One step ahead of many other developing countries, the progressive South American nation of Uruguay has moved forcefully into the information revolution. During a seven-month visit there in 2001-2002, I had a chance to investigate how this effort has affected its public libraries.
Through the establishment of Bibliored, a new online public library network (www.bibliored.edu.uy), the capital city of Montevideo has taken a giant leap from the technologies of the 1950s to those of the 21st century. Tiny community libraries with humble collections and improvised shelving are now offering computer classes and free Internet access to their patrons, and linking to each other and the world. Their hope is to bridge a severe technology gap in a society where the wealthy are well-connected but the vast majority of families have no computer access at all. Thanks to Bibliored, these libraries now enjoy a previously undreamed-of significance in their communities.
When you step inside the door of the Biblioteca Municipal Javier de Viana, located in the tough working-class neighborhood of the Cerro--the port of entry for Montevideo's many immigrant groups in the last century--the first thing you see is a group of three new computers right inside the front door, always occupied by barrio residents taking classes in Word, Excel, or the Internet, and checking their e-mail. Young computer trainers are right at their side to help when needed.
This library has another entrance: Its web page (www.viana.bibliored.edu.uy) also invites neighbors in. Here the library is represented as the puerta de acceso democratico al conocimiento (door to democratic access to knowledge). It offers information on local cultural events, recommended reading, and free web page hosting for community organizations.
Every day, librarian Fernando Martiarena helps schoolchildren use Microsoft Encarta on CD-ROM or find the latest soccer scores (an Uruguayan mania) on the Internet. He can also help them locate books available at the other city libraries on their online catalog or in virtual publications from all over the world. In the United States, this scenario is unremarkable; but here, where two years previously all this library had to offer was a very small collection of old books amassed largely from donations, and the residents had no access to computers of any kind, it's a match made in heaven. And it's taking place in other libraries all over the city.
The network's origins
Bibliored began to take shape in 1998 when the Franciscan and Ecological Center for Research and Advancement (CIPFE), a nonprofit organization that supports many educational programs in Uruguay, proposed a collaboration with the city libraries to supply computers, printers, Internet connections, teachers, and technicians, if they in turn would provide the facilities and all other support.
At first, the goal was simply to offer computer courses at a nominal cost and Internet access for low-income families. But the librarian initially in charge of the project, Ana Maria Martinez, and her colleagues foresaw enormous possibilities--for networking, creating a union catalog, staff computer training and access to e-mail, reference service, and mounting websites--if one of each library's four computers were to be reserved for professional use. This would ultimately more than double the effectiveness of both the project and the libraries.
Soon afterward, 12 community libraries in low-income neighborhoods were offering computer classes and practice hours. In 1999 the Bibliored team began to create an online catalog, and in 2000 most of the library computers were hooked to the Internet. Within two years, more than 6,000 Montevideans, ranging in age from 12 to over 80, had received diplomas for completing courses in Word, Windows, Excel, and the Internet. Thousands more made a first basic acquaintance with these essential tools. …