As one of the poorest regions in the world, Africa is all too familiar with famines.

But there is one shortage on the continent, home to about a billion people in more than 50 countries, that has stretched for decades and decades: The lack of books.

"The need is incredible," Patrick Plonski, executive director of Books for Africa, said recently. "There is a huge demand. Our goal is to end the book famine in Africa."

Thompson Reuters of Eagan, Dakota County's largest employer, is chipping in with a large donation of legal books.

Since 1988, the St. Paul-based nonprofit has become the largest shipper in the world of donated texts and library books to the continent. Since it opened, the group has shipped more than 23 million books to 45 countries.

The organization estimates that it ships 1.7 million books a year to Africa, sending out orders to villages, towns, libraries, non-government agencies, universities and anyone else who contacts the organization asking for children's books, reference materials or other popular volumes.

Books for Africa has two warehouses, one in St. Paul at the old Hamms brewery and one in Atlanta. About 500,000 books combined are stored at the two sites at any given time, and titles on hand include a broad range of topics. "Just about any book can be educational, even a Stephen King novel," Plonski said.

In the past few months, the organization has received two of the biggest donations in its history, Plonski said.

First, in November, Capstone Publishers of Mankato donated 300,000 books worth an estimated $5 million.

Then, Thomson Reuters in Eagan pledged in December to donate 15 full legal libraries each year and to pay for the shipping costs. The value of the Thomson Reuters donation is pegged initially at $1.2 million, but that could grow depending on how many years the shipments continue.

The first Capstone books have already been shipped to Tanzania, and the first Thomson Reuters contribution also is on its way.

The law books are English language texts about basic legal principles, such as torts, and not specific to the legal system of any particular country.

"They are fairly generic but substantive as well, so it does provide that base for a law library," said Martha Field, manager of community relations for Thomson Reuters.

What makes the Capstone contribution unique is that those books are first or current editions, which should make them especially prized. And because they are mainly books for children or young adults, it might turn out that they will be given away individually for children to take home.

Both Capstone and Thomson Reuters said they are involved with Books for Africa because their goals and operations fit one another.

"The timing was just right," said Matt Keller, chief marketing officer for Capstone. "Our missions lined up."

Big shipments

Plonski said the organization ships out about six 40-foot containers a month filled with books for the continent. Each shipment costs about $10,000.

The vast majority of the books that the group receives and ships are one or two editions from being current, although the information contained in them is still relevant.

As a result, the group's books are intended to complement the existing textbooks and other publications being used in the nations that receive them.

But, given the economic, political and social circumstances of many African nations, that is not always true, Plonski said.

"The sad reality," he said, "is that when you have no books, then the books from Books for Africa are no longer supplementary -- they are primary."

Both Capstone and Thomson Reuters intend their collaboration with Books for Africa to be long-term.

Thomson Reuters, in fact, has made its contributions part of its Jack Mason Law and Democracy Initiative, headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Vice President Walter Mondale.

The Law and Democracy Initiative is intended to strengthen the rule of law around the world, which the company sees as fostering growth and development in emerging democracies, said Field.

"This partnership with Books for Africa fit that so well on all fronts," Field said. "In these emerging countries in Africa, they don't benefit from the rule of law and are not considered free democracies. These publications and these resources will really be advantageous to them."

Heron Marquez • 952-707-9994