Setting Up an International Library: A Resource Guide

ALA Library Fact Sheet Number 16a

"How do I set up a library?" is a question the American Library Association receives from people in a wide range of situations. In some cases, the need is to organize a large personal or office collection; in others it is to set up a library where there is, at the beginning, only the desire to have library service where there is none, such as in a village where a Peace Corps volunteer is working.

Establishing a new library, or developing an existing collection of books and other materials into a library, involves several functions: creating the oversight or governance structure, defining the mission and purpose of the organization, securing funding, planning, developing a collection, securing or building an appropriate space, equipping the space, and marketing services. In all cases, planning for the collection should come first:

"A library collection should fit the mission for which it is created. The number of books it holds does not determine its worth. A well-selected library of 25 books could very well be an excellent library for its purpose."
-- Erma Jean Loveland


The American Library Association can provide guidance and information on your project in general terms, and in the American context. It is imperative to work with the governmental agencies and main library organizations of the designated country for any available assistance, both administrative and financial. The websites listed below can help you find the library-related resources of the designated country.


Building international libraries

If you need book donations, you may be eligible to apply for donations from the groups named on ALA Library Fact Sheet 12: Sending Books to Needy Libraries: Book Donation Programs. Contact the groups directly for application information and eligibility criteria.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), the United Nations, and other groups have resources freely available online:

  • How to Set Up and Manage a Resource Centre. London: Healthlink Worldwide, 2003.
    Healthlink Worldwide described this publication: This manual contains practical information on all aspects of setting up and managing a resource centre, from planning, fundraising and finding a suitable location, to collecting and organising materials, developing information services, and monitoring and evaluating the work of the resource centre.
  • Koontz, Christie and Barbara Gubbin, eds. IFLA Public Library Service Guidelines - 2nd, completely revised edition. Berlin/Munich: De Gruyter Saur, 2010.
    English e-book version available from de Gruyter Reference Global, open access e-book as of August 2011 including chapters as free Adobe Reader PDF files. Revisions of the 2001 first edition prepared by a working group of the section of Public Libraries chaired by Philip Gill. IFLA describes this new edition: The public library is the prime community access point designed to respond to a multitude of ever-changing information needs. These guidelines are framed to provide assistance to library and information professionals in most situations. They assist to better develop effective services, relevant collections, and accessible formats within the context and requirements of the local community. In this exciting and complex information world it is important for professionals in search of knowledge, information and creative experience to succeed.
  • Wendell, Laura [for the General Information Programme and UNISIST]. Libraries For All!: How to Start and Run a Basic Library (RTF, Rich Text Format, 113 pages). Paris: UNESCO, 1998.
    Laura Wendell described this publication in the preface: This book is for community leaders, librarians, library committees, volunteers, aid workers and others who are interested in the practical aspect of starting and maintaining a successful library. Throughout the developing world, countless dedicated people respond to the pressing need for information in their communities by helping to start a library. They often have no formal training in library science and overcome enormous difficulties to establish collections of resources that enrich their communities. This is a practical guide to help communities meet the challenges of setting up and running a library. It was inspired by my own experiences setting up a library with a community in West Africa and shaped by letters from hundreds of other aid workers and community librarians from around the globe. First-hand experience with the frustrations, challenges and rewards of setting up a library has given me a deep sense of respect for and solidarity with community librarians facing similar challenges. Like many of them, I am not a librarian by training and had to be very resourceful in seeking help and advice, which I have been fortunate to receive from many people and organisations.


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Last updated: November 2012


For more information on this or other fact sheets, contact the ALA Library Reference Desk by telephone: 800-545-2433, extension 2153; fax: 312-280-3255; e-mail:; or regular mail: ALA Library, American Library Association, 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611-2795.