They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Travel diary (03 of 28): a high, high bridge... (part 01)

Travel diary (03 of 28): a high, high bridge... (part 01)

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated and commented by Sara Plaza

[Diary of the journey by land across the ancient Inka Empire, from LIS Meeting to LIS Meeting, through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and NW Argentina, from November 5th to December 1st, 2006]

The driver of DIBAM picked up Sara and me in the neighborhood of Providencia for carrying us to the municipality of Puente Alto ("High Bridge"), one of the biggest in Chile, with around 2 millions inhabitants, placed in SE Santiago... The vehicle crossed the city, some periurban areas crowded by little markets invading the sidewalks, and totally rural regions, where the vineyards extended under a clear sky and the unavoidable silhouette of the Andean range, whose heights were stained by early snows. The driver made some commentaries about a little altar built by the side of the road, near the vineyards, surrounded by a lot of bottles of water... Popular devotion left those presents as offerings to "Difunta Correa" (Defunct Correa, this last word being a surname), a mother who died of thirst and whose newborn child miraculously survived sucking at her breasts after her death. This myth can be found also in Argentina, where it's a historical reality with full validity and strong popular support (specially in San Juan province, where "la Difunta" has a really big "temple" covered by votes and offerings). This popular belief made us feel that, despite of the high mountains separating us, the different accents, the old political disputes and the everlasting rivalries, Argentineans and Chileans are not, at least, so different...

We entered the municipality by his less-populated part, i.e. the one where the "richest ones" resided. It was really curious –and sad– to see streets closed by iron gates in every corner of a block, as if they were private streets. Actually, it looked like a private neighborhood. While Sara enjoyed the thousands blooming plants and roses cultivated in the well-cared gardens, I wondered if poorness and violence were so hard there as for forcing a few ones to protect themselves behind iron gates, or to fortify their houses and streets. Sara's eyes reflected the same doubt. We learnt later that need and poorness actually were hard there, being noticeable in other points of the town, where whole families were stacked in tiny rooms, overpopulating a little space in a municipality where the population density was terribly high and where a tiny and weak house costed a few dollars. It's really sad to see how poverty can lead to violence and distrust, how the divides get deeper and deeper in a vicious circle which end seems to be really far away. It is sad to see these things happening in the corner, in my own city, in anyone I visited... It is sad to know that this not only happens to me but to many of my brothers.

Puente Alto's motto is: "Here, life is better", reinforced by similar sentences, like this other one: "Puente Alto is born again investing in our future". I use to take these slogans with carefulness, because I know what is hidden behind the politicians' sayings and marketing campaigns. However, I couldn't help but being surprised the first time I saw the Public Library of Puente Alto, a group of quite old buildings completely rearranged to become a library. This Centre consists of a main building (The Library) that works as reading room, reference and computing (and also has a lecture room for workshops, where mine took place) and a side building, the Public Library for Children, better known as Biblioniños. This structure depends on both DIBAM and the town council, which invest funds in the community education, a community that has a great number of young people. We were welcome by Puente Alto Centre Libraries Area director, who showed us the lecture room where the workshop was going to take place.

After the introduction, I put myself in the hands of those who had come to listen to me, some of them students, other ones members of the town council and most of them teachers responsible for the municipality school libraries. Most of them did not have a proper education on the subject and were there to improve their knowledge, precisely because the knowledge most related with library planning is the less spread among information professionals. In accordance to this, for more than three hours, I did hardly try to explain them how a communitarian library should be created out of nothing, that is to say, from the very first idea to the development of each activity and service offered to their users. Inside the theoretical approach, I did include some quite "revolutionary" ideas – I mean, the ones I have got through my own experience as librarian, teacher and researcher, which has to do with my position and opinion towards this particular issue. At the beginning the audience's answer to the exposed contents was of absolute doubt. Many people wondered if what they were listening to would not be a series of utopias more appropriate for Don Quixote than for a librarian.

So much their insistence was that I had to stop for a moment and asked myself what the problem was with such a distrust, such a lack of hopes, such an impossibility of believing in another model of library. I did find the answer in their own mouths, when they started to tell me –like in a sort of group therapy– about their problems, their many disillusions, their searches without findings, the lack of opportunities, the difficult environment they confront day after day with the only support of their own will and going further. At that moment, I decided to share with them a bit of my own life, maybe as hard as theirs, and also to show them how I had learned to believe either in my hands and in my wings after a thousand fallings (many of them promoted by some of my "colleagues"), and how I would rather believe that the miracle was still possible, that the change would only happen if we thought of it as likely to be achieved and work to make it true. I also explained to them that I never teach anything I had not put into practice before, anything I had not proved to be possible or to work. Little by little their faces began to smile and some of them threw a couple of questions: How should it be done if...? What should I do to achieve...? That way, in the very first part of my workshop, we did start putting into personal practice things that, up to that very moment, had been just librarian theory seen in a PowerPoint presentation. In my workshops, I always set up the possibility of facing a library project from a social point of view, a grassroots perspective, using action-research methodologies and qualitative tools. I usually pose questions that need serious thought and present ideas such as horizontality, equality, solidarity, compromise, simplicity (in the sense of being easy to understand) for facilitating users activities... And above all, and almost as a rule, I insist on the importance of the services, the final meaning of any librarian work. Seen like this, everything could sound a bit false, a bit utopian, a bit unreal... However, once I am able to show them that, in our daily practice, all of this is not only possible, but works and does it well... and when I explain my own experiences, my errors, my failings and my achievements, and how I did it to gain what I have obtained... the expressions of my students slowly start changing. Many of them begin to feel (and they will tell me this afterwards) that finally they have found a sense in what they do, or that, in the end, they have discovered a method to do what they had always wanted to and nobody had ever explained how.

During the break, Sara –a teacher by profession and in spirit– tried to keep up to date with the different activities developed by the teachers that were attending the workshop, while I was exchanging impressions with some LIS students that had quite progressive thoughts and clear ideas. They had come from Valparaiso with the aim of taking part either in the workshops and also in the Congress. In general, the Chilean public seemed quite conservative to me, and during the rest of our trip, we would have the opportunity to confirm this opinion, since a great part of the audiences that participated in our activities, preferred traditional styles and values and were, many of them, suspicious of big or sudden social changes... Librarian training? Latinoamericanism? Fear...? We did not found the reason why they feel that way. The students let me know about their perspectives on our profession and their works on literacy and libraries for children, as well as their opinion about the Chilean LIS curricula, and I shared with them my own position in such matters. That way, we found problems in common, existing deficiencies (especially the ones concerning teaching and learning – education in one word), fixed elites and hierarchies, ("sacred animals" and "great gurus" proclaiming their never-ending power upon the "masses") and huge and deep shortages suffered by users that only wait for a service that is always the same and few times responds to their needs and real profiles. It seems to me that, as it happens at home, many are the ones who talk the talk, but few are the ones who walk the walk. And much fewer tell or teach how to do it...

The second part of the workshop evolved into a shower of questions and many were the ones wanting to participate in the discussion. In the end, when some of them started leaving, the ones that still waited a moment began to put forward very interesting questions and suggestions: "What do you thing about author rights? How should I do if I want to lend, in my library, my own CDs collection in a free way? How should we make use of Open Access in our libraries? What should we change in our curricula? What would be necessary to learn in order to give response to more social services?" I talked to them, sitting on my desk, about the importance of knowing how to design a project –something I do teach as well– and about how interesting it is to do a practical and useful research; I also put into words my own position on authors' rights (one of the main chains that current knowledge has) and explained them how I did manage open collections without violating not even one copyright. I threw many ideas, many experiences lived, and a few answers to those same questions I did ask myself one day (and no one could give me). I left that room with the feeling of having achieved my goals, with many more friends and a backpack full of others' opinions, points of view, dreams... that surely make me richer. I did always believe that, in a classroom, the one that learn most is the teacher, especially if he assumes his role without putting on airs, not thinking that he is better than his/her students but, on the contrary, opening his/her arms and his/her ears and participating with them in building new knowledge. The rule is very easy: 60 students listen to only one teacher, however, a teacher –if s/he knows how– will be able to listen to 60 students. Who is the one with most chances of learning?

Going out after the workshop, we joined the group of "foreigner guests" (lecturers coming from abroad) to visit the building of the Librarian Centre. However, considering the length of today's post, the many contents learnt during the day, I will continue tomorrow...

Stay with us, ok? See you here, tomorrow...