Magazine article Information Today

An Observatory to Collect It All

Magazine article Information Today

An Observatory to Collect It All

Article excerpt

The Observatory of Libraries and Indigenous Peoples in Latin America ( is a recently launched, still-under-development project designed by me, an Argentina-born, Spain-based library and information sciences (LIS) professional. I've spent most of my career working with indigenous knowledge, oral tradition, intangible heritage, and endangered sounds (language and music), and I have a special interest in library services for indigenous peoples in Latin America--services that have been irregularly approached and implemented in South America. I worked in northeastern Argentina, collecting oral traditions and creating small sound libraries based at local schools in communities of the Qom, the Moqoit, and the Pit'laxa peoples (2001-2006). I have also produced a number of papers, conference presentations, columns, blog posts, and digital books and handbooks on this topic, mainly in Spanish, but also in English; some of them are included in the bibliography of this article.

Scattered and Missing Pieces

One of the main problems that anyone who's interested in Latin American indigenous societies faces when trying to study some aspects of these groups is the absence of reliable data. The information available on topics such as languages and cultural heritage is, in general terms, scarce and irregular. Produced by a number of different sources, its scope, quality, and trustworthiness are hugely variable. Official censuses and government statistics--which are not always to be believed--mix with notes signed by nongovernmental organizations or religious groups, thesis or research papers (their authors are usually one-time visitors of an indigenous community, who only stay there long enough to extract the information they need and then leave), and even websites created and maintained by indigenous communities themselves, local radio stations, cultural activists, or sociopolitical movements.

Some aspects of the indigenous reality have not even been covered at all, and the state of libraries is one of them. A limited handful of poorly divulged reports, conferences sessions, digital news items, and blog posts, as well as personal communications, indicate that there are and have been a number of experiences carried out in Latin America regarding library services for indigenous peoples. Related to this topic, work is also being done on language recovery, indigenous books and websites, oral archives, and miscellanea of activities whose core subject is traditional, native knowledge.

However, the information on these projects is rare. If and when it's available, it's poor and dispersed. It resembles a puzzle with its pieces scattered everywhere--some of those pieces are lost, changed, or damaged--and the original picture is blurry.

Without a current state-of-the-art technology providing at least a simple, elementary baseline, a diagnosis of problems, absences, opportunities, and caveats related to libraries for indigenous users is almost impossible to carry out. Lack of information leads researchers to guess a lot (not always correctly) and connect the dots with uncertain lines in order to draft a potential--and most likely incomplete--scenario. And without a solid scenario, new projects can't be implemented. At least, not without a high failure risk.

The absence of information means that there is not a collection of recorded experiences--of whatever has been done and whether it was a failure or success. So what has been achieved and problems that have been faced are mostly unknown: Those data are unavailable as valuable inputs for other processes or simply for evaluation and study. No conclusions can be extracted, no lessons learned. Which, in practice, is equivalent to saying that these experiences did not happen at all. Because they are invisible. Unknown. Terra incognita for the rest of the world.

A Possible Solution

Given the present situation, what if all the scattered pieces could be, at the very least, gathered in a single place? …

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