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64th IFLA Conference Logo

64th IFLA General Conference
August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 093-105-E
Division Number: VIII.
Professional Group: Regional Section: Latin America and the Caribbean
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 105.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

The public library: A proposal for creating equitable access

Gloria María Rodríguez
Biblioteca Comfenalco
Medellín, Colombia


The public library network in Colombia includes the public libraries that belong to the Family Compensation Bureaus, private social security organizations that work in different fields to improve the quality of life of Colombian workers and their families.
A view of the role of libraries in the Compensation Bureau, COMFENALCO in Medellín is offered here, based on deliberation regarding the problems of public libraries in Latin America. These libraries are developing projects in areas such as culture, reading, and information for the citizen, contributing to distributive equity and to a decrease in differences, particularly among those sectors of the population with limited access to information.



The purpose of the following speech is to first, establish some background regarding the role played by public libraries in Latin America and their contribution to the goal of equitable access, beginning with the public to which services are offered and the support for diminishing the gap between those who have access to modern information systems and those lacking these benefits.

The second part will present the specific case of the Culture and Library Department of COMFENALCO Antioquia, in Colombia, which orients the design and delivery of its services in order to contribute to this end.

Some years ago, in front of an audience of Latin American librarians, I started my speech by saying the following:

The following questions, which I asked some colleagues five years ago, are still pertinent: For whom is the public library service in Latin America? What has to be done in order to serve the different groups in the community? How can we reach those groups in the community that have fewer opportunities for information? These are matters that worry public librarians in Latin America, since they face a painful reality, with public libraries that urgently need to find their purpose.


Research about the history of the public library show to what an extent its task has changed through time, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries where it had its origin, and how, from the initial role of educational support -emerging as a space for improving the literacy of the working class, and for self-education - the public library has been enriched by different circumstances, life styles, and diverse social needs.

Thus, we currently find a public library with many functions that are superimposed, included, or accumulated as they arise. Other roles have been added to the initial one of educational support, such as being a space for literary and artistic events, a citizen information center, a place for study, an independent learning center, a key spot for community activities and meetings, a site for communication and exchange, a place for reading, a space for leisure and recreation, a mediator of the so called information superhighway and a promoter of local, national and international library networks, among others. Today, in a society in which the economic component is the one that molds the relationship between human beings, institutions, and countries, the public library seeks to contribute to the formation of more competitive and self-sufficient citizens, who are therefore more conscious of their rights and of their right to be informed.

The fact that three Manifestos for the Public Library have been issued by UNESCO in less than fifty years, makes it evident that the public library is a versatile institution, with plural functions, and that it is no stranger to the changes and developments produced within society.

Faced with the multiple paths presented to the public library, it is more necessary every day to permanently reflect with regard to the plurality of duties, to reflect on what leads to organization and to a prioritization of objectives that are adequate for the needs and particular circumstances of different countries, regions, and communities.

In Latin America, the multiplicity of tasks becomes more complex, not only because these countries have weaker economies and library personnel are poorly prepared to face the work of a public librarian, but also because of the lack of clarity regarding the target public of this type of library. It is a secret to no one, and there are studies that corroborate the fact, that the habitual user in our Latin American environment visits a library with the basic purpose of doing research related to formal education. Approximately 80% of the users are school children; their demand for information is, essentially, academic, and they use the library as a study place. The saddest part is that once they finish their academic life the library no longer attracts them.

The Director of the Colombian Reading Promotion Foundation, Fundalectura, librarian Silvia Castrillón, when referring to this problem, comments: "The public library is so engrossed in looking at itself and in satisfactorily filling its statistics of school pupils served, that it does not perceive that this kind of public displaces users who are not students, and does not allow the library to perform the function that society needs, and this is the reason why the authorities have never seen in the public library a library that has different aims than that of being a subsidiary of a mediocre educational system... "

Based on the fact that most of the efforts of the Latin American public library are centered on working with the population from the public sector's educational establishments, due to their lack of school libraries, it could be affirmed then that the public library would be capable of diminishing existing differences between those who have access to information and those who do not, only if its efforts could be centered on the remaining population, which, being numerically larger, is made up of workers, housewives, the unemployed, the aged, and people who are not enrolled in formal education programs.

On the other hand, there might be a misunderstanding of equality, that is, some have the idea that if attention is given to one segment of the population, in this case of school age, no effective contribution made to compensate for the cultural, social, and educational inequities that exist in the rest of the population, would result. Therefore, it would be more difficult for the public library to contribute to the reduction of such factors as low incomes, poverty, and segregation, the results of social injustice, which to a great extent cause high indices of social discontent and violent conflict.

By its etymology, from the Latin equitas, equality implies the idea of relation and harmony between something and that which belongs to it, and adapts to its intimate nature. In this case, and according to what was stated in the UNESCO Manifesto, stipulating that the public library must provide its services on the basis of equality of access for everyone, what concerns this type of library is its service to distinct community groups.

This situation which worries many Latin American librarians, is what will be dealt with in this speech, in order to demonstrate how the library of a Family Compensation Bureau in Medellín, Colombia, faces this duality: Attention to students or attention to the rest of the citizens.


Colombia is a democratic republic with a population of 40,925,138. Territorially it is divided into 32 departments. Medellín, the country's second largest city, is the capital of the Department of Antioquia. The physical, economic, social, and cultural integration of Medellín with the neighboring municipalities has led to the conformation of a Metropolitan Area with a total population of 2,958,450.

Like most Latin American countries, Colombia lacks a broad library tradition; however, two events that took place in Medellín during the 50's led Antioquia to become a department with better conditions in the library field, within the national context. These two events were, in order: The creation, by UNESCO in 1954, of the Pilot Public Library of Medellín for Latin America; and the establishment in 1956, of the University of Antioquia Interamerican School of Library Science, with the support of the OAS and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Public library infrastructure in Medellín and the Metropolitan Area is made up of 38 public libraries, of which 17 depend on the government and 21 on the private sector, specifically on the Family Compensation Bureaus.


Since 1957, all Colombian companies must, by law, pay some contribution or extra tax designated for the social security of their employees. This money is received by the Family Compensation Bureaus to be distributed in the form of a monetary subsidy among lowest income workers, and as services for healthcare, housing, education, recreation, travel, and public libraries, among the affiliated workers and their families.

The Family Compensation Bureaus are, therefore, private social security entities that work in different fields to improve the quality of life of the Colombian people.

In Colombia, there currently are 62 Family Compensation Bureaus that own 150 public libraries distributed throughout the country. Although belonging to the private sector, these libraries serve the whole community and are part of the Colombian Network of Public Libraries. In this system, they work hand in hand with the country's other public libraries which the Ministry of Culture coordinates.

COMFENALCO is one of the Family Compensation Bureaus that operates in the country, and that has on its own library system. The Culture and Library Department, as it is called within COMFENALCO, is still young, not yet being 20 years old. Its center of activity lies in Antioquia, with a population of 5,333,820, approximately 56% of which live in the capital, Medellín, and its Metropolitan Area.

The fact that this system of public libraries originated in a Family Compensation Bureau which has as its raison d'etre the well-being of the workers and their families, set standards for beginning to work with a public different from school children. However, in spite of the effort to attract other population segments, in the Comfenalco public libraries school age children occupy not only a large percentage of physical space, but also a large portion of the human and bibliographic resources, similar to what happens in most public libraries in the country.

Given these circumstances, what is to be done then, in a public library system, in order to detect and satisfy the information needs of other groups within the community, if the students' demands absorb all the efforts? In this sense, it is necessary for the library to assume one of the following alternatives:

  1. To serve the school sector, modeling library service offerings towards existing demand, while keeping a public label although its nature is scholarly.
  2. To serve the school sector, while at the same time investigating and developing different services for this same segment, in order to satisfy its informational, recreational, and cultural needs.
  3. To serve the school sector and simultaneously initiate services to other population groups, emphasizing those activities that in one way or another stimulate the need for creation of school libraries.
  4. To adopt a drastic attitude and prohibit the use of the library as a school library.

The second and third alternatives were chosen by COMFENALCO's Culture and Library Department as the most viable ones, since it cannot be denied that support of formal education seems at present to be, given existing circumstances, a priority. Nevertheless, it cannot be forgotten that the public library must be the information center for all those groups of the population that are not enrolled in formal educational programs, and that it has, above all, a commitment that cannot be postponed or transferred, that no other agency or organization in society can fulfill in its place: To serve as the connection between the individual and reading.

How can we turn these ideas, arising from work discussions and shaped on paper, into a reality? Without a doubt, we are facing a complex problem in which many factors intervene that will only be solved by increasing efforts, while not supressing opportunities.

Working with other publics, and at the same time satisfying other types of information needs of the school population, implied many decisions and some changes in COMFENALCO's library services: Primarily, a change in the way the public library is viewed and a rethinking of every-day work; changes in the type of personnel required to face new responsibilities; in the preparation and in the search for spaces inside and outside the libraries for offering new services; in the criteria and in the structuring of collection development policies that meet new demands, and in an administrative structure that implements actions based on common principles, reasoned efforts and which will be capable of responding to new challenges.

Various environments, the neighborhoods where the libraries are located, their spaces, and particular conditions, have molded and adjusted the strategies for action presented next. Some of these strategies are traditional, and some are original, born from specific needs. Each one has its own dimension and corresponds to a period of the work done to bring the individual closer to reading and to information.


Making sure that books and reading are present where people live -on the street, at work, in stores, in the park, at school, etc.- is one of the roads which has been traveled in order to reach different publics and to cause even school age children to chance upon reading material in different parts of the city.

Park Book Stops, known as PPP, is a book lending program located in parks or public spaces, with the purpose of satisfying the recreational reading interests of children, adolescents and adults. This program was conceived by the Reading Promotion Foundation in Colombia, Fundalectura; COMFENALCO is in charge of taking them to the various communities in Antioquia. The PPPs are made up of weather resistant metallic structures, each one with a collection of 300 books, billboard, benches and all the necessary elements for offering a book lending service. The PPP's extends to neighborhood residents and area workers the possibility of free, economical and spontaneous access to books.

Offering reading material in the same place people work is another way of increasing the possibilities of access to reading. This is how the Traveling Boxes service for companies has been established. Boxes containing collections of 50 or more books are rotated periodically and subjects solicited by workers are included, if possible, as long as these represent a recreational option, and not an extension of the company's working activities.

Some companies request this service because their employees work far from the city, others do so in order to offer the worker entertainment during shift changes. Sometimes the presence of the Traveling Box has been reinforces by talks about the reading process and with oral readings of some of the material. This modality, which has been one of the quietest actions in the city's reading promotion, yields marvelous results, since it makes it easier for workers, at their work place, to have access to diverse reading materials, giving them the opportunity for formation as autonomous readers. The knowledge acquired by workers causes repercussions on the company and the company on society.

The search for readers led the Culture and Library Department to participate in a library project at the Medellín Book Fair. Beneath a large white tent, the Library Circus was organized. It was a space that fostered a non commercial relationship with books and a distinct view of the fair where children, adolescent and adults established a spontaneous and pleasant relationship with reading through workshops, encounters with writers, oral readings, story hours and even story museums, in which representative objects of classic children's stories were gathered. The convocative power that the fair has and the proportions of the project have made it possible to explore mass activities and to test and develop an alternative working model used later in other projects.

Another project that propitiates the encounter with books is the so called Bibliocorner. A collection of books and materials of interest to children, adolescents and adults, is taken to a fixed site at the same time each week, generally to a neighborhood store. It remains there during fixed periods, lending books and receiving suggestions which are responded to in subsequent visits. The recurrent presence of this activity and its continuity creates expectations among the public, in addition to becoming a showcase that encourages many people to visit the library.

Other programs that try to broaden circuits for the circulation of books in places other than the library are Book Tables, Biblioparks, and Neighborhood Readings, among others. These, and all the previously mentioned activities show that well chosen reading materials in diverse formats capture readers.

In order to create autonomous readers, the libraries not only highlight a broad and unrestricted program of lending reading materials, but also provide diverse and versatile activities, trying to reach all possible publics in order to establish links between them and reading materials.

The real challenge for the public library is to stop being compliant, contenting itself with that group of privileged people already acquainted with its services, and to try to approach that other sector of the population which, for the most part, does not believe the library can be of any use to them, or even worse, has no knowledge of its existence.


Conscious that the information generated by the communities where libraries are immersed should be rescued, gathered, organized, and made known, information services are offered with information for the local community. This service is known as SIC, Community Information Service.

SIC was put together based on service structured by the Autonomous National Library Institute of Venezuela, and UNESCO. The Service concentrates on the areas of education, health, transportation, procedures, tourism, and cultural activity.

The information gathered from the community is returned to it from diverse service points located in the libraries, and from an information kiosk located on a downtown street in Medellín. Information is also distributed through a series of publications about the city, such as the Guide to Procedures for living in within Society, the Auditorium Guide, and the Guide to Where to Make Complaints in Medellín. Recently, the Public Library and Democracy brochure aimed at the country's mayors, was published in association with Fundalectura and the Ministry of Culture. It highlights the importance of information services to the community as basic tools for strengthening cultural identity and community participation.

A monthly meeting space, known as Let's Talk about Medellín, is also offered, where the city's problems and new projects are debated and discussed. A Cultural Message Box service has also been organized, which gathers and distributes information given out regarding the city's cultural activity, by means of leaflets, pamphlets and posters.


One of the persistent purposes of COMFENALCO libraries is that teachers have gratifying reading experiences which motivate them to stimulate their students and to push for library projects within their educational establishments.

With this aim in mind, a Teacher Formation Program has been structured, constituted by four twelve-hour levels. In these, the conceptualization of reading, promoting and encouraging reading; the criteria for selecting children's and adolescent's books; various activities for encouragement and promotion that can be implemented; and the performance of institutional reading promoting projects are studied. These courses are directed towards all the educators of a given institution. The methodology employed includes oral readings, team projects, workshops, display of materials, exhibitions, video and slide presentations, and lending books to take home, among other activities.

The teachers who attend the program keep the respective course manual and book collection which are to be rotated among them throughout the year.

The schools within the radius of action by the libraries receive a lot of support from them not only by means of collections and programs for the formation of teachers and librarians, but also by means of special counseling for the establishment and development of their own school libraries. Reading promotion committees for teachers have also been created, with the help of representatives from the educational establishments of the zone, for the purpose of bringing them up to date on library programs, and to improve the collections lent to schools through the Traveling Box service.

In order to encourage educators with their reading promotion programs, a space called Reading Promotion Actions: Other Voices, has been created for them, in which teachers have the opportunity to tell the community what they are doing to create reading habits in their establishments.


Culture, traditionally related to art in its conception and practice, has won in COMFENALCO, the space for more universal acceptance which is defined by the merger of material production and creation and human spirituality.

Based on this conception, the libraries of COMFENALCO acknowledge each person as a generator of culture, by striving to share the community's social development through a complete program of evaluation, communication, stimulation, and promotion of culture.

Therefore, the libraries offer a series of diversified, accessible, and quality activities. Their services acquire a broader scope with programs that complement the formation of readers. Among these are included movie forums, poetry recitals, concerts, book launchings, and exhibitions about literature, art, personalities, and general interest themes, which are rotated among the various libraries.

An annual photography contest has also been instituted. It includes a special category called The Pleasure of Reading, motivating photographers to present images which register the interest, habit, action, or attitude towards reading, and the social, human, intellectual, or affective conditions that serve in this context . The winning photographs in this category are then used by the library to illustrate its promotional materials.

Similarly, the video contest regarding Medellín, "To See You Better ", is designed to encourage the gathering of audiovisual material about the city, in order to create a specialized collection that strengthens the cultural identity of the community, starting from its audiovisual memory.


In Colombia, as in the majority of Latin American countries, technology reached the university and specialized libraries first. In public libraries, with some exceptions, it is just now arriving. Though recognizably a recently launched project, it is becoming a reality by means of online catalog searches, the use of CDs, the Internet, and, in the best of cases, networking.

Free access to these technologies from the public library compensates to some extent for the scarce opportunities of those persons not enrolled in formal education programs, who because of limited economic capacity, would not be able to become acquainted with or have access to these developments.

Institutional conditions at the COMFENALCO Library Department favor the development of information transmission technologies, as in the case of the electronic library, allowing the use of non-traditional informational support, and teaching the use of the Internet and other information search tools.

Projects for erecting multimedia kiosks with local information databases, within reach of all the people that use mass systems of transportation, are currently underway. This will be a contribution by the public library to the democratization of information and reading.

A public library should not just comply by facilitating free access to information through modern technologies. It should equally form autonomous, critical, and universal readers, more and more selective in the face of the cumulation of information that is generated daily.


Public libraries resort to the media more and mores in order to achieve various purposes, among which are their positions within the public, communication of coming events, communication of messages, and increased coverage. The Culture and Library Department, conscious of the power and impact exerted by the media and of the large public they can reach, has collaborated for the past six years in the children's magazine of El Colombiano, Antioquia's most important newspaper and second largest in the country with a daily circulation 80,000. This medium is utilized by COMFENALCO as a guide to the vast world of children's literature.. Even though the magazine is designed for children, little by little it has become a selection tool that leads parents and teachers through the theme of literature for children and adolescents.

Another fundamental contribution of the media to the strengthening of libraries is the creation of pubic opinion, which contributes directly to communication between public and private institutions and generates support from the community. Through information about programs and services from public libraries, these position themselves as basic services for the development of the community they address.


COMFENALCO attempts to achieve equality with its libraries by incorporating them, together with health, housing, recreational and educational services as a fundamental element that contributes to the improvement of the quality of life of the community. Library services have been designed, then, with pluralist and flexible criteria, and with diverse proposals on such important fronts as reading, information, and culture.

It has assumed a permanent commitment, the creation and revision of national information and reading policies, and their materialization in the design and supply of basic library services, such as to public and school libraries, with a solid evolution for every one of them, and by articulating public library projects within the development programs of the countries of the continent. It decidedly supports the obtainment of equal access to information in socioeconomic conditions such as those experienced by most Latin American countries.

This is the commitment of COMFENALCO's public libraries, and we hope it is the same in other public libraries of Latin America.