Operation Medical Libraries Provides Textbooks to Afghanistan’s Medical Community

Association Director Valerie Walker started a book drive to get medical textbooks and reference materials into the hands of doctors and nurses in Iraq, where war had devastated educational resources.

A year later, the program originally known as Books Without Borders changed its name and started to focus on Afghanistan, where Taliban extremists who considered depictions of the human body “blasphemous” had burned thousands of textbooks, organ charts and other medical resources.

Today, the program known as Operation Medical Libraries (OML) has facilitated the donation of more than 27,000 new and gently used medical textbooks to hospitals, clinics, libraries and medical schools in four provinces of Afghanistan.

“If a conservative estimate of $50 per book is used, the value of these donations is $1,350,000 and increasing daily as new donations are sent,” Valerie says. “The value in terms of its impact on Afghan physicians and patients is just as staggering.”

If donors tried to ship books to Afghanistan via the U.S. Postal Service, shipping costs, taxes and customs would make donations prohibitively expensive. Instead, the ingenious program ships the books through the Army Post Office, which delivers mail at domestic rates, even when military personnel are posted overseas. U.S. military personnel stationed in Afghanistan provide their addresses for shipments and then deliver the books to the libraries, hospitals and clinics that need them.

“There’s such a huge, desperate need for medical resources and there aren’t any available in Afghanistan,” Valerie says. “This program provides those needed materials at no charge to the military or the receiving foreign country.”

The system works because the military volunteers “work with the local medical professionals and know what they need,” Valerie states. “We’ve had requests for things as fundamental as an anatomy chart, scrubs, CDs, DVDs, videocassettes, slide projectors and microscopes.”

The program, however, has its risks. Fearing retaliation from Taliban extremists who oppose deliveries of medical textbooks, the military volunteers no longer list their rank on the OML website where book donors find their names and addresses. One officer is so afraid of being targeted, the officer now lists only initials on the website.

While Valerie says she feels a “huge respon-sibility for the safety of our military personnel contacts,” she is nevertheless proud of the program, which has spread to other medical schools around the United States, Canada and Great Britain.

Valerie would like to give special thanks to UCLA employees Paul Chelf, who has picked up tons of medical textbooks from alumni donors, and Mario Mitchell, who has processed  the outgoing packages for OML. “Both Paul and Mario have played critical roles in OML's success ,” Valerie says. "To them, I say, 'Take a bow on a job well done!’”