How some libraries around the world are leaping into the 21st century
It was the first time any guests had asked to be shown the local library. But my son and I were interested not only in cycling this famed region of Chile during his spring break, but also in seeing all the bibliotecas we could along the way. As we walked the few blocks from our hotel in Temuco to the municipal building, our three guides, who lived in the area and were proud to show us its ample charms, tried to manage our expectations. “No muy bueno,” said one. “Not very good.”
Our progress was slowed by scattered groups of teenagers in school uniforms chatting and laughing. Schools had begun their fall sessions a week earlier in this city of a quarter million, located as far south of the equator as Washington, D.C., is north of it.
Arriving at the somewhat worn municipal complex at a busy intersection, we entered the darkened foyer and obtained permission to pass through a windowed hallway. Sunbleached glass cases exhibited the books of the city’s two Nobel-winning poets, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. We entered a room about the size of a grade-school classroom. This constituted the public space of the Temuco Municipal Library.
To our left, eight computer terminal seats where full with attentive patrons—mostly young people—while two other people waited their turns. Our chief guide, Alejandro Levy—whose English was nearly as poor as my Spanish—motioned for me to follow him to the counter across the room, where he asked the librarian for a Spanish-English dictionary. She retrieved a well-worn tome with a cracked plastic cover over its yellowed spine. Alejandro turned to a Spanish word and put his finger under it so I could read the translation.
The word was vergüenza. The translation is shame.
Connecting in Chile
I shook my head no. While the library was humble by American standards for a city this size, the free Internet access and avid patrons gave the room a vitality. Outside the door to the room was a painting of Neruda next to the Biblio Redes sign, the Gates Foundation initiative to spread free Internet access around the world. The words on the sign translate to:
“BookNet: Open your world: Free Internet here in your public library.”
We were to come across this welcoming blue sign outside many libraries on our tour of the Lakes and Volcanoes region of Chile. Some of the libraries were architecturally beautiful, as in the town of Pucon, not to mention the stately Biblioteca Nacional in Santiago.
Where public-access computers were absent, however, the difference was stark. In this photo set of the Orsono Municipal Library, perhaps you can feel the dull atmosphere that enveloped us despite the brilliant blue morning outside. Empty seats before empty tables, a lonely counter where one submits one’s requests, after having looked up books in card catalogs. Quaint is perhaps the kindest term one might use to describe Orsono’s library.
But this will change when public-access terminals arrive in Orsono, as they surely will in this country that enjoys the highest Gross Domestic Product, per capita in Latin America.
Aspiring in Egypt
Facing a more daunting challenge is Egypt. Its population of 82 million, compared with Chile’s 16 million, is younger, with a median age of 24 versus 31. Moreover, Egypt’s literacy rates are lopsided and low, with only 83% of males and 59% of females over the age of 15 deemed to be literate, compared with Chile’s 96% literacy rate for both genders.
On our trip to Egypt this past winter, there were encouraging signs on the library front, not only in the stunning world-class facility at Alexandria, but in the spreading Mubarak Libraries, which for the last dozen years have sprinkled modern facilities with Internet access around the country.
In the Mubarak Library in Luxor we visited one weekday evening, after paying a nominal entrance fee we found inviting stacks open for browsing, and were gratified to see young women surfing the Net. Computer terminals can be far less expensive than thousands of books, to say nothing of the large buildings customarily used in the developed world to house such books.
Can new models for libraries open the world to hundreds of millions of people in the developing world?
If so, one country in need is Cambodia.
Hoping for Cambodia
In 2004 our family had the good fortune to be able to visit Siem Reap, Cambodia. We went, as so many tourists do, to see the temples of Ankor Wat. I asked our tour guide, who spoke remarkably good English, if there were a library in town. He didn’t know the word library so I tried bibliotheca, which he did know.
“No, we have no bibliotheca in Siem Reap,” he said. “I think there is one in Phnom Penh…”
“Is there a bookstore in Siem Reap?” I asked.
“Yes, we have that,” he replied.
He took us to a busy thoroughfare with open markets and brought us to something akin to an American convenience store. Crammed between shelves of snacks and soft drinks were a few shelves of books—mostly in English about the temples, and a few in Khmer. This would have to suffice as book inspiration for the 750,000 citizens of Siem Reap, about the same number of people who reside in San Francisco.
Cambodia is a country in need of almost everything. Fortunately, people from many nations are building hospitals and hotels and preserving its priceless temples. Cambodia faces daunting literacy statistics akin to Egypt, with estimated literacy rates of 85% for men and 64% for women, and a median age of a mere 21.
There was actually one old biblioteca in Siem Reap—or what might have been one—among Ankor Wat’s temple ruins, which date back to the 12th century. Yet I can imagine a new structure alongside the road, perhaps next to the one-room school shown in this photo, modest but clean and networked to the world so that a fifteen-year-old Cambodian girl in Siem Reap can look up international literacy rates as easily as I have done here in my comfortable seat in Delray Beach, Florida.
In future posts, we’ll look into some of the technological efforts under way to open the world to the young millions worldwide who are growing up far from the sheltering libraries of the developed world.
Until then, please send me your experiences with libraries in the United States and around the world. What have you seen?