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Educating Peasants and Forming Citizens: Social Change and Public Libraries in Colombia
  • For the largest part of Colombian history, libraries were more a dream than a reality. Illiterates formed the majority of the population and libraries were signs of wealth or social distinction, restricted to a narrow elite and its cultural institutions. However, in different periods libraries were conceived by some intellectuals as forces for social change. In this lecture I will tell the story of some of the efforts of using libraries to change the minds of the people and form citizens since de late 18th century until today.  

    The Library as instrument for the formation of national identity 

    As in many Latin American countries, in the 16th Century a literate society established his power over many illiterate communities. Pen and paper were part of the weapons that made possible for a small number of Europeans to defeat and subjugate Indian societies with million of persons. Spanish colonists developed a culture in which learning and knowledge were highly valued. Books were protected and did not pay taxes: as a Royal Order of 1548 said, “The Kings…, taking into account how useful and honorific was that books were brought to these kingdoms from other places, so that with them men became scholars and literate, they wanted and ordered that books did not pay sales tax”.[1] But books were censored and had a limited circulation, and Indians were not supposed to read and write. In fact, books were restricted to the white population, a very small proportion of society. By 1778 whites, of which only a minority were able to write and read, were around 25% of a population in which poor mestizos formed the majority, and Indians and black slaves were also large groups.[2] For most of the society, culture was oral and visual: they learn by heart the cathecism of Father Gabriel Astete and received in church, by the word of the priest and the sacred paintings, their notions of religion and sacred history. 

    By the end of the 18th century local whites had developed some features of an initial feeling of identity, and book culture was a crucial part of such process: reading the European authors, they discussed about the wealth and qualities of America, learned the basis of natural history and made the inventories of local flora. Books by the scientists and political philosophers of the Enlightenment became precious and great efforts were made for instance to buy in France, sometimes circumventing censorships and prohibition, a copy of l’Encyclopedie Methodique.[3] 

    In 1767 the Spanish colonial government expelled the Jesuits of America. Francisco Antonio Moreno y Escandón was an outstanding local intellectual: born in Mariquita, he graduated from the Jesuit University in Bogotá and had an exceptional bureaucratic career: after teaching at the local university and occupying a large array of jobs, we went to Spain and came back as “Solicitor” in the Royal Tribunal of Bogotá. He was the second lawyer born in New Granada to be a member of the Tribunal in 200 years, against the traditional policy of excluding local born whites of the highest employments. During the following years he become the more influential officer of the viceroyalty, the advisor to the Viceroys, and held many different jobs, some time simultaneously and always diligently. In 1767, while he was Solicitor of the High Tribunal, Defender of Indians, Judge of Monopolies and many other things, he was at charge of writing the instructions for the expulsion of the Jesuits, ordered by the King Charles the III. He became later Director of Studies of the Jesuit College, San Bartolomé, and member of the board in charge of administrating the goods sequestered to the Jesuits.

    In the latter capacity, he proposed in 1768 that a public university be created, in place of the Jesuit’s university, so that lay men were liberated from the “heavy yoke” they suffered under the members of the church. In 1774, while the proposal was still in study, he wrote a new curriculum, in which he ordered that mathematic, physics and politics were included in the courses, the “subtleties of scholastic philosophy” be abandoned, and teaching be done by modern authors

    Related to such proposal was his idea that the books of the Jesuits should be used for the creation of a public library. As he wrote en 1774: “Being instruction… one of the first subjects that dwell 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 kingdoms, 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” 

    When the viceroy approved the plan, the untiring bureaucrat made himself directly the inventory of the 4784 existing books, sequestered from the colleges the Jesuits had in the New Kingdom of Grenada. The Public Library of Bogotá opened in the Colegio de San Bartolomé, in 1777, without having received the royal approval, which came only in 1778. It was the first public library in the Americas, open to all and supported by public funds. Moreno y Escandón abandoned the Kingdom in 1780, when he was appointed as a member of the High Audiencia of Lima and never saw the fruits of his proposal. [4] 

    The library was meant to serve the poorest scholars, in a society in the midst of rapid cultural change. Some signs of change were evident. After a century in which teaching was based on medieval theology and physics, in 1765 doctor José Celestino Mutis had dared to teach, despite heavy disputes and polemics, a course of physics in which the Copernican theory was defended. Educated creoles –local born whites- wanted the universities to serve the economic progress of the country, teaching chemistry, mining and natural sciences. Moreno proposed also that communal Indians became private property and that the Indian tribute was eliminated, so that Indians and Spaniards became legally equal. Some scholars joined a scientific undertaking that intended, under Mutis’ direction, to chart the flora of the country: thousand of species were described and painted. Mutis’ library, rich in works by 18th. Century scientists, was added in 1822 to the public library. 

    The library, during the last 30 years of colonial rule, was used by university students and, even if most of its books were considered obsolete examples of medieval obscurantism, was a center for intellectual debate and literary societies. It published, from 1791 to 1797, the first periodical of the country, Papel Periódico de Santafé de Bogotá. As few of the books related to the new interests of the students, the librarian, Manuel del Socorro Rodriguez, gave many of the works of his personal collection to the library. Antonio Nariño, one of the leading intellectuals, proposed in 1793 the formation of a “subscription by the literate”, to buy “the best foreign journals and gazettes, the encyclopedic periodicals and other similar papers. The members will gather at some appointed hours, read the papers, criticize them, and talk about such matters, spending entertaining but useful hours” [5] 

    For the intellectual elite the library was ideally the instrument for giving scholars the opportunity to acquire the scientific knowledge required for knowing the American realities: it was an instrument for the first efforts to define a national identity. It helped, together with programs as the Botanical Research Expedition, to form the intellectual group that led the revolt against Spain in 1810. The triumph in war brought the decline of the library: most of the intellectuals and scientists were executed by the Spanish or lost their life during the independence war, and a new elite, formed in 15 years of battles, replaced the university men.


    The Library as keeper of the heroic deeds of the nation 

    Precisely one obscure colonel of the wars of independence, Anselmo Pineda, offered in 1851 to the National Library, as it was now named, the sale of his personal collection of Colombian books and newspapers. He had gathered, in 30 years of obsessive efforts, most of what had been published in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela: more than 6000 titles, newspapers, political broadsides and polemical booklet, few of which were in the National Library, despite a law that ordered in 1834 that all items printed in the country should be delivered to the library. 

    As the government refused to buy, Pineda decided to donate the books, but established several conditions, from which one is, I think, of bibliographical interest: Pineda observed that as he had spent all his money buying in everywhere all these materials, he had to bind books by size. Therefore, the collection would be very difficult to use without indexes: he had elaborate them and he wanted the government to publish them. This would be very useful also to “keep their record, in the event in which evil or interested people steal or deface a piece” [6]He delivered the collection, but the amazingly detailed indexes were never published, and they can still be seen in the National Library: 10 beautiful cross-referenced lists with color marked keywords, which can be searched alphabetically, by author, title, place of edition, date and keywords. 

    Some 20 years later Pineda complained bitterly: many items had disappeared, the catalog was still manuscript and the Library had not updated the collection. As he said. “Had I imagined, even remotely, that the conditions of my free cession were not to be fulfilled, I´d had not dared to take such goods from my family bread”. Yet he had collected again all prints between 1851 and 1872, and was willing to donate again over 6000 items he had, if the Government would give them good conservation. He offered, were the government to pay him the military pension he had gained, to use all 1440 pesos in bounding the volumes and indexing them. In the debates that took part in Congress, a commission of legislators wrote: “Think, Senators and Members of the House, that you can save the more precious sources of our history, sparing from Colombian Erostratos documents whose existence and conservation is an honor for the Republic”.[7] 

    In fact, the national library became the proud depository of the records of Colombian history, mostly by the feat of a single man: it would serve, as Pineda wrote, the “member of Congress in the good formation of laws…, the public officer …who wants to take correct decisions…in sum, all needs of the readers would be answered, as long as these works of patriotism and intellect allow it”. For the rest of the century, it was a library for historians and writers, and developed slowly, without much public support. Some catalogues were published, and the collections grew mostly by the generosity of some donors, as buying was exceptional.


    Educating the peasantry and forming citizens 

    The legal basis for a segregated society disappeared after independence. The constitutions of the new nation, since 1821, were democratic and elective, and declared that all men were equal. But for using such equality citizens should learn to read and write: as it happened in all Latin American countries, the political franchise was reserved to literate people and property owners. 

    Some liberal politicians believed that the democratic goals of the nation would not be reached without the participation of all citizens, and that meant universal suffrage. In 1853, in the wake of the liberal revolutions of Europe, and after slavery had been abolished, universal suffrage was written into the constitution. But peasants, led by their patrons and the church, voted heavily for the conservative party and gave it the majority. When the liberals returned to power, they had reached the conclusion that only education could change a society in which 90% formed a mostly illiterate peasantry, which was seen as backward, superstitious, unlettered and ignorant of modern technologies. Since then most liberals were theoretically in favor of universal suffrage but decided to restrict it for the time being to literates, as they were supposed to be the only independent voters; conservatives while wary of giving power to the masses and opening the way for demagogues, were sometimes willing, by expedience, to accept universal suffrage. 

    Therefore, liberal governments tried to develop a system of education that in the long run would take the peasantry of the hold of the priests and the conservatives. In 1870 they created teacher’s schools in all states of the country, brought German educators to direct them, and expanded basic education. As Eustorgio Salgar, president of Colombia, said in 1870 “We have been happy with merely changing legislations, but we have done nothing to introduce the reforms in the sluggish mass of the population who 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 help the reading primer and by the hand of the school teacher”[8]. As books did not exist outside of the largest cities, -and schools, as had reported an astonished traveler in 1851, did not have books[9]-, a law was passed that ordered all the municipalities to create “popular libraries and literary societies… with the goal of promoting the appetite for reading and give strength to work in all social classes”[10] In the schools, the government thought, at least a book –the reading primer- should be given to every student, for although "all other topics can be taught orally, it is necessary that every pupil has his own book in order to learn to read and write”.[11] 

    This was the first time that public libraries became an explicit part of the political programs of a Colombian government. In a country in which democracy was the declared basis of polity but effective citizenship was reserved to less than 5% of the population, the expansion of literacy was an obvious means of widening the political participation of the people. The implicit premises of this argument were that the largely oral culture of the peasantry was backward and should be replaced by a culture based on the written word and the book, which was identified with modernity and rationality. In this elliptic argument the liberals condensed their vision of the countryside of Colombia as a feudal society, in which a land holding elite used all forms of power –economic, social and cultural- to subjugate the people. Therefore, the program of educate the peasantry was not simply a program for improving schools: it intended to change the social fabric in the countryside. 

    This explains the immediate failure of the program: in 1876 the Conservative Party and the Church led a revolution against the educational reforms and the evil attempts to establish compulsory education. In the difficult years that followed many schools were founded, but no public libraries were opened. In 1886 the conservatives came to power and public libraries were left out of the plans of the national government: the idea that the book should replace tradition was challenged by Miguel Antonio Caro, the foremost conservative intellectual, former director of the National Library, bookseller, and several times president of the Republic: “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.”[12] 

    The library of the writers


    In 1897 the French traveler Pierre d’Espagnat visited the antioqueño town of Santo Domingo. Not much more than a hamlet, with 8000 inhabitants, mostly peasants and miners. But the small village, in a region where Indians and slaves had been few, had a public school, some well provided merchants, mine and landowners, and many smallholders, which send their children to school. What most surprised D’Espagnat was the “rich library, interesting and well stocked”, served by a young and active librarian.[13]  

    It was a unique library: in 1893 a group of enthusiast readers, some of them just returning of some years at the University in Medellín, decided to create a subscription library. They found the way to get the books from Madrid and Paris, and the library, by 1908, had already 3800 books. In 1900 the report of the head of the library boasted that love of lecture has spread to all groups of society: “The craftsman finds in the book the amusements he missed before, without getting out of home; the shop owner, in his own store, finds pleasure with the volume that instructs him in his moment of leisure; women pass their evenings with the delicious pages that, while educating her sensibility, save her from mental idleness, that frequent reef of antioqueño women; even the unconscious and mindless masses, the people, is discovering vibrations of new ideas, inklings of other horizons”. [14] 

    Of one of the founders we have some data: he did not graduate: according to the rector of the university, “constant reading of novels explains the bad results of this student”. The ledger of book loans of the library has been kept: in a few months scores of novels by Pérez Galdós, Tolstoi, Chejov, Valera, Daudet and many more were lend to this omnivorous reader, which usually returned them one or two days later. But for War and Peace he needed six days. In his old ages, he remembered the town, fria, fea y falduda (cold, ugly and full of slopes), and his own inclinations: “Indolence, laziness and a bit of other capital sins, which I have always eagerly tended, did not let me learn much nor do any ordered thing. But in those lands of God, lacking worst things to do, one reads without stop. In my parents’ house, in my friends’ houses, there were not a few books and many readers. Therefore I’m here, still with a book in my hand, at all hours, in the rural coziness of my house. I read and read and kept reading, and I think that in the hole in which I will be buried I will read the full library of death, where all the essence of deep knowledge is probably condensed. I have read all kind of thinks, good and bad, sacred and profane, licit and forbidden, without order, plan or defined purpose, just to kill the hours…” [15]He also paid close attention to the tales of the old women of the region, originated in Spain or Africa and to their speech ways. Some time later, in a literary group in Medellín, he sustained that local life in Antioquia could provide the stuff for novels. The members of the group, among them two young writers who were later presidents of Colombia, challenged him to prove it, and he did: during the next 30 years Tomás Carrasquilla  published scores of tales and novels, many of them recovering the oral traditions of the mining regions of Antioquia, and received in 1936 the National Prize of Literature.  

    We know also of some other founders: the first promoter, a young lawyer, became the well known novelist Francisco de Paula Rendon, Ricardo Olano ruled the Society of Public Improvements in Medellín and started city planning in Colombia. Justiniano Macias was an educator of national fame, Claudino Arango built a commercial empire, three or four more became well known lawyers and industrialists. That hamlet, in which reading was a passion, produced a disproportionate amount of intellectuals and professionals. The library was more the result of a preexisting passion. And a similar passion was at the time touching many persons in the state of Antioquia: in Medellín a public library was opened in 1881, and by 1888 four small renting libraries had been established. In 1915 one coffee shop, where the young writers who published the literary journal Panida used to meet, advertised “The best library of Medellin. One thousand books, almost all new, clean and well kept. Scientific works, travel books, novels, history, poetry, of the foremost authors. We are glad to offer it to the public, and specially to the ladies of this capital”.[16] 

    These libraries were signs of the forming of a new public: the spread of learning from the elite to new middle classes. Literacy was growing and reaching the working classes in towns, and at least some layers of rural society. Learning provided a few the road to escape poverty and segregation. In Antioquia, where education had advanced more than in the rest of the country, learning and culture were extolled as the ways for social progress. Medellin, a city of hard traders, received rapid veneers of gentrification: art exhibitions became frequent, literary magazines were published by groups in which the scions of the wealthiest families joined with the more typical middle class writer. 

    Libraries improved slowly, however, and in the rapid economic growth of the region during the first half of the 20th Century, when it became the hub of national industry, the initial flowerings had an early stagnation. By the 1930s most of the literary periodicals had closed and industry and money seemed, according to the disappointed intellectuals, the only goal of the people. 

    In the rest of the country some libraries were created, along with high schools and local newspapers, in middle size towns which wanted to receive the benefits of progress. But they were poorly managed and had little impact. Even in Bogotá, the capital, the National Library was, as his director said in 1923, only a reason for public shame. He had tried in 1921 to open a lending service, which confirmed to extreme elitist vision of the library. As a newspaper protested by the money deposit that had to be placed for every book borrowed, saying that it was more than the daily wages of a worker, the director explained that the library was not intended to be for popular groups: how could workers and artisans, he asked, use the books of the circulating library, if the 500 hundred titles that formed it were all in French?[17] 

    The library for the people: revolution in the march


    In 1930, in the wake of the world crisis, the conservative party, that had ruled the country since 1886, lost the elections. A liberal government was elected that wanted to transform the life and minds the Colombians. The intellectuals in the government promoted a new idea of the nation and a revaluation of popular culture. In their view, the problems of the country, the difficulties for become a modern nation, came mostly from the separation between the ruling classes, which despised the people, and the masses, which had not received a modern education. To form a real nation the divide among the ruling groups and the popular culture had to be bridged, and that meant recognizing the deep value of popular traditions. Even if the people was still seen as backward, as it has been 60 years before, the responsibility for it fell on the elites, which despised the traits of national identity and attributed the ills of the country to the racial characteristics of the masses, but wanted to maintain them in cultural and political submission, mostly with the support of the church. 

    Following the inspiration of the Mexican revolution, the government believed that popular culture was a valuable part of the nation and had to be registered and recorded, and that high international culture had to reach the masses. The balance and interplay between popular and high culture would contribute to form a rich and advanced country: intellectuals should learn from the popular creativity, while peasant should become literate, enjoy the products of western artistic and cultural tradition, and embrace new technologies and progress. 

    In 1931 Daniel Samper Ortega, one intellectual of patrician origins –his grandfather had been presidential nominee for the liberal party in 1898- was appointed Director of the National Library, a job he held up to 1938. When he arrived to the job, he wrote, “People thought that the Library was a heap of books, useful only for occupying the time of idlers or for difficult and erudite researches: but no one had imagined that the book is one of the major leverages for arising the sleeping forces of the country and for creating public and private wealth”.[18] The book was then adopted as a weapon in a crusade for bringing culture to the people. The National Library redefined its goals: they were so wide and varied that it is impossible to deal with many of them.[19] 

    In the more conventional aspects, the library tried to modernize, improve its services and reach new publics. It was able to buy books on science and technology, increased its holdings of Latin American books through an active exchange program, bought private collections, published several catalogs of its more important collections, like Colombian periodicals and Alselmo Pineda’s Manuscript and Book Collection –a new catalog, that did not had the multiple searches of the one made by the donor-. It opened a circulating library, which used messenger boys to bring the books to the homes and offices of the patrons. It made a serious effort of cataloging the collection, adopting, under the advise of Mr. Janeiro Brooks, librarian of the Pan American Union, the Dewey system. A new building was inaugurated by the president of the Republic in 1936, and an illustrated journal, Senderos, came to life in 1934: it published academic articles, position papers, cultural statistics and facsimile pages of many of the treasures of the library. 

    Very soon the National Library moved into very innovative programs. As the director Samper wrote in the first issue of Senderos, the library should stop being “a deposit of lifeless books waiting patiently the visit of a reader to clean up the dust… it has to be a modern library, open the most modern technologies, so that they can awake the sleeping mind of the peasantry… The National Library will have a radio station, because the peasants, who do not know how to read, have to be brought to civilization by means that, like the radio, teach them while entertaining them...”  And he added “In  [Hispanic] America we need that the libraries be living organism, power generators which move book and thinking throughout all the country and work with the ministry of education in the task of redeeming men from ignorance”[20] 

    This statement defined the central aims of the new policies: to change the minds of the rural areas of the country. The peasants were seen, in somewhat patronizing ways, as children who should be led step by step into culture. But at the same time the library, in agreement with the idea that popular culture had many hidden treasures, started a systematic effort of gathering information on it. 

    In 1933 a survey was initiated, in which the Library asked the municipal authorities and the teachers of all the country to report on a staggering variety of topics respecting every village: living conditions, agricultural production, health situation, roads, markets, water provision, schools, cultural halls, libraries. They were asked even to provide the name and addresses of all writers and intellectuals, literary societies, and the list of all books published by local authors. The amount of information produced by this statistical madness overwhelmed the library: although it published many statistical tables on libraries, schools, printing presses and other cultural facilities, most of the information is still in the original forms and in 1938 the director of the Library was complaining that not even a member of Congress has asked to consult any of the hundreds of local reports they had compiled. The Library wanted to use this information to better plan the programs of cultural diffusion it wanted to develop: to be aware of the cultural conditions of every region. Later it organized groups of sociologists and anthropologists, which went to several areas of the country to recollect folkloric information. 

    The cultural activity started with the creation of the radio station of the Library, HJN, which since early 1932 broadcasted cultural programs to the central regions of the country. Public lectures on history, education, literature, agriculture and many other topics were transmitted every day, in a radically new experiment: during the first year more than 800 lectures by local authors were given, in a country which did not have any experience in the new technology. 

    Film was also immediately adopted. “Cultural Missions” were organized, to “go to the hamlets and villages, especially to those where the educational influence of the government rarely arrives, to make lectures, distribute books, show educational films and even show exhibitions of printings which help to improve artistic taste”. The lectures were given in the central park of the village; the films were projected on a sheet, with film projectors which arrived by car, if possible, but in many cases, as Samper wrote, by mule, in two trunks, one for the projector and other for the electric generator, as almost none of the villages of the country had electricity. Many educational films were bought, some of them from United States services, and in 1934 the National Library filmed the first cultural film made locally: “Let’s form our nation”. 

    The center of the program of the library was to take the book to all the regions of the country. Initially the library organized traveling libraries, formed by elementary handbooks on practical matters and some literary works, which were taken along with the cultural missions. The new Minister of Education, in 1934, decided to unify the government cultural strategy under a general program of “village culture”. The main decision was converting the traveling libraries in permanent institutions, the “village library”, a place in which the local community could get in touch with universal and national culture. For world culture, a basic list of 100 major literary works was bought from a Spanish publisher. In included Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoi, Balzac, Washington Irving and many more, in simplified versions. They had been prepared initially for young readers, and the director of the National Library found that precisely such feature made it very appropriate for the peasant mind, which was at the level of children’s. Besides the works of universal culture, 100 books by Colombians were prepared. They were anthologies of different genres, historical books and most of the works of the Colombian literary canon of the day. In fact, the first list had been made in 1929 as a proposal for taking a representation of the culture of Colombia to the International Exhibition of Sevilla in Spain by a young doctor and writer, Luis López de Mesa, who became Minister of Education in 1934. By that time the list had already been adopted by a private publisher and the books were in print. The government decided to buy the collection, reprinted under the general name of “Colombian Village Library” (Biblioteca Aldeana de Colombia). A third group of works was to be included, formed by elementary handbooks and booklets on practical topics of interest for country people: health, husbandry, chemistry, drawing, gymnastics and so on, as well as a dictionary and a syllabus of history and geography: among the technical books it was included a book of political economy of W. S Jevons, as well as books on Astronomy, Greek History, Physiology and Geology: difficulties for obtaining good and rapid proposals led to a rather idiosyncratic selection. Some of the libraries were to be placed in schools, and those received additional textbooks. 

    The selection was remarkable. The works by the local writers was balanced, with literary works of all times, and had not obvious political preferences: the conservative writers having as wide representation as the liberals. It was expected that the books would help the schools, but it is obvious that one of the dreams was that independent readers and autodidacts would use the library. Those collections were to be sent to all municipalities that wanted to participate in the program: to receive the collection, the local council had to appoint a librarian, offer an convenient building to house it, and make appropriations in the budget for future additions to the collection. 

    The director of the National Library informed in 1938, four years later, that 618 small libraries had been created, in about two thirds of the municipalities of the country. The program and the book selection were hotly debated in the newspapers, and thousand of letters were sent to the National Library by local librarians, priests, teachers and other members of the community, asking for new collections, criticizing the adequacy of the handbooks, reporting the advances of the program, its difficulties and failures. The historian Renán Silva, in a fascinating book on the cultural policies of that period, transcribes many of such letters, whose texts give a lively portrait of the arrival of the book into remote towns, the enthusiasm it generated, the efforts of local authorities for promoting reading. It is obvious that, in a country side largely illiterate, the groups animated by the libraries were the reading part of urban dwellers, who took with surprising eagerness the new opportunity. The selection of the books were largely praised by readers, although some writers thought it was very partisan, left out important and representative works or included marginal authors. Practical problems were frequent: the books arrived with long delays to places that the Post Office did not serve; some libraries were kept, lacking better facilities, in private houses; librarians were teachers and payless voluntaries, which sometime invented rules and restrictions. Some of the inspectors complained that books were used for recreation and not for self learning. Others, in keeping with the positive stereotypes of the official rhetoric, reported that the more assiduous readers were women, children and peasants, while complained of the indifference of elites, public officers and intellectuals. In Pueblo Nuevo, the librarian reported the difficulties for following the path to books, as “the peasants, after reading the books, lend them to other members or the family or to friends, and I have to request the help of the police authorities to find where a book is”. And in many places, the libraries are described as spaces of social gathering and cultural activities. The municipalities which have not received a library wrote demanding one: in Guapi, in the swampy and hot jungles of the pacific coast, the inhabitants wrote that a library was required to “create life again”, as “nothing but the croak of frogs and the murmurs of the river interrupt the monotonous, vegetative life of the inhabitants”. The complaints of some regions are signs of success: in Piedecuesta, the librarian reported later that reading was declining, as “as books are few, most of them have been already reread by the book lovers of this town”; the same complaints appears in other places.[21] 

    The final balance of Silva is that libraries were surprisingly successful, at least up to the mid 1940s: they were the first inroads of a writing culture for many of the towns of the country; the books offered were received and read with pleasure and interest; technical books were sought after, Colombian authors became known outside the great cities and “without doubt, an element of modernity was introduced in the more popular forms of reading in Colombia” 

    Other elements of the “village culture” developed along the village library. In 1936 the government organized the first National Book Fair in Bogotá, which still exists; schools libraries were started, and the investigation of popular culture and local realities advanced: research institutes for ethnology and anthropology were established, detailed geographies of the states of the country were written and in 1942 the Ministry of Education undertook a wide and ambitious Survey of Popular and Folk Culture, in which teachers were asked to give a full view of all the popular lore of their communities: stories, traditions, food habits and recipes, proverbs and sayings, dresses and dances, music and housing. More than 1000 reports were received, covering most of the country. The high return must be explained by the militant quality of the campaign, which surfaces in the words of the Minister of Education, Darío Echandía, which in 1936 said that the instruments used by the government were “the guerrillas of ambulant teachers, night schools, village libraries, radio and educational film”[22] 

    It was, by all means, a very ambitious program, which had only two major predecessors in Latin America: the school libraries promoted by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in Argentina in the late 19 Century, and the system of libraries established by Jose Vasconcelos in Mexico after the revolution, which was probably one inspiration for the Colombian effort. 

    It has to be remembered that it was part of a larger social and political program: it included the support of trade unions, the distribution of land to peasants, the adoption of universal suffrage in 1936, the promotion of national industry, the separation of church and state. For the members of the government, all this has to go by the hands with changes in the political culture of the people. As the director of Cultural Difusion wrote in 1940, the country had to incorporate “to the social patrimony the dense population of peasants, workers and wage earners”. To make them active members of society, the “village culture” program was teaching them “the necessary notions which allow the individual to know his rights and obligations”, in a task that included the “promotion of notions and practice which give every men the capacity for demanding better conditions of life and produce a more valuable work” 

    It was also a program that could give definitive results only in the long run. As the President of the Republic Alfonso Lopez said it in somewhat convoluted form: “if in 20 years the influence of this slow process of cultural preparation of the masses starts to be felt… such deep roots would exist in our society that the efforts of the liberal party, in the battlefields or in the civic contest, would not have been in vain”.[23] 

    Again, a program as this had many opponents, and the specific cultural programs, which could have been less polemical by themselves, were seen as part of a political enterprise to win the minds of the people for the liberal party. In some municipalities, controlled by conservative politicians, the city councils did not accept to participate, as they were informed that the books sent did not have the imprimatur of the Church. Many articles were published denouncing the communist, Masonic or protestant inspiration of the program, which pretended to subvert the traditional texture of Colombian life. The program had administrative limitations, and had to labor against the fact that most of the peasants were not able to write and read, and therefore showed “the natural apathy of the popular classes: it is very difficult to convince them of the utility of reading” as one of the animators of the program wrote in 1941. 

    The elections of 1946, when conservatives won the elections and returned to power, sounded the death knell for the program, which disappeared from government reports during the next years. Local libraries declined without the central government support. The upsurge of rural violence after 1948, following the assassination of the leader of the Liberal Party, changed life in the countryside and in small remote towns: civil strife damaged the conditions for normal cultural activities. 

    The new government, wary of the political inclinations of intellectual and teachers, gave strong support to a program that shared the fascination with technology: peasants were to become literate through radio. Hundreds of thousands of rural homes received a radio receptor which was tuned to one only frequency, so that the peasants could not hear but the state supported catholic radio station. Broadcast lessons taught the peasants reading and writing, gave them advice for improving rural productivity and taking care of their health and life. Bur all talk of political participation, all promotion of rural organization and citizenship was absent of this effort. 

    By 1961 an evaluation of Latin American libraries found that, while academic and school libraries, including the National Library, had about 1.5 million books in the country, public libraries, had only 600000 books: they were probably 200 to 300 small libraries, and probably none had more than 5000 books.[24] They were formed mostly by poor textbooks collections, with closed stacks, did not allow borrowing books, had no catalogs, and were staffed by voluntary workers. Some of them were kept by the active enthusiasm of local readers: community run libraries replaced in many towns the “village library”. When I was a small boy, I found in a small hamlet of Boyacá, where I went during the school holidays, most of the books of the village library in the corner of a tavern, where the shopkeeper, that had been a teacher, would lend the books to readers as myself: I still remember having read, by the side of chicha or beer drinking peasants, books by James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. 

    Libraries for the citizens


    Public libraries appeared in Colombia as part of a program for making citizens from the peasants. They failed when political life was restricted by political and military dictatorship, by mid century. When democracy returned, in 1958, libraries were not in the political agenda. But the generalization of primary schooling became a real priority of the country. The advances were great, but quality was poor. However, it has to be stressed that between 1930 and 2000 the literacy rate/ went from 38% to 93%, and that today, for the first time in history, all children go to school, at least for some time. This change gave new basis to libraries, although it was a belated literacy, which came after most people had become used to radio and television. To maintain the relevance of reading in a literate society, against the advancement of alternative means of information and recreation, may be challenging, but it is much more so when the new media came before the population had acquired the habits of reading and the society had built strong institutions for the circulation of books. 

    However, some advances took place. In 1954 the director of Unesco, former Librarian of Congress Luther Evans, inaugurated Biblioteca Pública Piloto of Medellín, one of the Model Public Libraries UNESCO promoted. It was an open stack library, with good collections and easy borrowing, which became the image of what a modern library should be. In 1958 the Central Bank inaugurated the Luis Angel Arango Library, as a public library with research emphasis: it did not allowed borrowing and books were in depots. Both libraries were instant successes, with crowds of readers filling their rooms and forming lines outside. In Bogotá, the demand overflowed the library: there was a day in which 24000 readers entered into the library, a number of users that threatened to bring collapse to the normal services. To reduce inflow, the library started in 1996 a digital collection, became in 1997 a circulating library and offered support to the municipality for improving small neighborhood libraries. The Library network of the Banco de la Republic was expanded and has now 19 libraries, serving most of the middle size state capitals, besides Bogotá: in six towns, as the banking services of the bank became redundant, the bank offices were transformed in libraries.

    The evident demand for library services demonstrated when good libraries were offered explain the decision of private organizations in the 1980s to open public libraries: since then the Family Subsidy Fund, a private organization supported by a tax on payrolls, has opened 140 modern public libraries. 

    But the most impressive development took place in Bogotá, where in 1998 major Enrique Peñalosa, decided to create an impressive citywide system: three very large libraries, so called mega libraries, were built. Now a system including 25 libraries, that are receiving 20000 readers a day, is operating. As a whole, public libraries attendance in Bogotá went from a total of 5 million visitors in 1998 to more than 11 million in 2004. 

    ¿Could the results of Bogotá be extended to the rest of the country? In large cities the example was rapidly taken. In 2004 Cali inaugurated a modern library which receives over a million visitors every year, and the same has happened in other places. Medellín is building four large libraries, in which sporting facilities and books will be located in the same building. 

    But the real challenge are the small towns and villages of the country: in 2002 the national government adopted a proposal made by Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango to give all municipalities without a library or with a very poor one, a new Village Library, with 2500 well selected books, films, video equipment and computers.[25] By 2005 580, i.e. circa 60% of Colombian municipalities, have received the library and for the first time, most Colombian towns have a good, although in most cases very small library, operated with modern criteria, open stacks and lending books to readers. 

    Again, like in the 1930s, the basic thrust of the program is the conviction that education is the only way to create a nation in which all persons become real citizens, and can participate in political life, as the constitution of 1991 pretends. And that education and culture can be very important in generating the political culture required to overcome the problems of violence which the country confronts. The success of the programs recently adopted, show that the increase in literacy has created a large population of young students, coming from the lower strata of society, which can become active citizens and overcome the social inequalities perpetuated by the school system only if they, more or less independently, develop reading abilities which allow them to use effectively the book and the computer. If that is the case, and now the reasons that destroyed the program in 1946 do not seem to be in action, libraries would have contributed seriously, as they started to do in the 1930s, to creating a nation of citizens. 

    Jorge Orlando Melo
    Illinois, October 28, 2005


    [1] "Considerando los Reyes de gloriosa memoria cuanto era provechoso y honroso que a estos sus Reinos se trajesen libros de otras partes, para que con ellos se hiciesen los hombres letrados, quisieron y ordenaron que de los libros no se pagase alcabala; y …ordenamos y mandamos..que de aquí en adelante que todos los libros que se trajeren a estos nuestros Reynos…no se pague ni lleve almojarifazgo, ni diezmo, ni portazgo, ni otros derechos algunos", Diego de Encina, Cedulario Indiano,  Diego de Encinas, Cedulario Indiano, Madrid : Cultura Hispánica, 1945.I, 233. Present norms follow this tradition: in Colombia books do not pay sales tax nor import duties.

    [2]Figures for 1778 in Hermes Tovar Pinzón et al., Convocatoria al poder del número, censos y estadísticas de la Nueva Granada (1750-1830), Bogotá, Archivo General de la Nación, 1994, p. 86-88. The census probably overestimated the proportion of white inhabitants.

    [3] See the excelent book by Renán Silva, Los ilustrados de Nueva Granada, 1760-1808: genealogía de una comunidad de interpretación, Medellín, Banco de la República, Eafit, 2002.

    [4] Jorge Orlando Melo, “Francisco Antonio Moreno y Escandón, relato de un burócrata colonial” en Francisco Antonio  Moreno y Escandon, Indios y mestizos de la Nueva Granada: a finales del siglo XVIII; introducción e índices de Jorge Orlando Melo; trascripción a cargo de Germán Colmenares  y  Alonso Valencia. Bogotá: Fondo de Promoción de la Cultura del Banco Popular, 1985. For a history of the library see Guillermo Hernández de Alba y Juan Carrasquilla Botero, Historia de la Biblioteca Nacional (Bogotá, Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 1977)

    [5] Guillermo Hernández de Alba, El proceso de Nariño Bogotá : Editorial A B C, 1958., p. 146

    [6] This text appears in the manuscript index in the Nacional Library.

    [7] “Informe, Bogotá, 23 de marzo de 1866”. en Pineda, Anselmo, 1805-1880: Breve reseña de la Biblioteca de Obras Nacionales, dedicada desde 1849: con los sentimientos del mas profundo reconocimiento a los ilustres patriarcas de la independencia americana, por medio del Augusto Congreso Granadino, Bogotá: Imprenta de Foción Mantilla, 1866. In 1909 the Congress ordered the publication of the index, but the government changed the allocated budget to other ends. Later  the Library made a new index, which was published in 1935. Biblioteca Nacional, Catálogo del "Fondo Anselmo Pineda": dispuesto por orden alfabético de autores y de personas a quienes se refieren las piezas contenidas en los volúmenes de la sección respectiva, Bogotá : Editorial  "El grafico", 1935.: 2 v.

    [8]  Rey, Alicia, La enseñanza de la lectura en Colombia (1870-1930): una aproximación desde el análisis del discurso, Bogotá: Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas; Colciencias, 2000.p. 21

    [9] Holton, Isaac, La Nueva Granada, veinte meses en los Andes [1857], Bogot´pa, 1981. 32, 270 ss.

    [10]  Decreto orgánico de Instrucción Pública, 1870, cap 21, par 26

    [11] Informe del Director General de Instruccion Primaria de la Unión, Bogotá, 1876, p. 192.

    [12] Miguel Antonio Caro, Discurso del 2 de junio de 1886, publicado como “Sufragio” en Estudios constitucionales y jurídicos, primera serie, Bogotá, Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 1986, p. 172. Caro´s assistant at the National Library, Marco Fidel Suárez, became also President of the Republic in 1918. Caro sold his bookshop, Librería Americana, to José Vicente Concha, who was elected president of Colombia en 1914.

    [13] Pierre d’Espagnat, Recuerdos de la Nueva Granada, p. 218.

    [14] Isidoro Silva, Directorio, p. 217-218.

    [15] Tomás Carrasquilla, “Autobiografía”, en Obras Completas

    [16] Patricia Londoño, Religión, cultura y sociedad en Colombia, Bogotá, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2004, p. 270, 272, 276.

    [17] Revista de la Biblioteca Nacional, No 1 (Bogotá, 1923)

    [18]Memoria del ministro de Educación, 1938 (Bogotá, Imprenta Nacinal, 1938), p. 122.

    [19] Renán Silva, Republica Liberal, intelectuales y cultura popular, Medellín, La Carreta, 2005 gives a solid and nuanced history of the cultural policies of the liberal government and the liberal intelectuals.  See also Carlos Gilmar Díez Soler, El Pueblo: de sujeto dado a sujeto político por construir: el caso de la Campaña de Cultura Aldeana en Colombia (1934-1936), Bogotá, Universidad Pedagógica de Colombia, 2005.

    [20] Senderos No 1 (Bogotá. 1934)

    [21] Renan Silva, Silva, República Liberal…, p. 90,. 184, 138. 149

    [22] Silva, República liberal…, p. 70.

    [23] Silva, República Liberal. P, 71

    [24] Daniels, Marietta, Bibliotecas públicas y escolares en América Latina: Washington : Unión Panamericana, 1963.

    [25] See the text of the proposal in





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