A portrait of libraries in Mexico

True it's a couple of years old, but I just ran across Siria Gastelum's portrait of Mexican libraries in Críticas Magazine. Describing the Red Nacional de Bibliotecas Públicas (RNBP), Mexicio's national public library system, Gastelum writes that

Established in 1983, the RNBP is run and funded by the federal government. The main office, in Mexico City, formulates all education and literacy programs for the entire network and provides each local library with its entire book collection, furniture, and equipment, as well as the outreach material and training for librarians. Local governments cover salaries for the personnel and allocate some extra funding, but there is no national standard when it comes to a public library budget.

Census statistics show that each public library in Mexico is visited by an average of 25 users a day, most of them students. Historically, the public library system has been linked to national education policies that make it mandatory for school children to visit libraries. However, this policy has transformed the library from a place to read for leisure to a place to get information only.

At first blush such a system certainly sounds different than a public library system in the United States. Whereas libraries in the U.S. would be more likely to favor localized policies regarding their collections and educational programs, Gastelum notes that the RNBP centralizes these functions in Mexico City. And whereas many libraries in the U.S. have taken efforts to promote themselves as a community plaza or gathering point as well as a library, Gastelum suggests the RNBP is specifically more of an information hub. The RNBP's website doesn't look like a website for a public library in the U.S. either -- it is more of a place to find information about the system, rather than a place to search the system's holdings or interact with a librarian.

What causes these differences? Gastelum quotes Katya Butrón at El Colegio de México, who says that "Most patrons have a negative perception of a library as an uncomfortable and uninviting space, a place for duty instead of pleasure." Gastelum continues that

According to Butrón, attending a library is not part of Mexican culture. Even when the heavy governmental presence is not obvious for patrons, “the popular feeling is that libraries are just like any other of the many inefficient public services, ” she explains.

Authorities within the Mexican government are aware of this challenge, and have responded with a national literacy program (“Hacia un País de Lectores,” or “Towards a Country of Readers,” begun in 2001 by President Vicente Fox) and the construction of a new central library in Mexico City. This library, the Biblioteca de México José Vasconcelos, is in Gastelum's words

...The “brain” or mother branch of all public libraries in Mexico. All the branches in the country’s 32 states will be connected electronically to this main branch, which hosts the country’s largest collection. Currently featuring half a million books, the building will eventually house 1.5 million volumes. Designed to serve 15,000 users a day, the 125,000-square-foot building by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach features 750 computers with free Internet access.

Entrada principal, by joseluisl

Biblioteca Vasconcelos, by rageforst

Images by joseluisl and rageforst, used under the Creative Commons license.

While this does sound like an enviable project, Butrón argues that a library like the Vasconcelos library represents the wrong approach to building a national interest in public libraries. She calls for a more localized approach, with more diversity of materials between different branch libraries within the system. The Digital Divide has also been a factor, with librarians in more remote parts of Mexico (and by extension less Internet access) saying a project like this does little to serve the needs of their patrons.

With this situation in mind, Gastelum calls for "a much needed dialogue" on the direction of librarianship in Mexico. She notes annual conferences put on by Asociación Mexicana de Bibliotecarios (AMBAC), Mexico's equivalent of the American Library Association. Steven Kerchoff, Information Resource Officer for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and library advocate, notes that at these conferences

[Mexican librarians] talk about outreach, they talk about advocacy, how to promote their library services to users and to people who are in a position to make decisions about funding... Library advocacy has been a hot issue in the States for a while and it’s now becoming really important in Mexico.

Challenges like these will be a part of any dialogue on future directions for Mexican libraries (just like they will be a part of any dialogue on future directions for public libraries in many countries). Time will tell how these issues and the dialogue they create play out, but both Butrón and Hortensia Lobato, Vice President of AMBAC, are optimistic that Mexican libraries and librarians will continue to integrate themselves into the bedrock of Mexican culture, both as a place to find information, and as a place to strengthen a local community.

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