Are there really libraries in refugee camps?

As librarians, we like to talk about the power of books and libraries to make a difference in the lives of everyday people. But surely when it comes to people living in a refugee camp, they are must be pretty far down on the priority list? You might be surprised to find out that this isn’t the case.

One of the things lost when the Calais refugee camp (called the “Calais Jungle” by outsiders and some occupants ) was cleared just two weeks ago was a functioning library named Jungle Books. Besides being a source of books, it provided equipment like LED lamps and was a community hub, with laptops to access the internet, discussion spaces, and more.

Photo by Katja Ulbert – Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0

“This library can lend a semblance of normality to their lives. It’s a place where people can drop in and have a chat, maybe play a bit of music, not only read books.” Mary Jones, British coordinator of library quoted in The Spectator 

Sounds not so different to libraries you know here, doesn’t it? There are also libraries at Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, and in the Zaatari camp, which hosts more Syrian refugees than any other.

These libraries exist because many refugee camps, which were initially intended to be short-term, have become permanent settlements that have been around for decades. The number of refugees and displaced persons hit an all-time high in 2015, with 24 people being displaced out of their homes every second as calculated by the UN.

UNHCR - Protracted refugee situations by duration, end-2014
From UNHCR staff member Lauren Parater, June 2015, from

(Though today most refugees and displaced persons – the term for people that have been displaced by conflict but don’t meet the strict definition of refugee – actually live in existing urban areas, not in camps).

Sikander points out the need for migrants to realise they all share the same problems. ‘This talk [about the history of Afghanistan] I would give is like my book.’… He gestures towards Mohammed: ‘Like the history of Sudan is his book.

Patron quoted in The Spectator

What can you do to help bring books to refugees? Donating actual books is probably not the most efficient way, since shipping costs will be significant. You could donate money to a trustworthy organisation like the UNHCR (High Commission on Refugees) and ask that your donation be directed to books and education.

You could also support a really cool innovative idea like the Ideas Box developed by Librarians Without Borders with the furniture designer Phillippe Starck. It is a unit the size of a small shipping container that contains paper books, e-book readers, tablets, laptops, a projector, board games and arts and crafts materials!

You can also support the refugees who have made it to Canada with a local organization like Refugee613 here in Ottawa, for example.

“We are all from different countries, but if we can all sit together, we can understand each other, learn from each other and make friendships. That way we will finish a lot of problems in the Jungle.”Sikander, an Afghan patron of the Calais Jungle library

Even the Calais library, will live on in a way – some of its contents are being moved to Greece to serve refugees there.


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