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15th Annual Mortenson Distinguished Lecture

Jorge Melo GonzalezJorge Orlando Melo Gonzalez

Democracy and Libraries in Colombia:
From Oral Culture to the World of the Book

October 26, 2005

Abstract: (Spanish version) Colombia, like many countries of the third world, entered the world of the printed book and reading only in recent times. Fifty years ago, less than half of the population knew how to read and write; 100 years ago less than 10 percent. The printing press, by widening and democratizing, mainly from the 18th century on, access to information and knowledge, was instrumental in the political transformation of the West in the 19th century and a central element in the growth of democracy, in the United States and Western Europe.

In the last 100 years, a liberal and democratic political structure has been established in Colombia, limited by the context of an authoritarian culture, in which complex knowledge was only available to the literate minority, while culture was transmitted, for the majority of the population, through oral communication and the use of images. Democracy functioned within the constraints of a society in which information and modern knowledge were monopolized by small groups, and the political participation of large sectors of the population was passive.

The development of a modern school system was hampered by the limited use of reading: The school is still in large part oral, based on the voice of the teacher. The development of a critical culture, of an education enabling the students for doing research, requires spreading the use of the book and improving the capacity for reading and the independent research of the students, in a school system that, for the first time in the history of the country, reaches almost all children under 15 years of age.

In the last decade, Colombia has made great efforts to expand the distribution and use of books: new public libraries and new systems of school libraries. These ambitious plans, promoted by individuals, communities, and some public institutions, have been developed in a complex environment, marked by the inertia of traditional cultures that privilege orality, by state institutions that do not value libraries, and by the competition of new forms of communication such as radio, television, and the Internet, even though sometimes, like the Internet, they complement it. This process of developing a universal system of public libraries, although belated, still seems urgent, and it is worth analyzing the perspectives and concepts that support it.

Read the full text of the lecture.

View photos of Bogotá libraries.

Read more about Jorge Orlando Melo Gonzalez.

Listen to the lecture here.

Information in English on Bogotá's libraries:
Biblored: Colombia's Innovative Library Network. (Clir Report, February 2003)
The Bogotá Libraries (The Harvard Review on Latin America)

Information in Spanish on Bogotá's libraries:
Biblored
The Luis Ángel Arango page