The Role of Public Libraries in Latin American and Caribbean Development

Reprinted courtesy of: Beyond Access: Libraries Powering Development

By: Catalina Escobar

Many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have made progress in the development of public policy related to ICTs (information and communication technologies), especially in terms of allocation and connectivity, technological infrastructure, public access to information, systematization of procedures for citizens, and much more. Some countries have gone even further and have made advances on issues like transparency, civic participation, and social inclusion. Many of these countries belong to the Open Government Partnership.

Women use the new business center at the San Juan la Laguna library in Guatemala. Libraries are essential partners in boosting information access and technology training throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Despite this progress, there is still a gap for a lot of Latin Americans as many ICT-related advances have been made in access and connectivity issues instead of in content and technology adoption. So even though there are new services and information available online, their availability is unknown and a lot of citizens lack the access or the skills to be able to use them. Also, citizens sometimes don’t have the adequate guidance and training in order to use these new opportunities to improve their lives and their communities.

The Latin American region needs strong local institutions that can help people benefit from the information and knowledge society and adapt new services to their needs. More than 21,000 public libraries in Latin America and the Caribbean have the potential to meet those needs. These important, trusted community allies can provide access to technology and information as well as training, becoming ICT access points and open community spaces for all.

The role of libraries in development

For centuries, libraries have been trusted and respected spaces where community members could access information and knowledge. This hasn’t changed over time. But the methods and formats that are being used to access information have changed, which is why libraries across the globe are transforming into community spaces that provide access to computers, internet, e-books, and even people. The integration of ICT has turned modern libraries into natural meeting spaces where people can share knowledge and information.

In a lot of places in Latin America and around the world, the library is the only place where people can have free and unrestricted access to information and knowledge, including a connection between a government and its citizens. For example, in Chile and Colombia, libraries are equipped to become key actors in their communities. As a part of the knowledge society, libraries are constantly evolving and innovating, continuously designing new strategies to reach people and to meet their development needs.

Medellin, Colombia: comprehensive community and technology centers

In 2006, private and public sectors organizations decided to take computers and internet to the libraries in the metropolitan area. Today, in the city and the surrounding metropolitan area, there are more than 60 libraries that provide free access to technology for all citizens. These libraries, equipped with ICT and staffed by professional librarians, have become comprehensive centers that support community participation, citizen participation, and youth training in a wide variety of topics.

Chile: advancing digital literacy

In the country’s poor and isolated communities, libraries provide access to computers and internet through BiblioRedes — a network of 412 public libraries and 18 training labs with computers and internet access that have trained around 25,000 Chileans in digital literacy.

These examples give an idea of the movement that is starting to crystallize around the domain of libraries for development. Initiatives such as Beyond Access are fostering this movement and positioning libraries in the local, national and international development agendas.

Recommendations for promoting libraries in development in Latin America

Governments must recognize libraries as strategic allies to facilitate information access for all citizens.

Governments need to ensure that information reaches all citizens regardless of their locations or demographic conditions. Public libraries offer a cost-effective way to accomplish this challenge and they are generally included in national and municipal budgets. With additional social investments in technology adoption and skills building, libraries can re-emerge as sustainable and deeply rooted development actors in their communities. They can support topics like health, culture, science, technology, youth, and civic participation, among many others. Digital agendas, online government plans and Open Government actions must take libraries into account as key allies to accomplish their goals... Also, they have to be sure that citizens can actually use the tools, information and equipment in a productive way. In order to achieve this, libraries must be included in public policy as a contact point between governments and citizens.

Government commitments to the information society must also include commitments to those institutions supporting the information society.

Investment in public libraries would complement the strong commitment and progress of many governments towards the construction of an information and knowledge society, going beyond access by building capacity and by acting as a channel for social services. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are many sources of funding that can contribute to library modernization through coordinated actions and adequate commitment. Libraries are valuable allies to reach citizens because they are generally found in all the regions of a country.

Take advantage of the location and spaces that public libraries have. Libraries in Latin America already exist and are generally located in strategic places in their communities.

Once the important role of libraries is recognized, they must be supported in explicit ways and communities and governments must make necessary investments in them. It is important to have support for expanding and improving infrastructure, equipment and staff, as well as support for encouraging the use of libraries as ICT access centers instead of using valuable resources to create new infrastructure.

Librarians need access to training in modern information needs Reference books and services will always be fundamental, but in a modern public library, these cannot be the only services provided.

Library staff must be able to create alliances, identify the needs of their communities, and facilitate community participation, becoming “infomediaries” that have the skills and knowledge to guide citizens in the use of information to improve their lives. Librarians must be offered continuous training along with robust networks to share their experiences and constant motivation to be leaders.