We spent much of today talking to librarians – both those actively working in libraries now, and those trained as librarians but now working on other projects. We are learning a lot more about the challenges and potential of public libraries in Peru.
We had the privilege to visit the Peruvian Scientific Network (RCP) today. RCP was instrumental in bringing the internet to Peru 20 years ago and has evolved into a socially oriented internet organization that produces its own online newspaper and tv shows. (Catalina and I were interviewed for a broadcast of La Mula on Tuesday.) RCP has participated in Peru’s Open Government Partnership process and yesterday took part in a meeting meant to launch the brief civil society consultation period for the country’s OGP commitments. One official at the meeting yesterday noted that there was a lot in the government’s plan about creating services and putting info online, but very little about how citizens should use that information. This is a common feature we’ve noticed in open government plans, and we’re interested if libraries can fill part of that gap in Peru.
This afternoon, we convened a salon discussion about models of access to ICTs with more than 45 representatives of libraries, government and civil society at the Miraflores Public Library. For nearly two hours, participants passionately debated whether and where libraries fit into a modern Peru. Some suggested that libraries had already missed the boat – Peruvians’ information needs were already being met by other sources, such as “cabinas” – small private internet points or cybercafés. Libraries were stuck in old models of protecting books, and had not done enough to find out what their communities needed. Others countered that many libraries were changing – computers and internet access were already available at Lima’s public libraries, and libraries in Piura (where we head on Saturday) and Arequipa were proving through well-known social initiatives that Peruvian libraries were evolving to be relevant in the 21st century.
We heard from several that many of the library’s system’s issues were related to laws – local officials sometimes found it more convenient to close a library, some contended, rather than elect to comply with requirements on libraries that were difficult to finance. Public libraries’ declining status in the digital age meant that library science students chose to go to academic or special libraries upon graduation. In our work with public libraries in other countries, these concerns we’ve encountered frequently. We know from experience that they don’t indicate library systems are without hope – only that there must be concerted and unified efforts to address obstacles to reform and development.
The group was optimistic about libraries’ future. There’s a recognition that public libraries can carve out a bigger – and essential – role for themselves in modern Peruvian society. Access to technology is part of the picture. E-government presents a big opportunity that can be seized. There are examples that work. There is movement in the right direction. Tomorrow, as we head to Piura, which we’ve been hearing about frequently in our conversations, we aim to get a first-hand sense of the future of Peru’s libraries.