Today was our first day investigating questions of public libraries and development in Peru. Based in Lima, we met with four different organizations, including Telefonica – one of the big private telecoms active in Peru, the National Water Authority at the Ministry of Agriculture, the Peruvian decentralization agency, and the Defensoria del Pueblo– the national ombudsman. Through each discussion, we were trying to figure out where a neutral community institution like the public library might usefully support national efforts.
Peru has had major ICT access initiatives, and they have mostly created new establishments. There are more than 30,000 “cabinas” in the country – small cybercafés serving mainly marginalized populations that were set up through a government subsidy program. Many schools have been connected as well – and more are planned – and of course, the world’s biggest One Laptop Per Child program. Proyecto BAS aims to get broadband out to the most rural communities. For none of these programs, it appears, were libraries considered as a supporting institution.
To most we met, the idea of libraries playing this role was a novel one. In nearly every meeting, we heard ‘we had never considered the library before’. Public libraries, we heard, are not community meeting places in Peru. They are places where students and researchers study. It’s a quiet place, and only for books.
We know these are common perceptions around the world, and in many cases based on reality. But we also know there are exceptions in Peru – some of which we have plans to visit during this trip. In many countries where there hasn’t been a concerted library reform effort, public libraries tend to be bound by constraints defined by traditional perceptions. But there is typically a spark somewhere – a champion of the 21st century library – and out from these examples, we know from experience that vibrant modern library systems can be built. Tomorrow, Catalina Escobar will be moderating a salon at the Miraflores Public Library on this topic. Our exploration continues.