with another generation. But after working in high-poverty schools on both coasts, she became frustrated with the lack of books available to her students at school and during the summer. Other teachers had to be struggling, too.

During long commutes to the Sudbury (Mass.) Public Schools, where she worked as an ELA curriculum coordinator, she had time to think about ways to help. She was aware of micropatronage sites like Kiva and Donors Choose, which allow the public to financially support complete strangers by making donations online. She had also read the well-documented research that shows the link between access to books and literacy development. She wondered: What about a site that would allow teachers to request books they needed?

Over the next year, during a sabbatical in Singapore with her husband, MIT Professor Charles Harvey, she came up with BookMentors. Teachers working in public schools in the United States post requests online, and donors (called bookmentors) fill the requests or offer to pay for other books they hope will interest a teacher.

Soalt's long-term vision for the site is that it will be more than just a place to fill book requests.

"It was intended to be more social, more about a community of readers inside and outside schools helping one another through their mutual love of books," she says.

Soalt spent two years building a board (which includes Kate Henchman, Ed.M.'87, Ed.D.'94), working out a deal with a book vendor to buy books, nailing down the details of how the nonprofit would work, and getting seed funding to create the website. The site launched in February 2013. Just five months later, about 330 bookmentors had donated more than 430 books.

Donors don't actually buy and mail the books. Instead, they pay for a book online, and the book is shipped directly to the school from the book vendor. If a teacher requests 20 copies of a book for a class, a donor can pay for one or all of them, or for any number in between.

Anne Coldiron, a professor in the English Department at Florida State University, saw a post about BookMentors on a University of Virginia alumni group site and decided to look into it.

"I loved the idea of being able to put books into the hands of young readers, especially those who may not have a lot of books at home," she says. "When I saw how easy the website makes it to give particular books to particular students, I was hooked."

Clicking on the request page allows potential donors to see a list of books currently being sought, the number of copies requested, and the economic status of the school. Most requests come from educators working in high-poverty schools. Teachers also explain why they want the book and include basic information about the class. Once a request is filled, teachers and donors are encouraged to send online messages to one another. In May, for example, Coldiron donated a copy of See You at Harry's to a librarian at a middle school in Herndon, Va. In her thank you message to Coldiron, the librarian said the school was between budget cycles, and it was difficult to buy new books. In March, after a copy of Stink and the World's Worst Super-Stinky Sneakers was donated, the Title I coordinator at an elementary school in Orange Park, Fla., wrote to the bookmentor: "One student commented, 'Wow, that is so nice of someone to give us a book and we didn't even have to pay for it.'" The bookmentor wrote back, "You're welcome. I hope your students will remember to help build each other up and to share a little of any good fortune that may come their way."

For now, Soalt says the nonprofit is geared toward educators in the United States, but she hopes that as the site grows, BookMentors can begin working with schools, libraries, and NGOs abroad. She would also like to see more targeted connections.

"It would be great to help with a particular project, say a school building a new library, for example," she says. She also wants the site to grow organically.

"We want to make this a core group of people donating without pestering them too much and then have them spread the word," she says. Feedback is welcome. "I think of this as a collaborative project."