I've been fortunate to find a career in a kind of organization that makes a positive contribution to society. Of all the ways to make a living, working in a university whose mission involves teaching and research appeals to me more than other career paths. Within the university, Tve found libraries to be a great way to contribute, as well as to develop my career.
I've also had the chance to work with many different kinds of libraries, both within the U.S. and internationally, through consulting projects, speaking engagements, and other professional activities. Every new library that I get to know reveals something new to me about what libraries can do for their clientele or some new angle on how they provide their services.
Some of the libraries that made the strongest impression on me, and that reinforce the importance of libraries in general, are ones that Tve experienced during my international travels. The libraries that I visited in Colombia reinforced my appreciation of just how much these institutions, often taken for granted, can make a positive difference to the people they serve.
It was last December that I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to the country of Colombia as part of a project related to digitizing materials from some of the local archives in Chocó, one of the most remote and impoverished areas of Latin America. The experiences of that trip made a lasting impression on me and have amplified even further the value that I see that libraries offer to society. ?1 mention the libraries of Chocó, which remind me how many libraries struggle to function with far too few resources, and the libraries of Medellin, which illustrate how investments in libraries can return substantial benefits to their communities.
The Libraries of Chocó, Colombia
The main work of the project takes place in Quibdó, a small city in the province of Chocó in the middle of the rain forest in the western part of the country, inhabited primarily by Afro-Colombians. Though the language spoken is Spanish, all other aspects of life in what I saw of Quibdó exhibit more the flavor of Africa than Latin America. Living conditions were challenging, though the people I met were warm, friendly, and genuinely happy. It was clear that poverty prevails; the unemployment rate exceeds 80%. People get by as they can, with lots of economic activity happening through improvised shops, food stands, and bartering. Take "minutos" as a typical example. Only a small portion of individuals might own a cell phone. But almost any store or bar might have a "minutos" sign, meaning they have a cell phone you can use to make calls for a few pesos. In such a poor area, you make a living any way you can.
Libraries in this area are pretty basic. The library for the Technical University of Chocó houses a modest collection of books, with access to some electronic resources and ebook collections. On the day of my visit, the floor had pools of water from a leaky ceiling that couldn't quite withstand the insanely heavy rains that come through almost every day. What would have been perceived in my library as a major disaster didn't seem to faze the librarians. There's always something to deal with in a library that struggles to provide basic service to the university with sparse resources. I was really impressed with the determination and perseverance shown by the librarians and their eagerness to learn anything new that might help them improve their library.
The main public library in Quibdó was part of the Bank of Colombia - Biblioteca Pública Banco de la República. The national bank established libraries throughout the country as part of its mission to serve the public. While I don't know all the details, it seems like the banks had the stability and the resources to support a public library system more than other institutions. The National Library of Colombia supports the largest network of public libraries, but in Quibdó the main library was one of the ones supported by the Banco de la República, located on the fourth floor of the main bank building, one of the most modern buildings in the city. I heard that the library benefits from many visitors who come just to try out the only elevator in the city.
The Libraries of Medellin, Colombia
In another part of Colombia, in the province of Antioquia, the libraries of Medellin provide a powerful example of the incredible contribution that libraries can make to society. We know Medellin largely through its troubled past - stories related to the illegal drug trade, poverty, and violence were more likely to make the evening news than were the more positive aspects of society. When I search the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, for example, almost all the stories returned from the 1980s to 1990s deal with the drug wars and violence.
Though my visit to Medellin was brief, I was able to experience many dimensions of the city, thanks to my traveling companion, a native of the area. While Bogotá stands as the political capital, Medellin is the city of the mountains. The city sits in a small valley surrounded by mountains, with neighborhoods sprawling up the mountainsides. I saw three entirely different versions of Medellin: the urban center downtown with the office buildings, hotels, and businesses that you would expect in any major city; upscale residential neighborhoods with trendy restaurants and expensive apartments; and the many sprawling areas, especially up the hillsides, of ramshackle housing inhabited by the lower economic tiers of society.
Medellin has seen dramatic improvements in the last decade. The city has instituted many programs to improve the plight of its citizens and to combat drugs, gangs, and violence. Libraries have played akey role in the recovery of Medellin from its troubled past. The city built five major library complexes, called Library Parks, in some of the poorest and most underserved neighborhoods of the city.
Each Library Park includes a broad set of facilities and services. They provide traditional lending library services, including media collections, access to large numbers of state-of-the-art computers for public use, and internet access. But they also offer so much more. Each complex includes a large auditorium that provides a venue for all sorts of community functions such as school graduations and public meetings. A neighborhood room provides materials, including some donated by residents, that tell the story of this part of the city. Classes and workshops offered span topics from technology to foreign languages. During my visits, the children's library seemed to be one of the most popular areas of each complex. I was impressed that each of these libraries stays open 24 hours a day, every day of the week, ti these troubled neighborhoods, the Library Parks provide an oasis that not only offers a safe and attractive refuge but also makes available abundant opportunities for learning and self-improvement. Each of the Library Parks represented about a $5 million investment, and each was designed by noted architects who brought together concepts drawn from the unique characteristics of each site. I understand that five more Library Parks are planned.
The municipality of Medellin saw these Library Parks as part of a civic strategy to help the city recover from its fractured past. They document success through improvements that they are able to measure in the areas surrounding the parks - such as improved rates of literacy and increased numbers of computers in the homes. I was really inspired by how this city saw libraries as such an important part of its plan to make improvements in its society.
The libraries of Medellin tell a compelling story about how libraries improve our society. I believe that so many other libraries have similar stories, maybe in more subtle terms, about their contributions to the people they serve. These are but a couple of stories that I've drawn from just two of my experiences with dozens of remarkable libraries.
Libraries are vital to society, yet too often, they face drastic cuts in the funding they need to fulfill their missions in difficult economic times. Here in the U.S., we hear week after week about libraries beingforced to reduce hours, close branches, furlough personnel, or take other drastic measures. It's during those periods that society needs libraries the most. Public libraries help provide individuals with the resources they need for continued education, access to technology, improved literacy, and other vital services.
With any luck, these times of library cutbacks will pass soon. More importantly, I hope to see more awareness of how they can be an important part of the way forward toward more prosperity. To me, that's the main point of the story of the libraries of Chocó and Medellin.