The Current State of Libraries in Mexico: Service, Connectivity and Culture

Read the previous part: Problems Plaguing Mexican Libraries in the 20th Century and the Plan of 1984

Since the plan of 1984 was so well organized, it was much more sustainable than previous programs, and today, each town with a population of at least 5,000 people has its own public library. Mexico boasts the largest public library system in Latin America, which is a particularly impressive feat considering that the nation is less than half the size of Brazil in both geography and population (Lau 2010b). Public libraries are funded under a three-tier system within the government. Broader library policies and acquisitions and collection development practices are decided by the federal government; building construction and facilities maintenance are the responsibility of state governments; and staff hiring and payroll are handled by the municipal governments (Lau 2010a 3629). Each of Mexico’s 31 states as well as the Federal District have a central public library which fulfills a management role over the network of libraries within that state.

Overall, Mexican libraries are well-renowned for their rich historical significance and unique and rare collections. To examine a particular case, the Public Library of the State of Jalisco holds eleven incunabula, volumes that were printed from 1450-1501, as well as three thousand books printed in the sixteenth century, and 350,000 historical documents spanning the sixteenth century to the early twentieth, which include the Archives of the Royal Court of New Galicia and the Archives of the Supreme Court of Justice.

As of 2005, the literacy rate in Mexico had climbed to 86.1%, and 2010 Census estimates are up to 91.4% (US Dept of State, Censo de Población), representing a very impressive increase over the past century. Today, however, internet access has in many ways become the crucial issue that literacy was to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First, there is still a big discrepancy in public library services in urban and rural areas. In cities and larger towns,  the libraries are naturally much larger and technologically equipped, while in more remote areas world wide web connectivity is practically non-existent. In recent years, providing internet access to public libraries has become a major task of the Mexican government, at both a local and national level (Lau 2010a 3630). In addition to efforts from inside the country to promote technology, the libraries have benefitted greatly from some outside donations, in particular from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2002, President Vicente Fox announced that the foundation had pledged $30 million “to provide computer and Internet access, staff training and technical support to approximately 1,200 or 20 percent of public libraries across Mexico” (Rios). Six years later in 2008, the Gates Foundation would once again return to Mexican public libraries, this time to award its annual Access to Learning Award to the Vasconcelos Program, an innovative initiative created by the state of Veracruz to provide computer access and training to underserved populations within the state. The program was named after José Vasconcelos, the first Minister of Education who launched Mexico’s first public library program back in 1921, and deploys a staff of workers, most proficient in the local indigenous languages, to rural communities in Veracruz, who spend around two weeks “teaching a variety of computer and Internet courses and updating local technology access points” (Gates Foundation).

These initiatives to connect and train Mexican society in digital age technologies are promising, but other states must follow suit in order to bridge the gap between cities and towns and rural areas. Pausing for a moment to consider the present state of libraries in Mexico in the broader context of their historical development, many of the same themes still hold true. The struggle for libraries to serve the general population has been a consistent theme, from the overt subjugation of the early monastery libraries and early colonial public libraries to the struggles for literacy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Access to the tools of learning, whether they be printed books in today’s case, the internet, has always been a privilege of the upper classes and a major challenge for rural and indigenous communities. While ensuring that knowledge be made available for all citizens has been a major goal within Mexico from the moment of independence, we have seen how such ambitious goals cannot be realized without institutional support and a strong investment in education. The public library mission of José Vasconcelos ultimately failed for this very reason, and the careful planning and ongoing assessment of the 1984 National Program for Public Libraries was what led to its continued success. In this vein, contemporary public library efforts to bridge the gap in internet connectivity across the regions of Mexico need to have organizational foresight and be focused on long-term, not temporary, solutions. Above all, they must recognize the richness of Mexico’s historical heritage and its diverse indigenous populations, and make sure to work so that the promise of the information revolution reaches all of the nation’s citizens.

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