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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 147-121-E
Division Number: VI
Professional Group: Library Buildings and Equipment
Joint Meeting with:
Meeting Number: 121
Simultaneous Interpretation: Yes

Public libraries in Portugal : the silent revolution

Ana Maria Runkel
Public Library of Oeiras
Oeiras, Portugal


    "Almost always installed in old, narrow and uncomfortable buildings, they are considered solemn places, for elects only, or reading rooms occupied by high school students.
    Libraries with free shelf access are rare, and those where borrowing is a common practice are scarce.
    Sums for the acquisition are spent only on celebration dates, usually with no local meaning and always too elitist or erudite, distant from the real interests of the population.
    In short, we do not possess a real system of public libraries, but a set of deadly institutions, with no relation whatsoever between them and the environment".

A Leitura Pública em Portugal: Manifesto. Cadernos de Biblioteconomia, Arquivistica e Documentação, Lisboa, 1983, p.11-14.

    "They are open door libraries, the new generation ones. Dull spaces with posters imposing silence, cards and bureaucracy to request books are over. Self-service is a reality today. Actually, everything can be touched and used. Everything is displaced in an organised manner. Everything is alive. From the children's section, ateliers, audio, video and multimedia area, computer and Internet area, to bars and auditoriums".

O Portugal que deu certo - Visão, nº356, 6 Jan 2000, p.22-28

Seventeen years separate these two statements. In-between, there were historic moments to testify the persistence of a group of "resistants", who have refused to accept immobility, the fate that "...it has always been like this, it is impossible to change", the conscience / vision that the destiny of a people is outlined also by its capacity to endure, by the awareness of the fight for the right to education and information.

For this group, public libraries had a say in the process of our country's evolution. Already in 1958, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (private institution), has called upon her the responsibility to guarantee the creation of a system of itinerant libraries, which covered the country to render an historical service. This movement made possible for millions of people (particularly young people), isolated in the rural country, to access the imaginary of letters for the first time, to discover another world full of differences and to fulfil their wish for more knowledge.

However, it was not enough. An action from the government was indispensable as a testimony of a nation who voted for democracy. In 1986, by the Secretaria de Estado da Cultura, a Public Library Working Group was finally created, to prepare a report on the "state of the arts" (Decree Nr. 23/86) This extremely important report for the development of Public Libraries in Portugal aimed at defining the support of a national policy for public reading, which would "essentially be based on the regular and efficient establishment and operation of a net of Municipal Libraries, and on structural development" which, at central and local level, could more directly support them.

This work, which suggested immediate intervention measures, besides conceptual and programmatic guidelines on libraries to be created, lead to the preparation of a public reading plan, in 1987, through the Instituto Português do Livro e da Leitura (Portuguese Institute for Reading and Books). The creation of a net of Public Reading Libraries was thus proposed, based upon the municipality which includes a Municipal Library, located at its headquarters, in the central area or another highly populated area, and Branches in different areas, according to the number and distribution of the population.

Tenders (8 to date), which determine an application process to the National Net of Public Libraries, from the municipalities wanting to establish a local net of public reading libraries, are periodically submitted.

Together with the Instituto Português do Livro e das Bibliotecas (entity with authority over this program), and other bodies of the Central Administration (for example, Regional Coordination Committees), the municipalities selected are expected to plan the creation and development of all libraries projected based upon a program contract.

Under the contract signed between Central and Local Administration, several rigorous demands must be met before the payment of 50% of the project costs for architecture, building/buildings adaptation, equipment acquisition, document funds, service computerisation and training workshops is granted.

The municipalities apply to one of the programs defined by a library typology, determined by the size of the population. This typology compels that specific characteristics are met regarding size areas to be respected, equipment and services, collection (books and non-books material), and minimum staff required at the Library (see the developed typology enclosed).

Table 1

This policy of stimulating the establishment of municipality nets of Public Libraries, which started in 1987, show remarkable results:

The establishment of municipality nets of Public Libraries

From the 287 Municipalities in Portugal (not including the islands of Madeira and Azores), 188 (65 %) have or are preparing to have a Library.

Implementation of the net:

Implementation of the net, Evolution

In 2000, the Portuguese government made a commitment that all municipalities should have a Public Library before 2003. The estimate for the total financing of this program is 175 million Euros from the Ministério da Cultura, amounting to 50% of the total investment.

This revolution, which started about thirteen years ago, is leaving visible marks in the urban tissue (due to the aesthetically pleasant buildings designed) and in the social tissue (due to the discovery and consumption which can be witnessed in large fringes of the population).

Some indicators confirm this statement and show an extraordinary evolution.

Registered Members for Portugal

Loans in Portugal

(1) In: Milleminum Study

In a study on a Library outside the capital (Oeiras - new library opened in 1996) it was possible to witness a surprising evolution at the level of users who look for Library services.

Number of Visits

At the level of institutional importance of library services, there has been an increase, which lifted the library from non-existence on functional organisation charts, to its establishment as a Division on the same level as other more traditional municipality sectors, such as sanitation, housing or planning. This situation allows to obtain a budget for the service, as well as the possibility of intervening/influencing strategic options. In short, the library is slowly gaining visibility, basic condition to be able to influence and emphasise the principles it is entrusted with.

Likewise, this policy has had a multiplying effect at influencing the creation of somewhat similar programs, such as a line of action for the restructuring of Archives (1998) and a program for the establishment of a net of School Libraries (1997). The model adopted is similar, the Central government acting as a catalyst in the process of renewing these services. A program for the financing of the reconstruction/adaptation of space, equipment, furniture, documentation and computing system offers the local authority the possibility, to progress in the (re)building of these knowledge institutions.

When trying to briefly assess the situation of Public Libraries in Portugal in the year 2000, we can say that:

Their strengths ...

  • Strong commitment from the central government to create conditions for modernising public reading.

  • Progressive sensitisation of politicians for the importance of investing in public reading libraries.

  • Creation of services directed to the community (Information services to citizens, promotion of books and reading, training in the area of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), special services for babies, handicapped, socially excluded, elderly, minorities).

  • Innovative and multiplying project at national level, with growing positive image in the media at national level, and the professional community at international level.

Their weaknesses ...

  • Too strong growth in launching the support program, fragility in the number of human resources available.

  • Politicians interest based essentially upon "building construction".

  • Scattering of the investment aggravated by the lack of adequate resources to the development of these programs.

Their opportunities ...

  • Create a large group of professionals and develop training centres.

  • Promote a campaign / lobby directed to politicians and the community in general, on the importance of public reading and its determining role in the Information Society.

  • Creation of a national or regional plan for the co-operation among libraries/municipalities, outlining common strategies of action in the approach of problems which transversely affect the whole society

Their threats ...

  • To compromise the efficient exploitation of existing material resources.

  • Small investment in service maintenance, which can compromise its evolution.

  • To supply non-efficient services and lose the historic opportunity of acting and making a difference among the population.

The current turning point makes us aware of the urgent need to be actors, creators and promoters of our scene on the stage. The evolution tends to gain a dazzling speed, making us run the risk of not taking time to reflect and of acting automatically and without critical sense. However, good sense and the love for what we have been achieving makes us say that we will progressively find our way.

In a country where illiteracy reached 33% in 1960 and 8% in 1999, where education costs in the same period raised from 1,5% to 6% and the number of high school students raised from 8.000 to 400.000, libraries are surely part of the silent revolution, which is slowly being built and growing stronger to give the country the destiny it desires.


Some examples of how dreams came true

The creation or adaptation of a library destined for public reading involves a joint effort between political power, the determinant of investment, and staff (architects, engineers and librarians) who contribute with their imagination and specific knowledge.
From these synergies result both good and average projects although there's a constant struggle to guarantee the fulfilment of the public cause's goals.

The typology supplied by the IPLB determines, guides and controls the basic underlying principles. Thus, it allows the implementation of a widely tested model (nowadays it results from working upon national experiences and service evolution whereas in previous years the French model played a crucial role). It is important to note that the success of a model goes beyond its application: there's a constant need to adapt each model to its surrounding reality.

In a preliminary phase the project requires the formation of a multidisciplinary team including elements from both the central and local administration, librarians, architects and engineers who share a common language and a vision built upon a variety of motivations. The selection of the site, be it for construction or adaptation purposes, should take into account both its mainstream location and accessibility. Besides this, the site selection must allow for the application of guidelines regarding library dimensions and correct functioning, having to respect base-line figures (see attached tables).

One can say most libraries belonging to the net of Public Reading Libraries devise their entrance hall as a central organisational point from where a series of services are carried on:

  • an area designed for adults offers loaning services, in-place browsing, access to reference books and periodical publications;

  • an area designed for youngsters offers similar services, yet specially devised for the different age groups in addition to animation activities;

  • finally, one may find a common area or an auditorium where multiple cultural activities may be carried out (e.g. exhibitions, colloquies, meetings with writers and other individualities).

Some libraries also possess a cafeteria which, when well managed, may help attract users making them want to return. Existing internal service areas are aimed at responding to emerging challenges in the management field, being it worthwhile to note the existence of a growing book deposit area.

In what concerns the construction or recovery of the library building, there is usually the need to consider and respect the environmental characteristics as well as specific features related both to the relevant region and its related population. With respect to library facilities, a natural concern should go towards the following aspects:

  • easy accessibility, taking into account the need to eliminate architectonic barriers which may difficult the access of the disabled;

  • acclimation conditions, in an attempt to create ecological buildings, this way benefiting from construction types;

  • lighting characteristics, to ensure both the quality of research conditions and the successful use of the different types of services;

  • the guarantee of developing an information technology and communications network which enables continual growth, thus responding to increasing ICT demand.

Another decisive step in the building of a library is the selection of its equipment and furniture.

A joint effort between the librarian's know-how and the architect's aesthetic perspective has allowed for a merge between these languages which complete each other giving rise to attractive projects capable of generating satisfaction among community members.

The selection of furniture constitutes one of the most important phases in this process. Finding a balance between the available budget and the design and utility of the several pieces of furniture has constituted a serious challenge already overcome by many libraries. This project has attempted to create attractive, ergonomic and welcoming spaces where community members may find an inviting atmosphere.

The solutions associated with the purchase of technological equipment like PC's, printers or scanners, be it for technical or reference work, Internet use or development of individual projects have progressively been altered. Thus, one intends to meet the growing need and interest of applying ICT in society.

Similarly, the initial bet involving the existence of video spots has given way to the development of self-learning areas based on ICT. An area which still stands is that involving the audition of audio CD's, although the option of these being loaned has reduced the growing trend.

This whole process leads to a permanent need to be in touch with social and cultural trends as well as to deal with changing, dynamic information. Consequently, nowadays, the tendency is to withdraw physical barriers between library activities/areas.

Once the sight is chosen, the construction guaranteed, the equipment and furniture bought, the next step is to put the library to work, to move on from the project to reality. A library has to be organized taking into account the needs of both its external and internal users. The magic words that guarantee a successful outcome are frequently difficult to find; one must be constantly alert and have the courage to put aside some of the initial conjectures envisaged by the ideal library.

A library is never concluded. As it's being created it gains a life of its own; just like when Geppetto envisaged Pinocchio, we, who contribute towards the construction of these entities have to be conscious of our limited influence as we transform simple matter into an identifiable piece. While gaining form, a library seems to breath from the atmosphere where it was born, from the mood of its workers , from the way in which it is handled. Observing closely each and every one of these entities, it is possible to identify the influences of several different jobs, nevertheless, each library will have to develop, adapting itself to its inhabitants. Just like the body is a result of that it ingests, the library develops to be what its occupants make of it. It's our obligation to guarantee such evolution as well as to make available our contribution in an attempt to satisfy a variety of participants.

Ideal projects don't exist, only feasible ones testify the involvement of different interveners, the capacity to communicate (more than 10 years gone since the beginning of this project have shown how distinct participants learn to respect and accept what each one has to say), as well as the assembling of deeply committed teams, both formed and informed, about clients' interests.

Each library's development challenges our capacity to evolve from dreams to reality. Formulae for ideal dreams aren't available. Only hints may be given, yet each one of us will be expected to develop a specific course of action, knowing the work in progress is destined for others. Our capacity to envisage the fulfilment of our final users' expectations, be these real or potential, encloses the secret for success.



Annex [Adobe PDF]


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