A Walk in the Park – learning from South America’s public library revolution

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Libraries as open, airy public spaces, flowing seamlessly into green outdoor public amenities. Placing the individual at their centre and designed to provide whatever the public wants in terms of learning and cultural opportunities.

Places where you can go just to feel the cool air conditioning or even sleep without being disturbed, but where members of staff will proactively engage you with the resources available when they can.

Open and engaging architecture with site-specific artworks and access to cutting edge technology in the poorest, most disadvantaged city neighbourhoods. It sounds like a futuristic utopian dream of the public library service… and it sort of is.

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(Image: Wikipedia Commons, Parque Biblioteca España in Medellin, Colombia)

The Colombian city of Medellin has started a wave of public library development across South America.

The idea is simple: to create attractive, world class internal and external public spaces that seamlessly join together. To offer people opportunities to experience culture and learning in some of the poorest urban areas on the continent.

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(Image: Wikipedia Commons, Parque Biblioteca La Ladera, Medellin, Colombia)

As the Mayor of Medellin puts it:

“The park libraries are cultural centers for social development that encourage citizen encounters, educational and recreational activities, building groups, the approach to the new challenges in digital culture. And they are also spaces for cultural services that allow cultural creation and strengthening of existing neighborhood organizations.” (source: Wikipedia)

When I read that, it really sounds like something we all need… but what is even more remarkable is the context in which this work is taking place. Other countries across the continent, including Brazil, have taken up the challenge of creating world class public libraries and public spaces in deprived areas with the kinds of challenges that would turn our blood cold in the UK.

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Only 26% of the Brazilian population is fully literate. The infrastructural issues in addressing this level of need in a population of over 200 million spread over the fifth largest country in the world are huge. However, the work is already beginning in the favelas of Rio and São Paulo with the opening of new Park LIbraries.

Brazil doesn’t have a strong reading culture. Vera Saboya, Director of the new Rio State Public Library, expressed the challenge:

“Recently, when the Government of the State of Rio de Janeiro opened some Park Libraries over the city and the investments on these spaces were announced, people were often heard complaining that no one would be interested in books, that these spaces would stay empty… To the surprise of all, the spaces were immediately embraced by the communities, with a huge number of borrowed books, lots of research into the collection and many children and young people hanging around, with nothing to do, but to enjoy the peaceful and neutral environment. A new space was being launched, an almost revolutionary experience”

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(Image: Biblioteca Parque Estadual Rio de Janeiro)

As she says “people are hungry for moments of non-productive leisure, of creative idleness”.

I absolutely love this characterisation of the public library purpose – especially in a country where even finding volunteers to support professional public library staff is a huge challenge due to economic necessities which mean that ‘leisure time’ is a rare luxury for most.

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(A children’s story-telling session in the Biblioteca São Paulo)

In São Paulo, the Biblioteca São Paulo and the newly landscaped ‘Park of Youth’ have been constructed on the site of the infamous Carandiru Penitentiary where, in 1992, 111 prisoners died in a massacre by military police. Adriana Cybele Ferrari, Director of the new library described the challenge for this new library as:

“To build a library that could symbolize a new era for our State System of Public Libraries… To do something that could change the “face” of the libraries and how they are seen and noticed by the community. And also, to break the stigma that Brazilians do not get interested in reading and culture.”  

It goes without saying that the library hopes to promote reading and writing – however, and I think this is the key point, Park Libraries aren’t designed around the books and information resources, they’re designed around people, as Ms Ferrari puts it:

“I believe that… the [Park] libraries have been trying to create a space for integration of people, not books. The best place is destined for each user to find out more about himself within this universe, which is primarily focused on reading and writing skills… but also tries to integrate the different kinds of reading around the world, either through image, movement, music or dance.”

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(Members of the public enjoying a free theatrical performance at Biblioteca São Paulo)

The park library is designed to meet people’s desire to engage with culture through multiple channels. It has a recording studio, cinema, free wifi access and facilitated activities and performances as well as up to date IT (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in the IT infrastructure in the Park Libraries in Colombia).

Biblioteca São Paulo is attempting to address the barrier of low literacy levels in the population by using digital technologies to convert any book that a member of the public brings to the library into an audio-book in one working day.

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(A paper aeroplane flies above readers heads in the Biblioteca São Paulo)

In the Biblioteca Parque Estadual in Rio de Janeiro there are books flying through the air above people’s heads; giant books  standing on their ends that are playthings and imaginary houses; books hanging from a magical book tree in the children’s section and toys alongside books in the section for very young children. The whole space feels irreverent and playful. They have gone to great lengths to demystify the public library space, making it open and accessible to as many people as possible.

I love the creative energy in these spaces, the recognition of the need for a civic space just to dream, to be a non-productive citizen, to simply be – but also to be open to new experiences, new ideas and new ways of being.

People love these spaces too, they flock to them and the case is being made for more and more to be built.

I love the combination of external and internal civic spaces and the format agnosticism of these cultural experiences.

I also love the no-holds-barred creative optimism – linked with a realistic understanding of what people want and need, rather than what they ought to have.

South America’s park libraries – magical realism at it’s very best.

(Cover image: Biblioteca São Paulo)

Thanks:

I would like to thank Felipe Arruda of the British Council in Brazil for his help in putting me in touch with the Directors of Biblioteca São Paulo and Biblioteca Estadual Parque Rio de Janeiro and for translating their responses to my questions. 

The British Council is working with partners such as the National Literacy Trust and the Reading Agency in Britain to develop joint projects to promote literacy and a reading culture in Brazil.

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When is a mobile library not a mobile library?

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When it’s a travelling circus, tardis-like time machine, miniature world fair, fold-away workshop or peripatetic emporium of technology. (For more options, see this blog post by tinyme: http://www.tinyme.com/blog/10-must-see-mobile-libraries/).

Or alternatively, when the service has been cancelled because it’s not cost-effective.

The traditional image (reality?) of the mobile library in England is a slightly tatty bus with a limited stock selection and possibly a single computer with wifi connection. It’s often a bit of a millstone around the local authority’s neck – an expensive service that is hard to maintain and used by relatively few people… but if withdrawn it leaves some rural areas feeling they are without a physical library service at all.

You may call me Pollyanna, but I don’t see it that way. To me the mobile library has incredible potential to be an engaging, exciting and unique cultural experience for the public it serves.

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(Image: Book Mobile, Jonathan Dueck)

I see a buzz of excitement as the brightly coloured, eccentrically shaped customised vehicles roll into small towns, villages and deprived suburbs. I see vivid mobile sculptures unfolding from roofs and pop-up tents bursting out of doors. I see storytellers and performers setting up intimate shows and workshops for rural communities.

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(Image: , Colourful Mobile Library, Ikhlasul Amal)

I see community book sharing and imaginatively curated book collections – in the evening I see book clubs and writing clubs taking over the space and writing recommendation cards for other readers to find in the books they have read (or written). I see outdoor cinemas and intimate film screenings of BFI collections by virtual film clubs networked across the local authority, just like the Finnish mobile library showcased in this year’s IFLA conference:

“Välkky is a unique Mobile Library in Espoo, Finland. In addition to the traditional lending stock the bus has a wide range of interactive media. In the mornings the Mobile library visits schools and kindergartens as a modern children´s library. In the afternoons and evenings Välkky can function as a Writer´s bus, a movie theatre, a multimedia workshop, a meeting place for a book club or a handicraft group for adult clients” (IFLA Conference 2014: http://www.ifla.org/files/assets/public-libraries/publications/day_1_10.45_-_eva_wilenius1.pdf)

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(Kajaani Mobile library, Wikimedia Commons)

I see mobile makerlabs and interactive play emporiums/libraries/activities sponsored by local children’s services, just like this Pop Up Parks one being piloted in a Design Council and Guy’s and St Thomas Charity project in Southwark right now: http://thekneehighproject.com/2014/08/26/team-update-pop-up-parks-5/

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(image courtesy of Pop Up Parks)

I see travelling interactive art and museum exhibitions, like those curated by Isis Arts in their bespoke mobile arts space: http://www.isisarts.org.uk/the-big-m

And of course, me being me, I see robotics kits and learning tools for all ages to find out how to make as well as use  technology.

I also daydream and wonder about partnering with local retailers to transport affordable fruit and vegetables to communities that don’t have access to them on their doorstep, delivering health information services for local PCTs, partnering with blood banks and adult education services, homes for the elderly and services for disabled people to provide economies of scale and a service that people will queue round the block to experience.

The business model for a mobile library is tricky, but it can’t be impossible, especially if it provides the rustle and hum of excitement of the travelling circus when it comes to town.

(Cover photo: The small enchanted circus at night… Cosmonautirussi)