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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

Library Statistics in Latin America and the Caribbean

UNESCO, Division des statistiques



These few lines have been prepared in compliance with a request from the IFLA Statistics Section to report on the situation of library statistics in one particular region, that of Latin America and the Caribbean. Needless to say, this kind of stock taking by the UNESCO Division of Statistics may well show a picture less brilliant than the reality simply because the true state of affairs cannot be judged merely on the basis of the replies UNESCO receives, or does not receive, to its statistical surveys on the subject. Before evaluating these replies, however, and trying to draw some conclusions from the analysis, a brief account needs to be given of UNESCO's data collection programme in the library field in general.

As is explained in detail in an article that appeared in the IFLA JOURNAL 14(1988)2, UNESCO started collecting statistical information on libraries more than four decades ago. In the beginning, one single form, covering all the different types of libraries, was dispatched to Member States. In this context it should be explained that as a general rule, statistical questionnaires relating to the fi elds of competence of the organization are sent to the UNESCO National Commissions which are requested to forward them to the appropriate authority for completion. For questionnaires on educational matters, for instance, this is a relatively straight forward operation as in the majority of cases the National Commission simply has to refer it to either the planning unit in the Ministry of Education or the central statistical service.

In the culture and communication area, however, the situation is unfortunately somewhat complicated because there are only a few countries, mainly of the European region, in which statistical information is compiled, processed and disseminated by a central agency or institution. It is therefore often difficult for a National Commission to know to whom it should turn in order to obtain the informa tion UNESCO is requesting on books, museums, films and cinemas, broadcasting, the press or libraries. With regard to libraries, it was noticed that as long as there was one single questionnaire covering all types of them at once, the scope of data reported depended very much on who was requested by the National Commission to complete it. If it was the National Library then there was little chance of receiving statistics on school and university libraries. If, on the other hand, the questionnaire was sent to the Ministry of Education,

the likelihood of data being reported on public libraries or the national library was very low. It was in the late 1970's, in consultation with the IFLA Statistics Section, that it was decided to split up the questionnaire into three separate ones, thus making their handling easier for National Commissions with regard to the identification of the appropriate statistical source. Also the timing of the surveys was changed and only one of these separate questionnaires is dispatched each year i n time, instead of all three together every three years.

This new practice of sending out three separate questionnaires in turn brought about an improvement, at least initially, but this was mainly due to a marked increase in the number of replies from European Countries. Before analysing the state of affairs regarding statistics on the four different types of libraries in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is recalled that the three separate questionnaires refer respectively to: a) national and public libraries, b) libraries of institutions of higher education and school libraries and c) specialised libraries. International data gathering on specialised librarie s has been suspended because of considerable methodological and technical problems encountered in earlier surveys.

National libraries

According to the definitions set out in the 1970. Recommendation, the national libraries are "libraries which, irrespective of their title, are responsible for acquiring and conserving copies of all significant publications produced in the country and functioning as a 'deposit' library, either by law or other arrangement, and normally compiling a national bibliography"

It is assumed that through this rather restrictive definition the type of library is clearly delimited and relatively easily identifiable. The services provided by national libraries and the persons using them are usually quite distinct from those associated with other types of libraries. In most countries that have a national library, there is just one administrative unit with one service point. Thus, there is no need for consolidation of data by a central agency, and the national library itself can reply directly to UNESCO on its statistics. This is what actually happens, but unfortunately not for many of the countries under review.

In fact, out of the 13 countries of the region that replied to the 1988 survey and the 8 that did so in 1991, only Cuba, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela showed some consistency and coherence in the data provided. Argentina and Brazil each reported 3 national libraries in 1991 against 1 in 1988 while Costa Rica, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay replied only to the former of the two surveys. Regarding Barbados, Belize, Guyana and St. Vincent, it is known or believed that the national library serves at the same time as a public library, i.e. there is one or two administrative units with up to 80 service points which in fact are public libraries.

Public libraries

Public libraries, as the term suggests, usually serve the general public although there may be instances where a special type of user such as children, hospital patients, workers, employees, etc. benefit from their existence.

Unlike national libraries, public libraries by their mere number necessitate a central coordinating agency when it comes to surveying this type of institution. It seems to be precisely the absence of such a body in most countries that would explain why only Belize, Chile, Cuba and Venezuela were able to reply to both the 1988 and 1991 inquiries. In Belize it is the National Library Service which gathers statistical data on public libraries, while in Cuba it is, as for data on any type of libraries, the State Committee for Statistics. For Chile and Venezuela the data source was indicated only once: the Dirección de Bibliotecas, Archivos y Museos for the former and the Instituto Autónomo Biblioteca Nacional y de Servicios de Bibliotecas for the latter. Apart from these four countries there are the Cayman Islands, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico and St. Vincent which filed reports in the 1991 survey while Costa Rica and Peru did so in the 1988 inquiry. Public libraries are thus the only type of library for which the number of replies increased from the 1988 to the 1991 survey.

School libraries

School libraries, i.e. those attached to educational institutions below third level (tertiary) education, form the type of library which, in terms of quantitative information, is the most neglected world wide and the countries under consideration do not seem to be an exception to this rule. According to the replies to UNESCO surveys, in less than 10% of these countries records on school libraries are kept by a central agency which in Chile, Cuba and Mexico is the central statistical service, while in Nicaragua it is the school library section in the Ministry of Education that fulfils this function. Three other countries (El Salvador, Peru and St. Vincent) reported to only one of the two surveys. The reason for this lack of information on library activities in primary and secondary schools is difficult to comprehend if one realizes that headmasters in literally every country are to report detailed statistics on pupils, teachers, expenditure, teaching material but obviously not on the book stock, number of borrowers, loans, etc.

Regarding the comprehensiveness, detail and reliability of data, there is not one single country in this region that could be quoted as a model to be followed. From the four countries that replied to both the 1989 and 1992 surveys Cuba, for instance, only once gave detailed information on the stock, users, loans, staff, etc. In Mexico where there are strangely enough more users than loans, these figures dropped from 27 and 23 million respectively in 1987 to 4.4 and 3.5 million in 1990. For Nicaragua the number of school libraries decreased from 412 in 1987 to 174 in 1990 while at the same time the staff went up from 130 to 174. Loans dropped by over 90 per cent for the same period. Lastly Chile, the only country for which 1987 data tally with those for 1990, does not seem to collect statistics on users (borrowers), expenditure or staff at all or irregularly. From the over 40 countries and territories making up the Latin America and Caribbean region only 5 reported statistics on school libraries in 1991 and never more than 2 of them gave information on different types of data (collections, additions, users, loans, expenditure, etc.).

Libraries of institutions of higher education

The situation is slightly better when it comes to third level education libraries. The number of countries providing statistical information is almost twice that for school libraries, but as far as regularity and continuity are concerned in both cases only 4 countries out of over 40 replied to the two surveys under consideration and three of them, Chile, Cuba and Nicaragua did so for both school and university libraries. It is also worth noting that for the latter type of library the information reported by these countries is more comprehensive and shows indeed a coherence between the 1987 and 1990 figures.

All but one of the remaining countries replying to the 1992 survey were smaller Caribbean Islands and the information was provided by one or two individual libraries rather than by one central body which means there was no guarantee for the completeness of the number of institutions surveyed. It seems to be the total lack of data collection by central agencies such as a national library service, Ministry of higher education or the statistical bureau that would explain why countries like Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela, to name just a few, never report on libraries of institutions of higher education.


From what precedes it would appear that the collection and dissemination of numerical information on library activities is not of particular concern to national authorities in Latin America and the Caribbean. In fact, out of the 45 countries and territories under review, in only two, Chile and Cuba, there is a regular and relatively coherent data gathering on libraries in general. A few other cou ntries like Barbados, Mexico, Nicaragua or Venezuela survey only certain types of libraries and this not always with greatl regularity and rigor. Of course, as was explained at the beginning, to have to base the analysis entirely on the replies to the international surveys carried by UNESCO may have led to findings that not always do justice to the country concerned. By and large, however, the qu ality of the returned questionnaires is a quite reliable indicator for the real situation which as far as statistical information on libraries is concerned leaves a lot to be desired.