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Getting Out the Word on Environment : Ecology: Through his nonprofit Green Library, Jacek Purat hopes to promote clean air and water in the Third World.


BERKELEY — When Jacek Purat came to the United States from Poland in 1981, he was amazed by the amount of information he found about the environment--books, journals and magazines--all available to the average citizen.

Purat, a graduate student in mammalian ecology, came from a college--the University of Poznan--where there wasn't even a biology library. He also came from a country that had 40 million people and only one conservation journal--a 10-page monthly. Poland, like many Eastern Bloc and Third World countries, has few environmental resources and severe environmental problems.

Purat wanted to do something to try to close that information gap.

In May, 1990, he opened his first "Green Library," Biblioteka Ekologiczna, "right next to the biology department" of the University of Poznan. It is stocked with 10,000 books on environmental subjects and run by two librarians.

A second Green Library, already the recipient of two shipments of books, is being developed in Riga, Latvia. And Purat has also sent environmental literature to Cuba, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam and Nepal.

"Poland is really well off . . . in comparison," he says. "Honduras and Guatemala have practically no books. In Guatemala City, the periodical room in the main public library has two periodicals--the two local newspapers."

Americans take their libraries for granted, Purat says: "Every town, every school, has a good library. It is not that way in Eastern Europe or Latin America."

The Green Library project has been a long labor of love. Purat, who arrived here as an exchange student, stayed in the United States after martial law was declared in Poland in December, 1981. He worked for a book distribution company and enrolled at UC Berkeley, then spent almost a year traveling in Central America.

He returned to Berkeley and in 1986 founded the nonprofit Green Library program to provide ecological literature to educators, environmental activists, independent scientists, students and journalists in the Third World. "Not the politicians," he says.

Purat and his friends collected books and money by going door to door in Berkeley. Soon they trained paid canvassers. Within two years, Purat had collected more than 90,000 publications. When his house became overrun with books, Purat rented a west Berkeley warehouse for storage.

The books and periodicals cover 22 major disciplines of the environmental sciences, ranging from agriculture to water resources, and include energy issues, conservation and public health.

The materials are provided to needy countries either by setting up Green Libraries there or by sending books to established libraries. The only restrictions are that the books cannot be censored and must be available to everyone. At their destinations, the English-language books and journals are translated and sometimes even transferred to tapes for the illiterate.

Purat returned to Poznan in 1988 with the intent of establishing his first library. (Poland's environmental problems have reached the crisis stage, Purat says. Ninety-eight percent of the rivers are polluted; there are no sewage-treatment facilities. For decades, Poland had no controls over environmental safety, he says.)

"Then I needed money for the library," he recalls. "I only had about $400. I didn't know what to do; I had to do something to make money."

He bought $400 worth of Polish posters and brought them back to the United States to sell.

"They really sold well," he says. "This enabled me to keep going. To pay the bills for the office and to apply for grants through the foundations. And to return to Poland and buy more posters."

Small amounts of grant money trickled in, including support from the Jurzykowski and Mott foundations. Then the Rockefeller Brothers Fund sent the library $75,000, paid over three years.

"It's substantial for us," Purat says, "but it's not really enough. . . . I have a thousand problems; I never thought that doing such a simple thing can be such a tremendous task."

Purat's initial shipment of books to Poznan weighed 25,000 pounds. "The library is the best of its kind in Poland. It is the first of its kind in Eastern Europe," says Biblioteka librarian Przemyslaw Bilozor.

Before the library, Bilozor says, there was "a tragedy in the availability of science literature." The library serves about 500 patrons a month, primarily students from the university and from the high schools.

The library also exchanges books with libraries in Budapest and Latvia, and "we send information all over Poland," Bilozor says.

"We thought (the Poznan library) could be a model for others," said Jon Blyth, environmental program officer for the Mott Foundation, where renewal of the Green Library's grant is under consideration. Environmental protection grants are among the foundation's major programs.

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