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Retired Librarian Finds New Purpose In South Africa

Library book stacks.
David Mulder
Flickr via Creative Commons
Retired ISU librarian Dorothy Kennett created Books for South Africa to put books in the hands of underserved children.

Once a librarian, always a librarian.  

That's how it is for Dorothy Kennett, a media librarian who, after retiring from Illinois State University, found a second calling in her field of choice miles from the prairies of the Midwest.

It was a simple invitation from her son that set Kennett on a mid-life course change. Not too much of a change, because she was still working with books. Now, though, she does her work in South Africa, providing assistance literacy in the form of books, instructional materials and computer training to under-served children. Kennett is the engine behind Books for South Africa. 

Retired librarian Dorothy Kennett
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
Dorothy Kennett is the engine behind Books for South Africa.

It all began in 2004 when Kennett's son—the men's tennis coach at Illinois State University—was planning on taking his team to South Africa. He invited his mother to come along.

"I said, 'Sure, that'd be lots of fun!'" remembered Kennett. "We flew into Cape Town, got into a minibus and first thing you see is the largest shack village I have ever seen. It's cardboard and it's corrugated metal. Cape Town is a beautiful town, but here it was, right in the middle. There were kids in the dirt playing—and that was the spark."

After she returned to the Twin Cities, Kennett found she couldn't get the kids of South Africa out of her mind. Calling on years of instincts, she offered to volunteer for six months to help build a library for underserved children. While Kennett brought books from the states for a foster home, she also found books that were already there. Her librarian organizational skill were called into action.

"I found books people had given them everywhere. They were under beds, they were in closets, in the kitchen. I found a warehouse where people had donated books to the orphanage. There were piles of them, covered in spiders and dirt. I got a wheelbarrow, filled it and took it back to the place where I was staying to clean them. It was grass roots."

Six months later a lady called me and asked if they could have a library, too.

After completing the orphanage library, Kennett, figuring it was a one-and-done deal, headed home to Illinois. Then a call came.

"Six months later a lady called me and asked if they could have a library, too," said Kennett. "I went there for four months. I had taken great notes on what I had done before, what I had cataloged and how I purchased materials, so I thought I could duplicate it." 

At this location, there was a building in place, but no book cases. Kennett recruited three young men to build bookshelves for the new library.

"And this young man from America had the Midwest in his voice. So I asked him where he was from and he said Indiana. And I said it was too bad he wasn't from Illinois State. And he said, 'I am!' He had just got his master's degree, so I made him chief of this building crew."

Several more libraries followed Kennett's initial success, plus several traveling libraries—plastic tubs full of books that are transported to those who need them. To date, Kennett has developed five complete libraries and continues to offer assistance to four other library programs in South Africa. The rewards, she said, are abundant.

"At this first library, I had set up an office in a kitchen. And one day a girl came up to the window and said 'Dorothy, can I have a book?' And I handed it out the window. She took the book and hugged it."

Listen to a longer version of the interview.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.