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Beverly J. Lydick/AP

Colombia Battles Illiteracy With Books and Donkeys

October 22, 2008 07:00 AM
by Isabel Cowles
Government-supported library networks and a donkey-powered book mobile bring books to the people in Colombia.

Making Books Available in Colombia

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Colombian schoolteacher Luis Soriano has made it his mission to bring books to his country’s citizens. Every weekend, Soriano loads selected titles from his personal collection onto two donkeys and travels from village to village, delivering books to his neighbors.

Soriano calls his collection “Biblioburro,” or “donkey library.” A primary school teacher who teaches reading, Soriano began loaning books from a stash of 70; now his collection consists of more than 4,800 titles. “This began as a necessity; then it became an obligation; and after that a custom,” he explained in an interview with The New York Times. “Now, it is an institution.”

Colombia has faced especially difficult educational challenges due to political upheaval and drug-related violence. According to Travesía, a Web site detailing the Colombian library network, Colombia has a 20 percent complete illiteracy rate. “[T]here is doubtless a much bigger and more difficult to estimate percentage of functional illiteracy, due in part to the lack of materials for public reading existing in the reduced number of libraries in urban and rural communities.”

Despite the limitations in rural areas, Colombia’s capital city has made great strides in advancing public access to books and information. Bogotá’s former mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, governed from 1998 to 2001 and established Biblored, a network of libraries across the city that offers free access to books, computers, the Internet and other technology. According to a report by the Council on Library and Information Resources, Biblored libraries “have also become centers of community development activities in disadvantaged parts of the city.”

Peñalosa explained his library-building initiative. “We should not focus our efforts on measuring citizens’ success through their per-capita incomes, but through the development of their potential by providing them opportunities to improve the quality of their lives.”

Citizens across Bogotá have relished the access to educational tools. Luis Cárdenas, a 12-year-old, is one example. He spends his days taking workshops, reading and experimenting with the available technology. “I’d rather be here and not on the street, learning what I shouldn’t” he said. Cárdenas said that the library has given him the “opportunity to learn, the know the world, to become someone, to dream, to travel in time and space—without spending money.”

Related: Library development and book sharing programs

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