15th Annual Mortenson Distinguished Lecture

Jorge Gonzalez Jorge 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.

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View photos of Bogotá libraries.

Jorge Orlando Melo Gonzalez is director of the Department of Libraries and Fine Art at the Banco de la República and of the Luis Angel Arango Library.

Mr. Melo is one of Colombia’s most distinguished public intellectuals, a librarian, and an accomplished historian. He was born in Medellín, Colombia, graduated as a Bachelor in Philosophy from the Universidad Nacional de Bogotá in 1962, and after receiving an MA in Latin American History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he went into teaching. He lectured on Colombian and Latin American history at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Universidad de los Andes and Universidad del Valle, and published books and articles on different topics of Colombian history.

He became one of the leaders of the group known as the “new historians,” who renovated the writing and teaching of the discipline. He participated in several collective projects and encyclopedic works and directed some of them, such as the Historia de Medellín and the Historia deAntioquia. For his research, and also for several efforts of making history available to wider publics, he became one of the best known Colombian historians. In 2000, one historical periodical selected him as one of the 10 most influential historians of the 20th century in the country.

Jorge Orlando Melo worked also as a university administrator. He was dean of research and vice president for academic affairs in the Universidad del Valle, and was influential in the improvement of the library system of the university, and in early efforts of using computer technology for catalogs.

In 1990, he went into public administration as adviser on human rights and advisor for Medellín to the president of Colombia. In Medellín, as one of the programs geared to develop alternatives for young people, the office of the adviser supported and funded a program for improving 39 libraries in the poorest neighborhoods, where the rank and file of drug organizations were being recruited. From that period on, he became convinced that libraries had an important role in overcoming some of the difficulties of the country, as they offered creative alternatives for time use of youth, an effective tool for improving education quality, and a way to develop cultural abilities basic for democracy: independent search of information, critical thinking, and so forth.

In 1994, he was appointed director of art and libraries of the Bank of the Republic; the main responsibility was the direction of the largest library of the country, Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango. During the period 1994-2004, the library, which already was well developed and had a modern OPAC system, changed in many ways. Book collection increased from 280,000 to 1,050,000 volumes,lending was introduced in 1997, the catalog was put on the Web in 1996, and a virtual library was initiated in 1995. Today, the library is one of the 10 most visited sites in the country. The branches in other cities of Colombia went from 11 to 18, and total number of visitors to the 19 libraries of the network moved from 4 million to 6 million (not including art exhibitions and concerts). Today, the library offers national affiliation and lending (books from any library are delivered to patrons in 27 cities), local home delivery and pickup, and some uncommon services: the music reference room, besides sound and video machines, has 10 cabins for reading of scores, three of them with pianos.

The library has a growing art collection and many temporary art exhibitions. In 1996, a permanent exhibition of coins and bills was opened (Museo Numismático) and, in 1997, a permanent exhibition of Colombian art was opened with more than 300 works. In 2000, the Library opened the Museo Botero, formed by the personal collection of Fernando Botero, more than 75 works of international art and 125 of his own paintings and sculptures, donated to the Banco de laRepública. In 2004, a new art building, the Museo del Banco de la República, was opened as part of the library. The library also has consolidated its role in music: The main Concert Hall of Bogotáis part of the library, and every year around 90 concerts, many by internationally well-known artists, are presented there.

In 1995, the library proposed to the mayor of Bogotá a joint program for improving the local library network of Bogotá, which received under a million visits every year, when the Luis Angel Arango Library alone received 2.5 million. The program started in 1996 and made some modest advances. In 1998, a new mayor decided to develop an ambitious program for public libraries. By 2002, three new large and beautiful libraries had been built, and nine more libraries were redesigned. In 2004, total visitors to the municipal network were over 5 million. Jorge Orlando Melo was a member of the Advising Committee since the start of the program.

In 2002, he wrote a proposal for a National Plan of Libraries. Although some efforts had taken place before, they had not been very effective. The government adopted the program, and, in 2003 and 2004, 350 of the 1,180 Colombian municipalities received a basic book and video collection from the government; the local authorities providing buildings and staff. More than 150 more municipalities will receive a library in 2005. The libraries, with 2,500 books and around 200 DVDs and VHS tapes fully catalogued in computers connected to the Internet, are changing the cultural and civic life in many towns where no cultural facilities existed before. At the end of the program’s first phase, in 2006, half the municipalities of Colombia, those which did not have a library or had a very poor one, will have benefited from this program, which was funded mainly by the Banco de la República. Jorge Orlando Melo also has been a member of the National Council for Books and Libraries, which directs the program, since 2002.

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