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Public Libraries in Colombia

[Oct 20, 1999]


Copyright (c) 1999

Abstract: Colombia is a nation of many nations: a multiethnic and multicultural country. It is a region that very strongly experiences the polarization of the world: the rich and the poor, the well informed and the uninformed; a region in which it is estimated that 80% of the population (at present somewhat over 36 million people), dwell in cities; a country with little investment in education, with growing unemployment and poverty caused by the failure of the new economic models and the inequitable distribution of wealth; a country in which more than 50% of the population is considered poor, profoundly marked by every kind of violence. In spite of the literacy campaigns carried out mainly during the 70’s and 80’s, there still subsists about 20% of complete illiteracy, and, there is doubtless a much bigger and more difficult to estimate percentage of functional illiteracy, due in part to the lack of materials for public reading existing in the reduced number of libraries in urban and rural communities. It is considered that only 285 out of 1,000 children beginning elementary school reach the high school level. Of these, 43 gain access to the higher education and only 1 finishes a university career.

The public library: the public vs the private sector

When referring to public libraries in Colombia, it is necessary to begin by specifying the origin of their finances, since they do not have the character of a government owned public service, as occurs in most countries of the world. In Colombia, public libraries supported by the government work hand in hand with those belonging to the private sector. Therefore, when we make reference to public libraries we are referring both to the ones created and supported by the different municipalities and departments or by the national government, and also to those belonging to the private sector, especially the ones managed by the Bank of the(1) Republic and the Family Compensation Bureaus(2). The high incidence of the participation of the private sector in public libraries, especially in the course of the last fifteen years, can be considered positive in some aspects and negative in others: The Colombian public library has received, from the private sector, the demonstration of the fact that, in addition to being a patrimonial asset that conserves the memories of society, the public library has a commitment to present day citizens, and this means that it must offer modern and modernized library collections, opening new opportunities by means of technology and by taking its services, together with well kept modern facilities, to places where there are people who do not even know that the public library exists and even less what it is meant for. But simultaneously, by belonging to the private sector they are in permanent danger, suffering quite a number of threats. Their existence is highly vulnerable to legislative changes and economic reform, an example of which are the reforms now envisioned in Colombia (the present government's development plan has determined that most of the funds managed by the Compensation Bureaus should be invested in housing programs), menacing the survival of these libraries, without which the country would practically be left devoid of public library services.

1)The Bank of the republic is the Central Bank in Colombia. It devotes some of its resources to cultural activities. It has the Gold Museum, some regional museums, several music halls and a public library system. The main library of the system is located in Santafé de Bogotá and it is the biggest and most important public library in the country.

(2)The Family Compensation Bureaus are private social security entities, that exist in Colombia since 1957. All Colombian companies must, by law, pay some contribution or extra tax designated for the social security of their employees. This money is received by The Family Compensation Bureau to be distributed in different services such as healthcare, housing, education, recreation and public libraries. In Colombia, there currently are 58 Family Compensation Bureau that own 150 public libraries distributed throughout the country.

The National Public Library Network

Integrating the National Public Library Network are all the public libraries in the country. This network, which exists since 1978, depends on the National Library of Colombia, that likewise depends on the recently created Ministry of Culture. Only in 1997, with the promulgation of the Law of Culture, has a legal framework been given to the National Public Library Web in the country.

In its 21 years of existence, the National Public Library Web has striven to establish rules for the operation of public libraries in all the municipalities of the land. Its main fields are the training of librarians, technical assistance, support to the rural sectors by means of itinerant collections, experiences in services in frontier libraries, a permanent updating of the census of libraries and the promotion of existing legislation, among others.

In spite of the good intentions of the Network, it is a fact that it not only lacks the human, technological and financial resources needed to configure, plan and co-ordinate a system of libraries for the whole country, but it also lacks the hierarchical level and the correct dependence. It is possible that in other Latin America countries, for whatever particular circumstances, the dependence of public libraries on the National Library has met with success. However, this is not the case in Colombia. In our country the National library has lacked a sound development; it has not been able to clearly elucidate the role that public libraries must play, and its dual functions are not, and have not been convenient for any of the institutions. And the institution that usually suffers the consequences of this double function is the public library, because it is not considered important enough and does not receive the dedication and care it deserves.

The Last Public Library Census

According to the latest edition of the National Public Library Directory, published by the National Library of Colombia in 1996, there are 954 public libraries in the country. The bibliographical stock owned by the 954 libraries adds up to 3,511,704 books, 40% of which belong to libraries in the private sector.

According to this figure, Colombia has 0.08 books per inhabitant, approximately one book for every 11 persons. And, worse still, the largest number of volumes is concentrated in the big cities. The average number of books per library is 3,681

If we aspire to have at least half a book per inhabitant, a very modest aspiration compared with international standards, we would still lack 16,500,000 books, to be distributed throughout the totality of our national territory, almost 5 times what we have at the moment. As a description of the situation of public libraries in Colombia, the following remarks made 6 years ago by the Colombian Association of Librarians during the First National Cultural Conference are still valid:"Almost all public libraries in Colombia face serious problems. Their number is small, compared with the real and potential needs of the population: they have neither been created nor organised taking into account a national plan for these services, nor are they properly co-ordinated among themselves. In the brink of a new millennium, 216 towns -21.12% of the total municipalities in Colombia- still lack a public library. The vast majority of libraries are located in urban sectors, and therefore rural areas lack attention. On the other hand, the majority of the existing libraries are outdated and do not have the minimal technical and professional infrastructure, in order to offer an adequate service.The public library is never a part of the national, departmental, or municipal development plans. Even less is it considered to be a basic public service(3)".

To all these problems it is important to add the lack of training of the people who offer these services and the little awareness they have regarding the type of public that this kind of library has as its object. It is a secret to no one, and there are studies corroborating the fact, that the habitual users of our public libraries visit them with the basic purpose of doing research related to formal education. Approximately 80% of these users are school children; their demand for information is essentially academic, and they use the library as a place of study. The most dramatic consideration is that, once their academic life is over, the library ceases to exert any attraction on them.

The Director of the Colombian Reading Promotion Foundation, Fundalectura, librarian Silvia Castrillón, when referring to this problem, says: "The public library is so engrossed in looking at itself and in satisfactorily filling its statistics regarding the number of students served, that it does not perceive that this kind of public displaces users who are not students, and does not allow the library to perform the function that society needs it to perform; this is the reason why the authorities have never seen in the public library a library that has different aims than those of being subsidiaries of a mediocre educational system"... (4)

In addition to this, the supply of public library services reflects the deep cultural and socio-economic contrasts of the country: 80% of the public libraries are in the four main cities, namely: Santafé de Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla, with Medellín being the city with the highest quantitative and qualitative development of all.

The fact that Medellín possesses the most advanced development in public libraries in Colombia is not due to mere chance. Two events taking place in Medellín during the 50's lead to this development of the best conditions in the field within the country(5). These two events were, in the first place, the creation, by UNESCO, in 1954, of the Pilot Public Library of Medellín for Latin America, and, secondly, the foundation, in 1956, of the Interamerican School of Libriarianship of the University of Antioquia, with the support of the OAS and the Rockefeller Foundation. These facts created a favorable atmosphere in the city for the development of public libraries; they also gave origin to the first public library created by a Family Compensation Bureau, thereby motivating the other bureaus to create the same type of services throughout the country.

It is important to point out that Colombia has four schools of librarianship. The oldest of them, the Interamerican School of Libriarianship (EIB) of the University of Antioquia (Medellin), has graduated a little over 700 professionals up to now. The great majority of them work in the three main cities of Colombia. When analysing the syllabi of the schools of librarianship in the country, it can be observed that the EIB is the only one making emphasis on the public library.

(3)ASCOLBI. Biblioteca pública para todos: un propósito nacional//En:Hojas de Lectura.- N.25 (Dic 1993), p.3-4. (4)CASTRILLON, Silvia. Bibliotecas públicas y bibliotecas publico-escolares (ponencia realizada en las Mesas de la cultura, Medellín, marzo 25 de 1998) (5) Whereas in Medellín (with a population of 2'000.000), in the three most important public libraries were made more than a million loans in 1998. The public libraries in Santafé de Bogotá (the capital city with a population of 6'000.000) provided on loan less than 300.000 books.


Colombia has no specific legislation for public libraries. The constitution of 1991, for the first time, decreed an equitable access of all citizens to information, culture and education, thereby setting the grounds for legislation arising in the present decade regarding these topics. Some of the main laws that favour the founding and development of public libraries are:

  • Act 397 of 1997: the General Law of Culture, which regulates the cultural patrimony and fosters cultural activity and stimuli. Article 24 establishes that the national, departmental, district and municipal governments are responsible for the consolidation and development of the national library web, co-ordinated by the National Library.
  • Act 60 of 1993: Article 21 indicates that funds transferred by the Nation can be used in the municipalities for the construction, maintenance and rehabilitation of houses of culture, libraries and museums, and allows them to give financial support to cultural events, as well as to artistic and cultural groups on the municipal level.
  • Act 98 of 1993, called The Book Act. It offers possibilities for the acquisition of bibliographical material in libraries. In this field, we must finally say that, although Colombian legislation of the last decade offers many more possibilities than those formerly existing, most librarians are ignorant of the fact; therefore, they do not defend the library, nor do they take advantage of that which, according to the law, would correspond to it as a public service.

New Projects

Although the general public library panorama in Colombia is not very bright, there are also good news. As stated earlier, the capital city of Colombia suffers an important lack of library services. In the Economic, Social and Public Development Plan issued by the current mayor of Santafé de Bogotá, one of the main projects is the so-called BIBLIONET: the Capital Public Library Network, 1998-2001. The project conceives a Net integrated strategically by four big libraries located in the city (with 200,000 books each and a capacity for 600 users) and 15 local public libraries. All the collections of the libraries will be open to the public and will be technologically well equipped. This is something that is important, not only for the Capital city, but also for the rest of country, and though the project has met with some obstacles, it will certainly help further the development of public libraries in the country.

Web Pages

Since 1998 the Public Library of Comfenalco Antioquia, in Colombia, has a data base with local information, specialized in services for the community aiming at citizens' participation. It can be accessed through internet in the following addresses: or The data base was designed as an answer to the increasing demand of information for the inhabitants of the city. This increase was the result of the social changes of the world and the socio-political context of the country generated by the 1991 Political Constitution, that aims at finding new ways of democratic development. By means of this web page the community information is made available for a larger number of users, in fields such as City institutions offering services to the community.

Important citizens, outstanding because of their social, political, educational or cultural contribution in the last 30 years, dead or alive. Cultural events taking place in the city. Basic directions with information on requisites and steps necessary for the benefit of public services and community life.

Stimuli to cultural creation, such as prizes, awards, medals, nominations, among others, are awarded and given by different organizations and institutions of the city. The Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango belonging to the Bank of the Republic has a web page with information of its varied cultural activities and with access to its public catalog. It can be accessed through internet in the following addresses:

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Publication Year:1999
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Issue:Oct 20, 1999
Notes:Permission granted to show full text.
Conference:Fourth Seminar in Public Library Issues in Southern Europe and Nordic Countries
Online access:
Record Number:14174
Last Update:2012-12-29 14:06:47
Date Created:2009-08-24 19:04:13