On Saturday and Sunday, we visited Piura in the north of Peru and met with Anahi Baylon, one of Peru’s best-known public librarians. She is also one of the few trained professional librarians working in a public library in Peru.
The Piura municipal public library is different than others in Peru. Relocated in 1997, it occupies a huge space in the center of town. There are two things one immediately notices upon passing through the gates. First, the grounds are beautiful — meticulously groomed and decorated by rare local flora. Trees tower above, providing welcome shade from the 95-degree mid-day heat. Second, the hours posted at the entry prompt a double-take: 8am-11pm on weekdays and 8:30am-6:30pm on Saturdays. This kind of schedule for a public institution is something unique.
The library is an enclosed park compound in which a number of buildings sit, including a computer training center for the disabled and a series of buildings meant to house temporary city project offices. There is also a plant nursery towards the back of the compound, where local botanists are preserving near-extinct plants that can’t be found elsewhere. While the buildings within look well-used, it is clear that this library is a project cared for by someone committed to creating a special place. Testament to its real value, the grounds are packed at 11am on a Saturday. Every bench is occupied, and visitors shuttle between buildings.
The main library building is also full on a Saturday. Many young people are studying in large quiet rooms, but others gather around computers — sprinkled throughout the library — and still others seek out librarians for assistance. Over 1000 people visit the library every day. The picture validates Anahi’s work in both the community and in advocating for her institution. Originally from Argentina, she moved to Piura in 1975, got a job at the library a few days after arriving, and has been a public fixture there ever since.
Anahi gathered some community members on Saturday for a discussion about the library’s role, including representatives from the mayor’s office, the ombudsman’s office, local NGOs that work on agriculture and education, the chamber of commerce, and universities. Some had worked with the library on projects before, and some first had that idea at this meeting. (The ombudsman’s office offered to partner with the municipality on stationing an officer at the library daily in order to help people file reports.) But they all agreed on the need for the library in Piura, and the direction it should take into the future.
A common theme throughout this visit to Peru has been that the government is making available a lot of information, and there are many new services available online that can make life easier. But people tend not to know about the information or the services, nor how to use them if they do know. Information is often put out by government offices, who then believe their job is done. But the info and its format frequently don’t correspond to citizen needs or interests. There was consensus among those at the discussion in Piura that the library has an important role to play in this environment — linking available information to those who need it, helping them navigate it, and helping serve as a channel between citizen needs and government action. Talking around the table, this group could make the conceptual leap from what the Piura library is today to what it could be in the future.
Whether this kind of model for the 21st century Peruvian library could be adapted widely remains to be seen. Certainly we’ve seen a limited vision among others we’ve met about the role of public libraries. Anahi is a visionary whose force of will and willingness to fight for funding and recognition has turned up visible results. But five years away from retirement, it is not clear whether there is someone in line to carry the torch she’s lit.