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A Book Dash with a difference: How three open-source books were created in one day during the National lockdown

Monday, June 1, 2020

As part of their efforts to ensure that every child should own 100 books before the age of five, South African non-profit organization (NPO), Book Dash, recently did a remarkable thing: It created, published and distributed three new books during the national lockdown.

The organization gathered two teams of creative professionals who volunteered to pilot this new virtual Book Dash. Then, making the most of their learning from the past 14 physical events, Book Dash successfully replicated the experience online, with some adjustments.

In a typical year, the NPO hosts two physical Book Dash events to achieve its goal of publishing 20 books a year in a single day. The COVID-19 lockdown restrictions seriously impacted this goal, and so the virtual Dash was born, with a tagline of ‘Making Books Together, Apart’. Chatting to Book Dash Director, Julia Norrish, we found out more about what happened.

The magic that surrounds a physical Book Dash event is widely talked about, and it’s something the facilitators go to great lengths to cultivate. From choice of venue and bunting, to the team dynamics, snacks and spoils supplied throughout the day.

I was curious about whether or not the Book Dash facilitation team were able to recreate this magic.

According to Norrish, it was a really important consideration when they were thinking about adapting the model for working virtually. ‘We suspect so much of the appeal of taking part in a Book Dash is unity, camaraderie and the sense of working in a small team with a bigger purpose,’ she says, ‘and all that still needed to come through.’

After much research and deliberation, and to minimize the risk of not having a book produced on the day, volunteers were chosen from an existing pool of experienced Book Dashers. Microsoft Teams was onboarded as the technology used to create the virtual environment, with a common space, and break-away rooms for each team. A not-for-work WhatsApp group was set-up to simulate the ‘water cooler’ with the intention to keep in touch, and check-in in a more light-hearted way. The day ended, as it usually does at a physical Book Dash, with a read through of the new books. What was especially lovely this time, was that this ‘show and tell’ was live-streamed on YouTube.

Feedback from the creative participants was that much of the magic of the day comes from working together within your small team, and by careful selection of the supporting technology, that magic was translated into the virtual event as well.

Each Book Dash, end to end, costs R100k. Did hosting a virtual event save the NPO any money?

Yes. Significant money was saved on direct costs (venue hire, T-shirt production, catering, flights and accommodation etc.). However the management fee, including publishing, and planning and organising costs remained the same. Book Dash relies on volunteer authors, illustrators, editors, and other book production experts.

Where it usually takes two months to organise a Book Dash event, Norrish says that circumstances pushed them to pull this event together in just three weeks.

In addition, where Book Dash usually hosts 10 creative teams at an event, this time there were only three teams involved, and that massively reduced costs as well. Conversely, if they add any teams, costs will increase.

After consultation with the funders, the Book Dash team decided to use the funds retained from costs saved, to translate the two books (one was wordless), to Xhosa, Afrikaans and isiZulu. They are using the remaining funds towards printing 1,000 copies of each of the three titles.

What does success look like for a virtual Book Dash?

“If we’re saying one of the conditions of success for the virtual event is that people must have done a book dash before, then we can only work from within our existing network, which is great, we love having repeat Book Dashers, but it doesn’t allow us to grow and invite new people into that family,” says Norrish.

From that point of view, the Book Dash team prefer the traditional model. In addition, at a physical event they’re able to create 10 books and have proved this success rate again and again. There are limitations when it comes to facilitating a virtual event and Norrish reckons the most they’d be able to output in one day would be five books.

If there continue to be restrictions on movement and social gatherings, the team is pleased they have tested and tried out a successful alternative to the physical event.

Replication of the Virtual Book Dash

On their website, Book Dash publish an open source, downloadable ‘How to Host a Book Dash’ manual, which is available for anyone to use without any attribution necessary. The learnings from the Virtual Book Dash will be added to this manual.

Where will these books end up?

The Otto Foundation, which funded the event, will get copies and will distribute them to children to own, in the Western Cape.

Additional copies will go to additional South African organizations and made available on the Book Dash website for downloading and adaption.

Some copies will be going to Thanda, in KwaZulu-Natal. This organization integrates the Book Dash books, like Where’s That Cat into their story-based curriculum, empowering parents and guardians to continue their child’s learning in the home. Book Dash also have a number of partners in South Africa, on the continent, and further afield, who will reuse, translate and reshare the open-source books.

Find out more about the long-term sustainability of publishing books through volunteer efforts, such as Book Dash, in the ELRN report: Good Stories Don't Grow on Trees: A Guide to Effective Costing of Storybooks in the Global South.

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