Libraries in the South

[This is an introduction to a micro-series devoted to the libraries in Latin America]

In general terms, it can be said that libraries use to be spaces that seem quite invisible to the big public.

With the exception of some institutions displaying striking architectures or offering some sort of “innovative” services ―and monopolizing recognitions and awards, at least for a short period of time―, the dense library network that covers Latin America from Tierra del Fuego to Rio Grande does not usually provide big headlines or receive much attention. Or advertising. With a few stereotypes on their backs — some of them reflecting undeniable realities — , a usually not-too-striking profile, and a “complicated” historical relationship with the continent’s inhabitants / patrons, Latin American libraries, librarians and library services are not in the focus of any media.

And yet, the work carried out by a good part of the libraries that make up this network is worth mentioning, supporting and promoting. It is not always a work with visible and short-term outcomes: on the contrary, it uses to be a constant and sustained action, aimed at obtaining a (meager) handful of achievements in the medium and long term. It is a work that focuses on a limited number of urgent problems and that aims to produce lasting changes. Or, at least, to sow the seeds for those changes to happen somewhere in the future.

In short, these are libraries that, unlike the award-winning ones ―those with unbeatable statistics and an outstanding media projection―, would probably not pass a “test of excellence”: those quantitative evaluations “where everything implying critical thinking, vital joy, democratic commitment and emancipatory moral substance is slowly sinking”, in the words of the professor of philosophy, essayist and Spanish poet Jorge Riechmann.

For centuries, libraries in Latin America were a resource transplanted from the Old World to which only a few had access. That history, that pattern, was repeated on an international level. When they finally opened their doors to the public — i.e. for those who at that time knew how to read — , they were used as tools of “culture” in contexts where there were only two options: “civilization” or “barbarism” (“civilization” being the European model of the late 19th century, and “barbarism” being the American indigenous and rural societies). It took several decades before the literate population that could benefit from library-related services was a majority. During all that time — the Colony, the Republican periods — , the channels for transmission of native and local knowledge remained alive: oral channels that were vilified, ignored, attacked or ignored by the dominant system, within which libraries themselves were included.

In many ways, a sort of “mistrust” due to such an unequal relationship is still in place in Latin America. Depending on the observer, the library is still seen, to this day, as an elitist, closed, exclusive space, reserved for a minority. And there is no doubt that sometimes it is. Fortunately, since the mid-20th century, many libraries in the continent (especially those that have a closer contact with society: public, popular, school, rural, mobile libraries) have tried to close the gap with a lot of hard work. They have been able to carry out an intense grassroots work, collaborating with their patrons and their communities, and addressing the problems they identify around them within their possibilities and with the tools they have (including information). And, step by step, besides becoming a place for militancy and cultural activism, they have developed an important educational, social and political work to face certain adverse circumstances (e.g. poverty, unemployment, violence, displacement…).

On the other hand, those libraries are increasingly aware that they stand on a land with ancient traditions, and that they move under a sky in which a plurality of past and present events merge. They understand that, just as they need to add all the potential improvements and advances from a global perspective, they must also include, in their collections and services, the oldest voices, the popular knowledge, the cultural diversity, and the traditional formats used to transmit knowledge in Latin America. They are realizing that “library” is a concept that cannot remain anchored in the past; it must be deconstructed, decolonized and rebuilt, so that it can evolve, as well as its collections, structures, formats and activities. Libraries are accepting that, in order to be true community spaces, they have to embrace all perspectives, all identities, all languages ​​and thoughts of a land that many call “Abya Yala”: the landscapes enclosed by four horizons and four oceans, and all the bloods and the stories populating them.

Today, in Abya Yala there are libraries. And also houses of knowledge, information centers, reading corners, living books, amoxcaltin… Places where the words nest.

Follow me and learn about them.

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