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The Free Books Project: Improving Literacy in Camden

I first heard about The Free Books Project and its founder, Tom Martin, from the You Oughta Know TV show on WHYY-PBS Philadelphia. Tom saw an unmet need to read in Camden, NJ. Starting with some donated books from friends, he has created a thriving community book network that is fostering connections and improving literacy throughout the area. Eager to find out more, I reached out to Tom to see if he would do a little Q&A with Books We Read. He graciously agreed!

BWR: First, please tell us a little about your background, e.g. past jobs, experiences.

TM: I have been a recruiter/headhunter in the chemistry lab field for 30 years. I had my own one man band business and worked from home. I am somewhat retired from that.

BWR: You are the founder and executive director of the Free Books Project. Please explain this initiative, what gave you the idea to start it, and why this location was selected.

TM: I’ve always wanted to get books into the hands of people who might not have access to them. I dreamed of driving a book mobile around cities like Camden. I still do, but we haven’t reached that level yet.

BWR: What is the significance and impact on the Camden community?

TM: I think we’ve made a significant impact upon the city of Camden. We give away over 10,000 books a month and our Arks have made books a normal thing and have added to the beauty of the neighborhoods.

BWR: We here at Books We Read are so interested in your association with Rutgers Camden. Can you elaborate on the connections the Free Books Project is forging with classes on the Rutgers Camden campus? 

TM: RU Camden has been invaluable to our growth:

  • Our social media person is a RU Grad that we met years ago while she was a senior doing some project for another nonprofit.
  • Michael D’talia is a friend of over 15 years. He is the one who introduced us to everyone.
  • Dr. Westman sends her honor students to volunteer with us. They are amazing, all different but we haven’t met one we are not in a bit of awe of.
  • Dr. Silvia is helping us “break into” the Spanish book market.

BWR: Do you have any other partnerships or affiliations with community organizations?

TM: We give books away at Cathedral Kitchen once a week, we partner with CamCare, Parents Invincible, Shoes for Souls, we have an ark at Joseph House, there are more.

BWR: Do you collaborate with any libraries or have any plans to?

TM: The Camden County Library system is a wonderful partner, Julie in the downtown branch is our hero. Antonella in Voorhees saves books for us. The Burlington and Moorestown, Haddon Heights libraries all save books for us.

BWR: What are some of your biggest challenges in keeping the Free Books Project going?

TM: Our biggest challenge is funding. We are becoming more assertive/aggressive about asking for money. We need to hire people to keep up what we are doing and continue to grow.

BWR: Do you receive any outside funding or assistance?

TM: We received some money from local donors. Our budget is under 100K. We hope to go over that this year.

BWR: What is your favorite story or most memorable moment to come out of this initiative?

TM: I have a favorite story every day I go out to give away books. From finding a note in an Ark thanking us and requesting James Patterson books to people stopping by our table as we give away books (popuplib) and telling me about the “book boxes” around town and how great they are … not knowing they are ours. Seeing kids, teens and adults sitting nearby after getting a book from us and reading it. Seeing the joy on someone’s face when I have a book for them, I told them I’d find last week when I saw them. And the other night we had a volunteer appreciation dinner and had close to 70 people there.

BWR: There have been several offshoots of the Free Books Project, such as: 1) The Free Books Place, 2) The Book Ark Project, 3) Pop-up Libraries. Please tell us about how these evolved and where they are located. Any plans for other ways to get free books to local citizens?

TM: 1) Popuplibraries: Wednesday at WRTC from 11:30 to 1:30, Cathedral Kitchen Wednesday from 3 to 5 and Friday mornings at Broadway and Atlantic Avenues from 7 to 9. Once a month at the Boys and Girls Club. 2) Book Arks: 75 in Camden, 20 in Lindenwold, 8 in Willingboro, 10 in Phila and a bunch in AC, Newark, Trenton etc. 3) The Free Book Place 808 Cooper Street open Saturday 9 to 2 and Tuesdays by appointment for schools.

BWR: It looks like you have many volunteers who help keep things running smoothly. Can you tell us a little more about how your volunteer base works?

TM: We couldn’t do it without volunteers. They help steward the arks, fill the arks, fix the arks, build the arks, and help me at popuplibraries. What the volunteers aren’t able to do we have some grant money to pay people to do. The volunteers are pretty steady, the same ones at different popuplibraries. Meaning … the popuplibrary at Cathedral Kitchen has the same volunteers every week as do the others.

BWR: Who goes through the book donations? Do you ever get too many? If so, what do you do with them?

TM: The books are donated by people who have found out about us. We have a storage facility we use as a distribution area. We don’t get many Spanish, graphic or books with people of color on the cover, so we have to buy them. One of our goals is to get those books donated to us too. We just have to crack that market. The books are there.

BWR: What types of books are most popular? Any specific age group you feel is the project’s biggest user?

TM: Religious/Spritual/Self help are the most favorite. Comic graphic novels and James Patterson novels are next. Puzzle books, Horror, War, popular mags, fantasy, are all popular too.

BWR: Where do you see yourself and the Free Books Project in the next decade?

TM: The next decade … OMG, I hopefully will have found someone to take over by then. LOL

BWR: Anything else you’d like to share with us?

TM: I’d like to have Book Arks worldwide but at least one so every person in Camden is within walking distance of one. I’d like every person who stewards a book ark to do a popuplibrary once a month. I’d like a FreeBookPlace in all 5 areas of Camden. Cramer Hill, Parkside, Waterfront South, N Camden and downtown. And a Book Mobile.

BWR: Thank you so much for your time! We are honored to share this wonderful project with the Rutgers University community on the Books We Read blog!

TM: Thank you so much.

Read more about The Free Books Project on the Free Books Blog. To get involved with The Free Books Project, you can help by donating your books, money or time. Here’s how you can get in touch, and here’s a link to some fun swag.

Images: courtesy of the Free Books Project.