Guatemalan libraries (and schools)

Since this blog is ostensibly about libraries and not my travels, I thought I’d bring this series of posts on home with some commentary on Guatemalan libraries.

First of all, there are none. At least, not the way we think about public libraries in the States. In Xela, a city of 225,000 people, there is one public library, the Biblioteca Alberto Velásquez. And you cannot check out books or other materials here. The stacks are closed. The librarians, while friendly, sit behind a barred window. Essentially, this library is an archive, with a study area. One thing is familiar, at least to those with the old-school perception of libraries: the sign requesting silence.

While there are libraries in the universities, you can rarely check out those materials either. My teacher, who is a university student, explained that most of the items there were old and not terribly useful. It’s a tragedy, beautifully explained by Margaret Mering‘s in-depth examination of Quetzaltenango libraries.

There are many educational opportunities for middle-class and wealthy people in Guatemala, but education is often expensive and with many associated costs. The family I stayed with had several colegia students boarding with them–kids 14-18 years old, living in a room in the city, away from their parents, just so they can go do a decent high school. The public schools are notoriously overcrowded and underfunded (hmm…sounds familiar) and impact family finances by taking kids away from jobs. Child labor is a Guatemalan reality.

A University I walked past many days, the Rafael Landivar University. Xela has several universities and tech schools, but very few libraries.

There is a fantastic-sounding tech school in Xela, the INTECAP training school, which offers fairly low-cost training in everything from cooking to auto repair. It would be a great opportunity for poor students, but there are those associated costs again–not working, needing a place to live, travel, etc. And books in Guatemala cost a LOT.

So public libraries, with books that circulate, could be a major benefit in the educational lives of poorer Guatemalans, not to mention the social, cultural and other benefits that libraries offer. (However, as thirdspace, even the most lovely library would face stiff competition in Xela. After all, if you could hang out in the many parques, why bother being inside?)

Poverty is such a pervasive reality that I cannot imagine how a library would be able to serve the poorest populations without quickly becoming very run-down landing spots for the homeless. It’s a strong possibility that any library would lose books to those who are not used to the “borrowing” model of libraries. The high cost of books in Spanish would seriously hinder collection development.

Nevertheless, I would love to start an American-style public library in Xela. Anyone have a million dollars lying around? After all, I could build and staff the library pretty cheaply!

Librarians Without Borders and other library activism is evident in Guatemala. The next language school I am going to will probably be Probigua, which operates a bibliobus in rural areas near Antigua.

Probigua Language School

Image from Linda Leith’s website


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