Alumni Profile • Anita Zanstra '99
Helping bring Bolivians the pleasure of libraries

Anita ZanstraGrowing up, Anita Zandstra ’99 paid frequent visits to public and school libraries. In high school and college she worked in libraries. To her, they were, and are, inviting places.

Few of the people with whom she now lives and works know the pleasures of libraries. Among Bolivians, almost 26 percent of the rural and over 6 percent of the urban, adult population is illiterate—the highest rate in South America. Zandstra has taken a role in a project to change that.

She works with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, as a popular libraries educator. For 20 years, this committee has been helping city neighborhoods and rural villages establish libraries where the government has not. In October 2005, Zandstra, who is fluent in Spanish, left Grand Rapids to join the project and assist its Bolivian coordinator, Sandra Sánchez.

“A neighborhood or a village submits an application to us for a library,” Zandstra explained. “We visit the people to see if they can do their part. MCC asks for a strong commitment from the community.”

Indeed. The community, through a library committee, must demonstrate to Zandstra and Sánchez that it can provide a space for the library, furnish it and raise money to pay a librarian’s salary and to purchase anywhere from $300 to $900 worth of books and educational materials. With a community unified and organized enough to provide all this, MCC signs a three-year contract, agreeing to match those funds, to provide training for the librarian, and to make follow-up visits for encouragement and suggestions.

“It’s a huge commitment we ask from mostly poor people,” Zandstra said. “We help with money-raising suggestions, and we go with them to local authorities, but it’s important that they do the work. The library will only be sustainable in the long run if the community has a strong stake in it.”

People are willing to do all of this, Zandstra explained, primarily because they want their children to have resources with which to do their homework. Public schools expect children to buy their own textbooks, but many parents can’t afford them. So in order to do their homework, children have to find the required information in other books. Without libraries, that’s a nearly impossible task, helping to explain why less than half of the children who enter first grade graduate from high school.

Only a few of the 40-plus libraries MCC has helped to establish in Bolivia have closed. Some have flourished. One, in Santa Rosa, has increased its collection to 5,000 books and housed them in a new building. More importantly, Zandstra said, the library has spawned a women’s sewing cooperative and an association of young people who take action on environmental issues.

Another part of Zandstra’s work is to help conduct workshops for schoolteachers. “Many didn’t have a library growing up, so they don’t know how it’s useful. We talk about ways to use a library, and then we also help them find more dynamic learning activities for their kids.”

Slowly, Zandstra said, the popular libraries project is helping Bolivians develop a new “library culture.” She leans on the word “slowly.

“Often I’m frustrated. It’s a different culture, and many times I don’t understand how and why things work the way they do. You don’t see results for a long time. Then there will be a breakthrough, and I think, ‘All right, things really are happening here.’”

To read more about Anita Zandstra’s work in Bolivia, see