In the run up to World Book Day, Biddy Passmore meets the aid workers who traffic in texts.
"Everybody works so hard," says Stella Nekusa, "they always have their hands full."
When a charity selects, packs and sends out more than 700,000 books a year, it is no wonder people's hands are full. That is what Book Aid International does, supplementing the library resources of schools and colleges in developing countries with the surpluses from UK publishers and Rotary clubs, libraries and schools.
It was set up in 1954 by the Countess of Ranfurly, who was married to the Governor of the Bahamas, but the charity has changed a great deal since the early days. Then, a handful of mostly elderly volunteers sorted and packed. Today, it is a businesslike, pound;3.5m operation run from offices and an airy warehouse in Camberwell, south London, with a staff of 32. It changed its name in 1994 from the Ranfurly Library Service to the more self-explanatory Book Aid International.
About 1.5 million books come in to the warehouse every year, of which two-thirds are from publishers. They are delivered free by local Rotary clubs. There is no time to catalogue them, however, as the turnover is too quick.
General non-fiction and university textbooks go on the lower stacks, multiple copies and rarer and vocational textbooks above. Most fiction stays in boxes on the pallets all round the warehouse.
Then Nelly Temu-Williams, the head of operations, and her staff of librarians and assistants try to match what is on the shelves and in the boxes with the requests which they have received from their partner organisations.
There are 34 of these, in 12 African countries, although Book Aid International shipped books out to nearly 60 countries last year. Nelly sometimes has nightmares about the sheer quantity of books.
The aim is not to provide schools with core textbooks. Director Sara Harrity says: "We couldn't and don't try to do that. We expect governments to provide books for the syllabus. Book Aid International is providing supplementary books for libraries."
The charity has also started to support local publishing in Africa. It has raised pound;700,000 to be spent over three years on training materials for publishers and on buying locally produced African books.
Stella Nekusa, a visitor from the Public Libraries Board in Uganda, has been on a six-week visit to the charity funded by the Nuffield Foundation. By the time she leaves, she will have selected more than 30 of the 90 cases that will be sent out to Uganda this year. Most go to the public library board which then distributes them and then to local public libraries and book centres.
Doris Lessing, page 14