It’s funny what we take for granted. Like our libraries, our ubiquitous American public libraries, which exist in nearly every town and where you can borrow books and keep them for weeks with almost reckless abandon. Often times, if your library doesn’t have the book you want, you can request it from another city, and in a few days it will come, mailed to your library free of charge. For a few cents extra you can keep your book for many months, savoring it, and when you return it you can keep what it contains inside of you. Books, books. They’re such a part of our lives, such a staple. Books are everywhere. How many books have I read already in these months in Guatemala? I’ve read romance novels, Australian mystery novels, biographies, histories. Books are a fluid thing when you’re traveling, something you can hold and engage in and then leave behind so they don’t weigh you down. Books are our lives, sometimes.
Tonight there was a lecture in Antigua, delivered by a Mr. Paul Guggenheim of the Riecken Foundation. The foundation, which originated some ten years ago, seeks to enhance the experience of libraries in Central America, namely Honduras and Guatemala. In a noisy café at the intersection of Calle 2 and Avenida 7, Mr. Guggenheim spoke to a group of ten or a dozen gringos about the ways his organization has transformed the experience of the library in ten Guatemalan towns.
Libraries should be dynamic community centers, Mr. Guggenheim said. They shouldn’t be defined as quiet reading rooms, or as the ‘traditional library,’ which in Latin America, apparently, consists of a desk and a librarian behind it, whose job it is to do your research for you. These models don’t encourage the public to engage with the books themselves, or to wander from one subject to another, opening books at random and then putting them back. The concept of lending, in fact, is a new one to many of the libraries adopted by the Reiken Foundation.
The Foundation came about after Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in 1998. The founders asked themselves how best they could help the survivors, and they decided that the most effective way would be to enable the distribution of information. Information, which we so take for granted in the States, is something rarely accessible here in Guatemala, where books are an evasive creature, an expensive commodity, and anyway, many people don’t know how to read. In a country where 22 languages are spoken, few books are written in a way that’s accessible to the people here. The Reiken Foundation’s mission, Mr. Guggenheim explained, is to make libraries democratic, dynamic sources of free information targeted towards a specific community's inhabitants.
The Foundation began as a fully-funded endeavor, with dozens of international employees and a generous benefactor. However, after the economic crash in 2008, 100 percent of funding was lost and the foundation was forced to lay off many of their employees and start from scratch. Maybe the crash was a blessing, though, because Mr. Guggenheim explained that the few remaining employees turned around and asked for the help of the communities themselves. The inhabitants of these small towns would take over the work themselves—what a concept. Literacy programs were implemented, along with story hours and book clubs, and the libraries gained strength in participation, something that may not have happened had international employees continued their involvement. I guess those American and European workers must have discouraged local participation, because it wasn't until after the 2008 financial disaster that the movement became one that occurred within the communities, not outside of them.
In a region brutalized by recent civil wars and largely silenced by censorship and fear, the libraries gave these people a voice. For one thing, people could choose the books they wanted to read. Reading was meant to be fun, not a chore, and people who had been afraid to step forward and speak their mind were given a chance to do so in an environment that was safe. They could speak out in forums about how they wanted their libraries to be run. After all, it was a starting block. Fearful of forming political ties, the Reicken Foundation put the choices about the libraries in the hands of the inhabitants themselves, implementing local directors to ensure that basic programs, like the story hours, were still occurring. Financial transparency was an important value. Internet access was encouraged, free access, because, as Mr. Guggenheim explained, this kind of access to information was integral to progress, safety, and education. Success is measured by participation, and the libraries are growing slowly but steadily in the hands of the community members.
Books, it turns out, are a gift. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? The priveledge I’ve grown up with leaks from me, and in this case it comes in the form of the books I tote around, in particular the very book, in fact, that inspired this trip and allowed me to access the generous funding of Wellesley College. I think of the library in my small hometown, the one that nurtured my interests, staved off my boredom in the days before TV, and created for me a community. How lucky I was, to have had all that. How thoughtless I’ve been, to have ignored it for so long. Can someone send me one of those buttons, one that says I Love My Library? I can't believe I never thanked that sacred place.