From cataloguing books to training users how to blog

At least six times a week, Gabriel Venegas, a dedicated and underpaid librarian in Medellin, Colombia, rises from bed while the world outside is still dark royal blue and heavy with the silence of early morning to in order to make the 45-minute bus ride that begins in the valley center and eventually climbs up the city’s northern slope to the isolated community of San Javier La Loma.

Five years ago it was Vanegas’ responsibility to make sure that the library’s book collection was catalogued and well-organized. Occasionally he would help a young student research a topic for a school paper or recommend one of Colombia’s famous national poets to a local lover of literature. Today, in contrast, nearly all of Vanegas’ library users are in search of the same thing: free access to the Internet. The 11 desktop computers which take up over half the real estate of the small satellite library aren’t filled just with chat windows and flash video games. Vanegas has been training a group of 15 – 20 of his most frequent visitors how to use WordPress to publish their stories, poems, and reflections; as well as Windows Movie Maker to produce short documentaries about their community.

The shift in Vanegas’ work schedule is representative of a larger trend taking place at libraries large and small from the southern tip of Chile to the Siberian tundra of Russia. Public libraries are no longer just points of reception; they are transforming into centers of transmission and communication, where local users take advantage of increasingly affordable digital cameras and free online tools to write and share their own local stories.

From local content to globally-connected local content

For Enzo Abbagliati, the coordinator of Chile’s national library network, public libraries can play an important part in promoting the production of local content. It was this belief that lead to the launch of Contenidos Locales, or “Local Content”, a web authoring platform similar to Geocities which was launched in 2002, allowing Chilean library users to fill in HTML templates with photographs and text that describe the customs and culture of where they live.

Examples include Buscando Mis Raices (“Looking for my Roots”) by Rosa Tromilén, which offers a personal history of the Mapuche-majority community Juan Calfumán; Conjunto Folklórico Renacer de Cucao, a youth-group on Chiloé Island dedicated to preserving local folkloric traditions; and the website of the Asociación de Artistas Plásticos de Puerto Montt (“Association of Plastic Artists of Puerto Montt”).

Two weeks ago I was invited by Abbagliati to speak at the fifth annual national meeting of BiblioRedes, Chile’s national library network. On the second day of the meeting, Abbagliati proposed his vision for BiblioRedes over the next two years. He emphasized that just as many ‘visitors’ to libraries would enter through the web portal as through physical doorways. To a burst of roaring applause, he announced that nearly every library – from the southern tip of Patagonia to the northern border with Bolivia and Peru – will be equipped with wi-fi by the end of the year. He also stressed that the internet today is not the same as when Contenidos Locales was launched in 2002. Today’s internet is more social, more immediate, and more participatory than what can be achieved with a simple hyperlink. For Contenidos Locales to stay relevant in the new media ecology, it will need to adapt features including trackbacks, RSS, and comments. Furthermore, computer literacy no longer solely refers to Microsoft Word and Excel. Librarians should incorporate blogging, digital photography, and the use of RSS readers into their computer literacy classes.

Rapid development can lead to frustration

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the 80 or so underpaid and overworked librarians who had gathered at a coastal resort in El Quisco; in part as a reward for all their dedicated work throughout the year. It was just ten years ago that they had to master Microsoft Office in order to teach their users how to write letters and balance budgets. Five years ago they also had to learn HTML. Today, the amount of online tools available is growing exponentially toward infinite. One month they are told to use Picasa to make basic edits to digital photos. The next month it’s Picnik. This week it’s Photoshop Express. Furthermore, the Beta culture of today’s internet means that each week could bring new features that might or might not be exactly what each librarian has been waiting for.

Fernando Juárez, the sole librarian for the small Basque village of Muskiz, says that the youngest users of local libraries are leading a new culture of peer learning and that librarians shouldn’t feel shy about asking someone a quarter their age how to take advantage of new online tools. “To master the social web requires a social model of understanding the tools,” Juárez emphasized. “New tools are constantly released for the same old purpose while old tools are often hacked and modified to serve a completely new purpose.”

Librarians as social activists

In Abbagliati’s closing address he reminded the gathered librarians that every day they open their doors, they are engaging in social activism. Not only is knowledge power, but making one’s voice and opinion heard is the first step toward participatory democracy. By teaching library users, young and old, how to participate in the new media ecology, they will remind Chile’s established digerati that there is so much more to their country than the upper-middle class neighborhoods of Santiago.

No one will ever be completely knowledgeable about every single web 2.0 tool. Most librarians will find themselves several steps behind their youngest visitors. But all librarians have the capacity to motivate and inspire. For Gabriel Vanegas in Colombia, the true power of new media is the ability to recuperate forgotten local stories in a collaborative manner. For his users it means being involved in both local change and a global community. Catalina Restrepo is an 18-year-old student of Social Work at Medellín’s Antioquia University. She is also a resident of San Javier La Loma, a hillside working class town on the outskirts of the city, which was near the epicenter of Medellín’s drug-related violence throughout the 80’s and 90’s; and is where Gabriel Venegas is the local librarian. Last week she wrote a post titled Sobre Bibliotecas (“About Libraries”) on her blog:

Ever since I was a young girl I’ve been a faithful visitor to libraries because I consider them spaces full of tranquility and wisdom, but I’ve always questioned their social purpose. I’ve witnessed the rude treatment of users by some librarians, but then others go out of their way to be kind.

Eventually I came across the proposal of Gabriel Vanegas to form part of ConVerGentes [the group of library users cum local citizen journalists]. And that was how the library that before I only visited to do homework – the same one that I stopped visiting because of the violence in our neighborhood – became something of a third home (mom, if I’m not at home or at the university, I’m in the library), and a space for catharsis with the others from ConVerGentes. Now I go to the library to ask questions, publish posts on my blog, get together with other bloggers, and even to sing songs.

The call for librarians is to make their libraries social spaces of transformation for children, young people, and adults. I think that the task is only possible with sufficient good will.

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