In Central America, Community-Minded Libraries Become Community Funded: Report on Guatemala and Honduras Libraries

Article excerpt

The homicide rate in Honduras is among the highest in the world. Decades of corruption have gnawed through government and police forces from top to bottom. Trafficking of cocaine and other drugs--destined for Mexico and the United States--is rampant, as is underemployment throughout the country. And as in any culture, Honduran children are especially at risk, given the environment that surrounds them.

"Honduran libraries are working to get kids off the street," said Dagoberto Licona Cortes, mayor of San Vicente Centenario. "We want to see kids more interested in acting on behalf of their communities and less interested in drugs and alcohol. Children can change their way of thinking when they have access to leadership programs at libraries."

Cortes is not referring to government-managed public libraries, but rather to a network of 64 independent community libraries in remote villages of Honduras and Guatemala, where many people live on less than $2 a day. For the past dozen years, these libraries, which were established by the Frances and Henry Riecken Foundation, have fostered a movement of democracy, transparency, and citizen participation as an alternative to the often chaotic and lawless reality that reigns throughout the region. It is a movement that has seen good times, and now, during a period of severe financial challenge, is redefining itself in order to emerge from several difficult years.

The foundation came about thanks to Allen Andersson, a wealthy American businessman, and his wife Susan Riecken. During a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Honduras in the mid-1960s, Andersson learned that the nation's rural residents needed basics: food, medicine, schools, fertilizer, honest government, good jobs, and more. But for An.dersson, giving rural villagers access to information so they could play a key role in their own community development was a more empowering strategy to help alleviate poverty.

Andersson went on to become a multimillionaire, and along with Riecken decided to commit more than $10 million of their fortune to build and manage community libraries in Central America. In 2000, Andersson founded the Frances and Henry Riecken Foundation, a private organization that built the network of Riecken Community Libraries. The foundation recruited local volunteer library board members and trained staff members in a way that vastly differed from traditional government-run public libraries in Central America.

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Riecken Community Libraries have been promoting open stacks that allow patrons to browse books and take them home (in contrast to the traditional Central American style of "protecting" collections from patrons by keeping them in areas accessible only to library staff). Riecken libraries have also developed programs and outreach initiatives to encourage a love of reading, as well as critical thinking and leadership skills in a culture where rote memorization is the norm.

In an effort to promote financial transparency, many of the libraries' boards publicly post their monthly financial information to encourage government transparency elsewhere. Riecken libraries also host book clubs; infant nutrition programs for new mothers; and programs to reach farmers, aspiring entrepreneurs, and indigenous girls, who are often denied access to a formal education.

Andersson paid for every bit of the libraries' funding from his own pocket, which averaged more than $500,000 per year. Then, in 2008, he lost everything because of the global economic crisis.

Concerned with how to keep the libraries operating, Andersson desperately scrambled to turn his sole-donor-funded model into one that had a more diverse base of supporters, initiated the process of changing the private foundation's status to that of a nonprofit, and requested support from local municipal governments in Guatemala and Honduras. …