Book Boats: How Floating Libraries Make Language More Accessible

From the rivers of Laos to the islands of Sweden, these book boats are bringing literature and language to the farthest reaches of the globe.
Epos Book Boat Norway

As writers at Babbel, we love to read and accentuate the importance of books being accessible to everyone. We’re big proponents of libraries, internet resources and whatever other services help people find information and literature. But we never thought of a boat as a potential means of reaching that goal. Book boats are a thing, though. Various countries and organizations use floating libraries and bookstores to access underserved or hard-to-reach places, ensuring people all over the world have access to writing in their language. Here are five of the book boats bringing the written word to the remote corners of the world.

1. Lao Children’s Library Boats — Laos

Book boat in Laos
Photo: Liana Mellotte

These two wooden longboats travel up and down Laos’ Mekong and Nam Ou rivers, stopping at 104 small villages along the way. Laos has a somewhat high rate of illiteracy (though it’s slowly falling), and the remote villages along the Mekong and Nam Ou are strongly affected by lack of access to education. The floating libraries were implemented as a joint project by the Luang Prabang Library and the education non-profit Community Learning International, and each one houses (er, boats?) more than 1,000 books, primarily in the Lao language.

A typical day goes something like this: The boat arrives at a village in the morning. School is dismissed and the kids rush aboard, choosing books to read for the rest of the day (and when night falls, some continue reading by candle light). The children return the books the next morning and the boat departs for its next stop, often leaving behind bags of books in local schools. In addition to lending books to children who otherwise would have no access to reading material, the boat staff also teaches life skills classes and leads learning activities throughout the day.

2. Bokbåten Epos (Epos Book Boat) — Norway

Epos book boat Norway
Photo: Bokbåten Epos | Facebook

The 85-foot Epos has been sailing along the west coast of Norway since 1963. Built as a floating library, the vessel makes stops at around 150 communities in the counties of Hordaland and Møre og Romsdal, many of which are quite remote and cut off by fjords, making them most easily accessible by boat. The Epos carries approximately 6,000 books (as far as book boats go, this is a lot), and it also has space for cabins and a dining room for the crew. The boat serves as a floating library from September to April. During the summer months, it’s used to transport tourists.

3. Stockholm Bokbåten — Sweden

Sweden Book Boat
Photo: Norrtälje bibliotek | Facebook

It turns out Scandinavians are big proponents of book boats, so we’re staying in the region for this next one: the Bokbåten that was operated by Stockholm County Library in Sweden until 2018, when it came under the jurisdiction of the Norrtälje municipality. The boat does a week-long tour of the islands in the region twice a year: once in the spring and once in the fall.

Typically, books from the boat’s collection of 3,000 titles are loaned out during the spring tour and returned in the fall, giving locals the entire summer to read them. There are three librarians on board who provide tips and recommendations.

4. Perahu Pustaka (Book Boat) — Indonesia

young girls reading
Photo: Theodora Sutcliffe

In Indonesia, more than 10 percent of the adult population is illiterate and access to books is virtually nonexistent. Indonesia has thousands of islands, which can certainly hinder accessibility. Local journalist Muhammad Ridwan Alimuddin quit his job to help address this issue by creating a floating library on a small sailboat.

The Perahu Pustaka travels around the West Sulawesi region of Indonesia and surrounding areas, delivering books to children on small islands and in remote coastal villages. The boat’s collection of around 4,000 books relies entirely on donations, which allows Alimuddin to spread his love of reading to the children of Indonesia.

5. Logos Hope — Worldwide

Logos Hope ship sits in port
Photo: GBA Ships

German charity GBA Ships, which stands for Gute Bücher für Alle (“Good Books for All”), operates the Logos Hope, a large ship that has traveled to more than 150 countries and territories around the world. The ship serves as a floating bookstore, stopping at ports for about two weeks at a time, where hundreds of visitors go on board and can purchase books at heavily discounted prices.

Logos Hope carries about 5,000 books, most of which are in English, but some are in various other languages as well. According to GBA Ships, for many of their visitors it’s “their first-ever opportunity to purchase quality literature.” The ship also hosts conferences and events on board, and crew members spend time in each port community meeting with locals and providing aid and donations when needed.

Header Image: Bokbåten Epos | Facebook

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