Columnas de prensa


Historia de Colombia

Antioquia y Medellín


Paz y Violencia

Derechos humanos

Cocina y alimentación



Lectura y Bibliotecas

Ciencia e investigación


Política Cultural

Indice general de textos


Reseñas de libros

Documentos históricos

Listas y bibliografías

Jorge Orlando Melo:

Textos biográficos

Hoja de vida



Enlaces recomendados




“Democracy and Libraries in Colombia: From Oral Culture to the World of the Book

According to a Greek tale, Anaximander was the first philosopher to write a book and deliver it in the agora to his fellow citizens. Anaximader’s gesture can be interpreted as a symbol of the relationship between writing and democracy: writing created the possibility for a public discussion of truth, be it in religion, philosophy, science or politics. Before, writing was an esoteric knowledge, a technique reserved to specialists, priests and officers. In Greece, book and democracy appeared for the first time closely related, and there it started the history of the complex relationships between the ability of reading and writing, and the creation of a society in which truth is discussed by all and in which political decisions result of public debate.  

It is commonly accepted that the invention of writing was a founding force in the creation of western culture, with its Promethean traits. Writing, by preserving the knowledge and sayings of the past, opened the way for an unceasing accumulation of science, for a process of restless advancement in which every generation starts its march from the place to which the previous has arrived.  

More open to debate is the idea that a close relation does exist between democracy and writing. After the brief period of Athenian democracy writing reverted to be a privileged instrument of great religions and of education, and during centuries the ability to read and write was restricted to priests and a few other intellectuals.  

In fact, for the written world to become a force for democracy, books have to be widely available, and all members of society have to be able to read. The invention of printing, in the Renaissance, changed the conditions for the production and circulation of books, and created the possibilities for an immense diffusion of the book. But those changes were slow: book runs were short; circulation of printing was restricted to some groups of society and varied much among different regions of Western Europe  

Universal Literacy 

The technological revolution of printing, the cultural change coming from the protestant reform and later the ideals of the Enlightenment, led to a transformation in the role of the book, which became the basis of learning and science in schools and scientific societies. By the end of the 18th Century, however, only the northern regions of Europe had a majority of the population able to read. But soon all European countries and the United States shared the goal of universal literacy: all citizens should learn to write and read. The governments assumed a task that had been fulfilled previously by church and family, and did it most willingly where the states wanted to reduce clerical influence, like in France. Everywhere women closed the difference with men; older people reached the rates of young persons and the countryside, normally belated, achieved literacy levels similar to towns.  

By the end of the 19th Century all Western Europe, with the exception of Spain, Portugal and the south of Italy, had literacy rates above 80 or 90%: these countries would have to wait to 1950 to reach the levels that US, England or Sweden had 100 years before. It took tens, maybe hundreds of thousand years for talking human beings to develop writing. It took 5000 years for that trick of writing to become an efficient technology of multiple copies with printing. Then it took only 300 years for the society to agree that reading and writing was a tool required for all men. But only in the last 200 years that requirement has become an effective ability, an obvious and natural capacity for most of the world population. What Dogberry stated 400 years ago has become finally true: ‘To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature’[1]

One of the arguments for considering reading an instrument of democracy has been the idea that only those who are able to write and read can form an independent opinion, on the basis of a careful balancing of information of different sources: only those are true citizens and free men. The French revolution dreamed of an informed citizenship, but soon the weight of the past fell on the revolutionary ideals, and France reverted to monarchic absolutism. Only the United States was able to make, in the turn of the 18th Century, a successful trial of democracy, of a society based upon the idea that all men are created equal and upon the strange corollary that all men have the right to take part in the political decisions. This idea had consequences for the world of the book: the founding fathers, from Franklin, Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson to Adams, were believers in the power of education and of the book, and believers in the right of every man to take part in the ruling of society. Democracy could not work well, they quickly saw, without information. As Jefferson put it: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy”.[2] Schools and libraries were necessary tools of democracy, and private libraries gave way since the mid of the 19th Century to the growing and ubiquitous presence of public libraries, open to everyone and funded through public taxes.

The literate city

The role of writing in Latin American history was quite different, as the book and literacy were the valued privilege of a small elite. The conquest of America in the 16th Century can be seen as the triumph of a literate culture over the oral culture of most of the native populations of America. Pen and paper were some of the advanced weapons that made it possible for a small numbers of Europeans to defeat and dominate millions of Indians. The Spaniards kept systematic information about all that was found. Columbus wrote a dairy of his expedition in 1492 and maps were drawn: we can still look at the 1500 map by Juan de la Cosa. A written text was read to the Indians, the Requerimiento, in order to legitimate, if they did not accept the truths read to them, their submission. Some of the conquerors were renaissance scholars as Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, who directed the conquest of the Chibcha in Colombia and founded Bogota, and spent years writing historical polemics against Italian chroniclers of the time, and wished his books to a school for the Spaniards sons. The administration was based on a prodigious amount of paper work, written codes and instructions. Officers, merchants, landowners or priests used writing, and moving letters of common soldiers, many of which were able to sign their names, have survived in the archives. 

In the manuscript folios of the Spaniards were the laws that regulated the tragic life of the Indians: the distribution of Indians to encomenderos, the list of those forced to work and pay tribute, the assignation of workers to mines, the order to destroy their sanctuaries. For Indians, the book was mostly the register of oppression and they were not expected to write and read. However, some of them were placed into schools. Garcilaso de la Vega used writing to explain the greatness of the Inca people. Others discovered that they could use writing in their defense: some of the laws pretended to protect them from excesses, and they could appeal to a legal system that sometimes found in their favor. Indians wrote general complaints about the abuses committed against the Indians, like the mestizo don Diego de Torres, cacique de Turmeque in Colombia, or Guaman Poma de Ayala. Written by themselves or with the help of priests, those legal and denouncing documents have kept, until today, at least part of the voice of the defeated. 

The Spanish authorities wanted to promote the literate culture in the white minority and universities and schools were created, in which no one could enter but old Christians and of pure Spanish blood. Books were protected, and exempted of taxes. But they were censored and Indians and blacks were to be kept far from them. 

The Spanish authorities clung to a vision of the society strongly hierarchical: white Spaniards were the rulers, and controlled land, mines and trade, and Indians and African Slaves were the ruled and workers. However, gradually a new population of free blacks, mestizos, mulattoes, some of which thrived in trade or land, complicated the picture of society. As the physical and physiognomic means of defining status became blurred, literacy won new importance as a source of power, as a mark of distinction and superiority, as a device for separating the patricians from other groups of society. The census of 1777 for Colombia reported that whites were more or less 18% of a population of 800.000. Among them, only the patrician minority was able to read and write: their children went to school, learned Latin and prepared for going into the university, where a few would graduate as priest or lawyers.  

The first public library

Precisely at the end of the 18th Century that literate city was opening to new currents of thought: the local whites came in contact with European enlightened writers, and started redefining their place in the Spanish empire. They communicated among themselves, recommended each other books and ideals, promoted science and above all extolled the useful knowledge of the natural wealth of America. Soon most of the scholars of the viceroyalty of New Granada –the Spanish colony which later became Colombia- formed a loose or virtual community of intellectuals, with an initial sense of nationality: they were Americans, bound to look for the progress and prosperity of their homelands. In 1767, after the Spanish king Charles the III ordered the Jesuits to be expelled from America, one of the local intellectuals, the lawyer Francisco Antonio Moreno y Escandón, proposed the creation of a public university –the existing ones were from religious orders-, and the formation of a public library, with the books which had been expropriated. The proposal read: “Being instruction… one of the first subjects that dwells in the Royal Mind of the Sovereign, and helping to obtain it the creation of a public library, where the students of all faculties could come, and be instructed in solid and true knowledge, in many cases ignored by the lack of good books, mostly in this farthest kingdom, where they are scarce and expensive, it would be very good that after separating the books with loose doctrines and pernicious teachings, and having selected the soundest and more useful, such library be formed with all the sequestered books” 

The plan was accepted, and in 1777 the first public library in the Americas opened, with over 4000 books, mostly in Latin and related to religion and medieval philosophy. It soon became a meeting point for the creole intellectuals, as the librarian Manuel del Socorro Rodriguez organized literary and scientific meetings, gave books in Spanish and French of his private library and published the first periodical of Colombia, which was sent to all regions and was read aloud in all types of gatherings. For a few years, scientific knowledge became the goal of a group of young students, that bought books in Spanish, French and German, read Buffon and Linnee, Adam Smith and Montesquieu.  A new vision of the role of culture and the book was formed, as this intellectual elite envisaged the formation of a culture based on reason, science and independent research. Books were not only the heavy Latin folios in which theology or law were studied in the universities: written in living languages, they became part of everyday life and were seen as instruments of knowledge and tools of spiritual enjoyment: “the sweet dealing with these selfless and erudite friends- as one of them wrote in 1793-  is part of men’s happiness”[3] 

Few years later the Spanish Empire collapsed, and local creoles were able to win independence, although most of the young scientists lost their life in the wars and were executed as rebels. New nations were created in all Spanish America, after a revolutionary war made in the name of liberal theories of freedom and equality, of human rights and citizenship. But in writing the rules of democracy, the independence heroes had to decide who were to rule, and face the dilemma that the liberator Simon Bolivar had stated, when he wondered if after winning independence of the Spaniards, the local whites were to dispute their rights with the “legitimate owners of America”, the Indians. Indians and mestizos, black slaves and freemen formed the immense majority of the population of Latin America.  

In such social context, it is not surprising that practically all Latin American constitutions, from Mexico to el Rio de la Plata, opted by a limited franchise, in which the right to elect and be elected was reserved for the small minority that could read and write or had some substantial property or income. In fact, the literate –no more than 5% of the adults during the 19th Century-, were usually the holders of all other elements of economic or social preeminence: whites or light mestizos in the midst of a dark skinned majority, landowners in a countryside of landless peons or small plot laborers, university graduates in a school-less society, miners among slaves. In fact, the heavy toll of the independence wars destroyed the few elementary schools that existed, and scientific activities were almost totally abandoned for many decades. 

Of course, democratic ideals held their power, and during the whole 19th century, in all Latin American countries, the discussion raged between the defenders of a rapid widening of the suffrage and those who believed that giving the vote to illiterate meant opening the dam for popular revolts and disorder. Conservatives tended to defend a franchise restricted to the elements of society that would give security to property and had a good moral formation; liberals, although theoretically committed to universal suffrage, discovered in the few tests made –like in Colombia between 1851 and 1857, when even women’s vote was adopted in some regions- that Indians and peasants voted against them, and usually preferred to allow democratic participation only to the literate, while promoting an expanding system of public education, so that those acquiring political rights were more likely to be independent from the power of the priest or the landowner.  

Therefore Colombia, as most of the Latin American countries, had during the nineteenth century a political system based on elected government, but restricted mostly to the very narrow elite that could read and write. As long as education did not guarantee an extended literacy, a modern democracy, based on public opinion and on an informed citizenship, was something of a utopian ideal. In reality, all forms of personal dependency and clients’ systems became the real premises of the political constitution.  

Some politicians perceived the relationships between literacy and citizenship, and the consequent need of libraries for permitting the new literates to have effective access to books. In Colombia, the Catholic Church and the Liberal Party fought for the right to educate the masses. While the church resisted the idea of state schools and compulsory education, for the liberals the development of schools was the only way to transform a backward peasantry into productive and modern citizens. As Eustorgio Salgar, president of Colombia, said in 1870 “We have been happy with merely changing legislation, but we have done nothing to introduce the reforms in the inert mass of the population that does not change neither with time nor with revolutions. We can not form a republic without forming first the citizens. People cannot arrive to the ballot box and to the jury seat but with the reading primer and by the hand of the school teacher”.[4] A reform of public instruction was introduced, experts teachers were brought from Europe to form the educators, and the order was given to all municipalities to promote “popular libraries and literary societies… with the goal of promoting the appetite for reading and give strength to work in all social classes” At any rate, the liberal efforts failed: en 1876 a civil war flared the country, led by the church and the conservatives, who rose in an effort to stop compulsory public schooling.  

In 1886 the conservatives came to power. Many of their leaders were very sophisticated scholars. President Miguel Antonio Caro, author of the Constitution of such year, had been director of the National Library, wrote Latin poetry and treaties on Spanish grammar. His assistant at the National Library, Marco Fidel Suarez, was also elected some years later as also president of the country. Presidents Jose Vicente Concha and Carlos E. Restrepo had been editors and bookstore owners, and Jose Manuel Marroquin was a novelist and poet. But Caro opposed the idea that reading and writing was important for the masses. “Writing was not in the initial designs of Divine Providence in respect to the human race, and today, good customs, the essential base of citizenship in a well ordered republic, are not transmitted by reading, but by oral tradition and good counsel.”   

It can then be argued that the profound cleavage between the culture of the literate elite and the oral culture of the majority of the population made impossible the creation of the common basis for an effective democracy: for most of the population, politics was a foreign realm, in which the ruling elites confirmed their power over the common people, and in which they participated only if led by their patrons. The political history of 19th century Latin America is the history of the rule of caudillos and strong men, of instability and civil war.  

Only Argentina, who received a large immigration during the second half of the century, adopted an effective policy of public education, increased literacy and, by the end of the Century, adopted universal suffrage. In most of the countries economic modernization, the opening of railroads and of export economies, incipient industrialization, the development of trade and the employment of women as office and commercial clerks, led to improvements in the school systems, and during the first half of the 20ths Century Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and to a lesser degree Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Peru, raised the literacy rates rapidly. Universal suffrage followed in some countries: Mexico in 1917, Colombia in 1936, Bolivia and Brazil much later. In Chile only in 1971 the vote was given to the illiterates.  

The expansion of the literate city

But the school system, although using the book, limited its efforts to teach elementary reading and writing, and rarely the population not coming from the literate strata of society had more than one or two years of schooling. Teaching was made mostly in oral form, with the help, in the best schools, of a few primers for writing and reading. Those who stayed for professional education used copybooks to record what the teacher dictated. In elementary classes, students learned by heart the catechism and the civics handbook, and in advanced classes they memorized the basis of sciences and humanistic fields.  

Those that made it to high school and university were usually members of the reading classes: sons of lawyers, engineers, doctors and teachers, who complemented the oral teaching in school with home libraries, and occasionally found a library in their high school or university. By getting a professional degree, those students confirmed their rights to be members of the literary city, of the world of “doctores” by getting an academic degree. No formal barriers existed to become a doctor, and many a son of a peasant or handcraft was able to enter into their ranks, and became but such a feat a member of the ruling classes. But how small and selected was this group can be gauged by the fact that when I went into University, half a century ago, there were only 21000 students in all the universities of Colombia. Today, there are 900.000.  

These processes started to change the social landscape: from a period in which a few could read and write and the majority were illiterate, it changed to a situation in which most of the population were able to figure out the meaning of simple and easy texts, but only a few acquired the real capacity for complex and advanced reading.  


Libraries for the Literate City and books for the peasants.

Libraries had not been of importance in the advancement of literacy: most of the country schools did not have libraries, used a few textbooks and teaching was done in the blackboard. The Public Library of Bogota became in 1820 the National Library, but it never recovered the cultural role it had played during the closing days of Spanish rule.  It was a library with books of theology or philosophy and the only books of science were those given by the botanist Jose Celestino Mutis. Then, about 1853, Anselmo Pineda, colonel of the independence, offered the government a collection of almost everything that had been printed in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador between 1771 and 1850. The government refused to buy the collection and Pineda decided to donate it. In 1872, he added a new gift with all the prints of the last 20 years. Such donation defined the National Library, as in many other countries in the region, as a patrimonial library. It was almost the only library in a country in which probably less than 10% of the population went to school, and in which books and newspapers circulated only among the most educated elite.  

The National Library kept its role as a research library, for the history and literature of the country, without venturing into modern sciences or other fields. In 1920, when it opened a circulating service, it answered the complaint that the fees were very high and excluded all workers, by explaining that the National Library was not a popular library, and at any rate no worker was going to be able to read the books in the lending library, as none was in Spanish.  

But a crucial change came in 1930. A liberal government came to power after 50 years of conservative governments, and it wanted again to transform the popular mentality. Schools and libraries were the instruments for transforming the backward mentality of the peasantry and for improving the cultural level of people. Libraries were to be opened in all places, but mostly in small villages, where the need of change was greater. A standard collection was defined, with 100 books of universal literature –Homer, Balzac, Washington Irving, etc. -, 100 representative books of Colombian writers and handbooks on husbandry, gymnastic, health, civics and basic sciences. Those collections were sent to more than 2/3 the Colombian municipalities, where so called “village libraries” were opened. They were to be supported by the use of new technologies: all of them were to receive a radio, and the National Library opened in 1932 the first radio station in the interior of the country. And the library bought a set of portable movie projectors, which could be, according to the director, sent by mule (in two chests, one for the projector and one for the electric plant) to all villages, so that educational pictures could be brought to all the population. [5]

Those efforts helped to make the book a normal feature in many towns, but were far from successful. Several municipalities returned the books, seen as part of an evil plan of the government to corrupt the simple minds of the peasants. And they were part of a political program that included not only universal suffrage but the promotion of trade unions, the distribution of land in property to sharecroppers and rural landless workers, the obligation of civil registration of births, the suppression of the church right to supervise all teaching. Such program was seen as dangerous for the religious traditions of the country, conducing to social unrest and political revolt, and was defined by the leader of the  conservative party, Laureano Gomez, as a plan who had at the same time a communist, Masonic and protestant inspiration and wanted to destroy Christian civilization in Colombia.  

The cultural utopia of the enlightened scientists of the 18th century, which wanted to build a modern culture based upon science and reason, had come to an end in the battlefields of the war of independence, where most of them found death. The more limited efforts of the 1870s for creating a school system reaching all the peasantry had also been destroyed in the midst of civil war and political conflict. After 1948 the efforts of Biblioteca National to develop a system of village libraries came to an end in a whirlpool of political conflict that led to expanded violence in the countryside, a brief period of military dictatorship and fifty years of difficult democracy. 

At any rate, during the next years literacy kept going up, and by 1950 it was close to 50%. By 1990 all children went to school and learned to write and read, while 20% of the respective age group entered into the university. This dramatic change alters totally the character of the culture of printing in Colombia. The existence of such group of potential readers is a new fact in Colombian history, and has broken the traditional structure of literate culture. Newspapers and magazines have grown, and the publishing market suffered substantial transformation: between 1960 and 1990 titles went from under 1000 a year to more than 8000, and the number of copies printed was multiplied by more than 5 times.  

But it has to be remembered that the older generations still have a large proportion of illiteracy –which can be seen in public libraries, when children go with their grandfathers to cultural activities, and you see, instead of the eldest reading to the young, children reading to their illiterate grandparents- and that most of the people have had less than 4 years of schooling, and no more than 30% of adults have gone to secondary school. In fact, most of the population able to read went to schools without books, and never developed the habits of reading beyond basic practical uses. They have a complex relation with writing; they read signs and invoices, they play the lottery or write brief messages and sometimes, like in the Europe of the 19th Century, one loved book is read and read by one of the members of the family. But they do not read books, newspapers or magazines, and of course do not use the computer. The school teaching model, by not being able to use books, because more than 90% of the 40.000 Colombian schools even today do not have a library, did teach to read and write but it did not create readers.  

And today, because of radio and television, most of the population has access to great part of the information, political and practical, that required reading some years before. Most electors form their opinions basically from the rapid images of TV, and elections have become image contests.  News come trough oral media. In fact, most of the population can have basic information without reading, and it could be argued that democracies can function with reasonable quality, in a context of expanding media, even if most are not readers.  

And as reading for news and information might seem to be replaced by radio and TV, the role of reading for pleasure, as a free activity, is being displaced by the recreational power of television, technologies for reproducing music and games, that are, with sports, the main forms of youth entertainment. 

Modern Public Libraries

However public libraries in the modern sense arrived to Colombia en the last years. In 1954 the first real public library was inaugurated by Mr. Luther Evans, general director of UNESCO: The Biblioteca Publica Piloto of Medellin, as part of the United National agency’s efforts to create “Model Public Libraries” in the Third World.[6] Two small features, surprisingly absent of all Colombian libraries, made it radically new: readers could browse and touch the books in open stacks, and it allowed anyone to borrow books and take them home. The library became an immediate success among children, students, workers and housewives.  

Four years later, in Bogota, the Central Bank opened the Luis Angel Arango Library. It was conceived as a research library, with closed stacks and no lending, but since its opening waiting lines always extended for several blocks, packed with students and all sort of readers. The pressure of readers forced the library to improve services and by 1990 the reading places had reached 2000, the average number of daily visitors had passed 4000, and the collection had about 250000 books. 

In Bogota, despite the success of Luis Angel Arango Library, glaring faults were evident: there wasn’t a citywide system and in the neighborhoods, there were about 25 very poor libraries, with obsolete books and in rundown buildings. The lack of a good system was forcing all readers to go to only one place: the day the Luis Angel Arango received 24000 readers, who sat on stairs and the floors, was a premonition of the worst nightmares. To reduce inflow, in 1996 a digital library was started, offering school students support for their homework with pages on Colombian history and literature. That same year the library decided to lend books, so that people would read at home, freeing up space in the main building. And it offered the City of Bogota support for a program of improving small neighborhood libraries. The Luis Angel Arango would buy new collections, and the municipality would refurbish the buildings: those libraries, who served the school system, were to be open to all citizens, should have open stacks, circulating libraries, and extended hours.  

The project advanced slowly, but in 1998 the new major, Enrique Penalosa, supported a program for a high quality system of libraries in the city, modern and ambitious. With surprising efficiency, two years later, in 2000, the municipality had built three so-called mega libraries, had redesigned six middle size libraries and 10 small libraries, with new collections, computers and internet access. Libraries were in poor areas: no one was in the fashionable north area of the city, although now, by a private gift, a fourth mega library will be built in an area serving middle sectors.  The three libraries opened with totally new collections, each of them with 700 seats, more than 60 free internet computers, and scores of multimedia and video equipments. The public response exceeded all expectations: the total number of visitors to public libraries in the city went from 5 millions in 1998 to 11 millions in 2004. In recognition for its quality and impact, the Bill and Melinda Gates price was awarded to BIBLORED in 2003. 

How could it be explained, that in a country without a tradition of good public libraries, that was just entering into the text world, and where the reading of books is low, libraries were having such success? What explained that in Bogota, there were four libraries receiving more than 2000 readers every day, and one of them 9000 daily visitors in its reading rooms?  

The answer is simple. The demand for library services was there: it had been built during the last decades through the amazingly rapid expansion of school population, which did not have good library systems in their schools.  Demographic profiles of the population had changed, and a literate population did finally exist. What lacked were good services, libraries with facilities and collections that made them attractive for the population, as it was obvious by the fact that in other cities, where the figures of school assistance were similar, libraries, which were unfriendly and had small or middle size collections of old books, were empty.  

In Bogota, the quality of the collections was obvious: Luis Angel Arango library added 700.000 volumes to its collection between 1994 and 2004. Almost every book of cultural or scientific importance published in Spanish during such period was there, as well as a selection of books in other languages. The library delivers books at the home of the readers. The quality of the new Bogota system was also clear: the 50.000 books in every library were selected carefully and they are full of books of high quality. Against the common view, which wanted the library to serve basically to memorize school subjects, no textbooks for basic education were included in the libraries. The largest libraries had more than 60 internet connected free computers, TV monitors and video equipment.  

Other library networks were established in Bogota, Medellín and several major cities. The creation of libraries by Family Subsidy Funds –private organizations that received a tax on payroll and used it to provide services to worker’s families- was rapid and today over 140 such libraries serve the people in Medellin, Barranquilla and other cities. Cali, the second largest city of the country, built a new library, following the Bogota standards. Medellin, where services are already good, is now building four new libraries located in the middle of the socially convulse neighborhoods where drug dealers recruited their rank and file in the 1980s. In Bogota, libraries were built in the middle of large public parks. In Medellín the density of popular barrios make it difficult to find good building zones: the libraries are going to incorporate sporting facilities.  

Changes in the education profiles of the population were not restricted to the main cities, where services have been improving rapidly. In smaller cities and scores of small towns, students are finishing high school and dream of going to the university. Many have enrolled in Open University institutions or in short technology courses. In remote towns and villages, literacy has arrived and many inhabitants want to find information for their work and life. Some of the “village libraries” created seventy years ago subsisted, but with obsolete collections. 

Taking this into account, the Luis Angel Arango proposed in 2002 to the presidential candidates the implementation of a National Plan for Libraries. 400 municipalities, the poorest of the country, should be given a basic collection of about 2500 books. The libraries were to receive computers with library management system and internet connections, video and TV equipment. The municipalities desiring to take part should, like in 1930, appoint the librarian and offer a good location. They should commit themselves to extended schedules, to have open stacks, to lend books, and to buy more books to keep the collection up to date. The plan was adopted by the new government at the end of 2002, and after 3 years, 588 municipalities have received the collections. [7] 

The program has had an immediate appeal. Users increase immediately, literary societies are formed, schools flood to the libraries, daily movie programming makes a change for towns without any public cultural routine. The books on practical matters –cooking, sewing, wood making and other handicrafts, decoration, bike maintenance, billiard playing- are sometimes unexpected, in communities where the book has something sacred and remote, and the children collections -about 40% of the whole- are especially welcome. But it is too soon to judge whether this effort to take the printing culture to areas where it did not exist is going to be successful. It is not easy to know if the local authorities, involved in complex political situations, among violence and corruption, will keep the libraries as priorities, and whether the improvised librarians would be victims of bad administrative, funding problems and political practices.  

But the signs are good: the school community seems to be discovering in the library, a library with real books, and not only encyclopedias and textbooks, a window to new ways of learning. Reader groups interested in social issues, human rights or simply in a better knowledge of the country have appeared in several communities, and in about half the libraries an association of library friends has been formed. In some of them the library has become the meeting point for a local newspaper and even for a local radio station.  



The brief history of the role of libraries in a society in which books have been always one of the clearest marks of privilege, and in which libraries were not traditionally highly valued, allow us to draw some general conclusions, which I believe apply to most developing countries:  

  1. One central obstacle for the consolidation of democratic societies in Hispanic America has been the existence of a social structure in which political participation was restricted to a lettered minority, while illiterate majorities were kept in political and social subjection. The lack of an extended school system is the main reason for such situation.
  2. By the second half of the 20th century literacy became universal, at the same time in which new communication media were reaching all the population. This has created the conditions for at least a basic operation of democracy in the region and for the consolidation of electoral mechanisms. At the same time, the fact that radio and television arrived to most homes and schools before the book makes the development of reading habits and the competition with other forms of information and recreation very tough. [8]
  3. The quality of democratic processes is affected by the quality of education and by the access of the population to complex and relevant information. A system of social information based extensively on TV and radio tends to limit the wealth of political debate, to simplify issues and to reduce the formation of a rich and varied public opinion. The expansion of the capacity for complex and critical reading to larger groups of the population is a requirement for an improvement in the quality of democracy in Latin America.
  4. Given the economic conditions of most of the population in Latin America, the expansion of opportunities for developing complex reading abilities, for access to the book and to electronic texts through Internet, requires the existence of good public libraries.
  5. For most of the population, the library allows:
    1. That children advance beyond the basic routines of reading to the development of reading habits and the creation of complex reading capacities and that adults, having retired early from school, keep and advance reading capacities.
    2. That children overcome some of the deep inequality arising from the great differences in quality among schools. In Colombia, most of the children going to public schools cannot compete successfully for access to high education with children from private schools, basically because good reading capacities are more likely to develop in the second group, where school and family libraries exist.
    3. That at least a significant group of children in lower social strata develop the habits of reading and learn to regard reading as an important source of information, as a tool for intellectual development, as the way to know and enjoy literary and artistic creation of humanity and as an alternate way of recreation.
    4. The public library is in itself a democratic experience: in it some basic principles of democracy are promoted, like the respect to cultural and ideological diversity and the opposition to censorship.
    5. In public libraries many children learn and reinforce the basic rules for democratic living and culture. It is one of the few institutions in our cities that have free access, where neither permit nor payment is required to come in, but it is an institution in which users have to respect turns, keep silent, consider social benefits over private appropriation and take care of common goods.
    6. The library is usually a neutral, absolutely neutral point, in a country in which violence has, for 50 years, reduced the meeting points, the areas of common debate and discussion.

Taking this into account, it can be said that Colombia has finally made a bet on books and libraries, after a history in which the book has been praised and revered, but was always reserved for a privileged minority. The school revolution that took part in the 20th century was important, but it was an incomplete revolution as far as readers did not make of such ability an instrument of personal and social improvement and of political participation. An effective democratization of the book, the access to knowledge and the discovery of the opportunities for independent growth and learning may help democracy to get a firm hold in the country, and specially to improve its quality. A democracy in which the serious discussion of political issues is the privilege of a thin layer of society, while most of the population does not take part in the formation of public opinion is a skewed and mock democracy. And for informed participation, the reading skills, the information retrieving capacity, the skills to read critically and evaluate public proposals, are formed basically through the experience of continuous reading that for most of the children and persons of the society can be achieved only through the use of public libraries. 

Despite early proposals, the idea of basing democracy in the development of well formed and informed citizens is now being taken seriously in Colombia.  One could say that it was too late, as new technologies are putting into question the survival of the book, but probably it’s never too late for democracy; it’s never too late for libraries.  


Jorge Orlando Melo
Octuber 26th, 2005
Read as the 15th Annual Mortenson Distinguished Lecture, Mortenson Center por International Library Programs, University of Illinois.


[1] (Much Ado About Nothing, III. Iii)

[2] Kevin Mattson, Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Urban participatory Democracy during the Progressive Era. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1998), p.299.

[3] Silva, Renán. Los ilustrados de Nueva Granada 1760-1808, Bogota, Banco de la Republica y Universidad Eafit, 2002, p. 380

[4] Alicia Rey, La enseñanza de la lectura en Colombia (1870-1930), Bogotá, Universidad Distrital Francisco José De Caldas y Colciencias, 2000, p. 21 y 26. 

[5] Silva, Renan. República Liberal, intelectuales y cultura popular, Medellin, La Carreta Editores E.U,l 2005 is and excellent study of this effort. See also Díaz Soler, Carlos Filmar, El pueblo: de sujeto dado a sujeto político por construir: el caso de la campaña de Cultura Aldeana en Colombia (1934-1936), Bogotá, 2005. 

[6] Luther Evans had been Librarian of Congress in 1945-1953 and was director of UNESCO in 1953-1958. UNESCO issued a first library manifesto in 1948 and decided to promote Model Public Libraries. The first one was opened in New Dehli in 1951. In 1952 Medellin was selected as the place for the second one. Later another Model Library was opened in Nigeria.

[7] The text of the original proposal, “Elementos para un Programa de desarrollo de las Bibliotecas Públicas” can be read in  

[8] A more detailed discussion of these issues can be found in Jorge Orlando Melo, “Bibliotecas y Educación”, Revista del Banco de la República, Bogotá, 1998, also in  . Other texts on related topics in Jorge Orlando Melo, Historia, Politica y Cultura , in .




Derechos Reservados de Autor. Jorge Orlando Melo. Bogotá, Colombia.
Ultima actualización noviembre 2020
Diseño, concepción y gestión de contenido: Katherine Ríos