St. Paul-based Books for Africa smashed its own record last year, collecting and shipping 3.1 million volumes to 18 African countries. The number of books shipped jumped by 26 percent — nearly 636,000 books — in a year's time.

"This was a colossal year," said Books for Africa Executive Director Patrick Plonski. "We will continue to expand our efforts and increase our book shipments so we can put books in the hands of every child in Africa."

Books for Africa is the largest shipper in the world of donated text and library books to the African continent, having sent more than 39 million books over its three decades.

Book shipments in the last fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, were valued at more than $33 million. Top recipient countries were Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. A partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development helped boost the group's numbers, Plonski said. He also credited its established reputation.

Tom Warth, a Twin Cities book publisher, started the nonprofit in 1988 after a trip to Uganda, where he visited a library and saw the shelves were mostly empty. He started Books for Africa to end the continent's "book famine."

That first year, it shipped a few mail bags of donated books. "Today, we send them by the semitrailer load," Plonski said.

Books for Africa operates on a $2.5 million budget, with a large warehouse in Atlanta and another warehouse and headquarters in St. Paul. The books are donated by individuals, schools and publishers. Nearly 20,000 volunteers helped pack books last year. It costs about 50 cents to ship a book.

Volunteers sift out books not worth sending, such as outdated encyclopedias. "We probably recycle one-third of the books that come through our door because they are too old, damaged or not useful," Plonski said. But the nonprofit still makes money on those books in recycling fees; it was paid $80,000 for recycled paper last year, Plonski said.

In a nod to the future of reading, the nonprofit shipped 223,000 digital books on nearly 100 computers and e-readers. But as in the United States, demand for old-fashioned books is still far greater than for their digital counterparts.

"We still have a lot of work to do to end the book famine on the continent," Warth said in a written statement.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804