by Ares Kalandides
The first time I visited the public library Virgilio Barco was in 2008. At the time, I knew little about Bogotá and nothing about Colombian architects. What surprised me was not only the architecture, an open building with light pouring in from everywhere, but the large number of people who were using it. It took me some time to realize that the building was more than just a library: it was public space – clean, secure public space – a rare quality in many parts of the city. Later I was told that the architect of the library was Rogelio Salmona, probably one of the most important architects of Colombia. In my following trips to Bogotá, I began discovering one by one this amazing system of libraries, called the BiblioRed (library network) that comprises 4 major, 6 local, 10 neighbourhood libraries and one mobile bus-library. The major libraries (including the Virgilio Barco library) are in public parks and have an average floor plan of 10,000 m2 each with space for approximately 600 reading places. Though not part of the BiblioRed network, I should not forget to mention the important library of the Banco de la República Luis Angel Arango, situated in the very heart of the colonial centre La Candelaria and very close to the Cultural Center Gabriel García Márquez, designed again by Rogelio Salmona for the Fondo de Cultura Economica in Mexico.
While the major libraries can be found at central locations, it is the decentralized system of smaller libraries that is perhaps most interesting. A glimpse at the map below shows that the majority of the libraries are in the poorer south of the city, most of them in the heart of the neighbourhoods. The idea behind the libraries was to open them up to the public, by creating the lowest possible threshold, and to attract (young) people with all possible measures. There is free internet access for everybody, families can rent a small room and watch a DVD if they want to (at least at the Luis Angel Arango library), young people can gather if they do not disturb. The library is not a sanctuary: it performs a public role, it is there to bring books and knowledge closer to people. And it goes where people need it: in the heart of the neighborhood and not in some far off location.
There are events for grandparents, family reading groups, classes on internet literacy, literary cafés and workshops on literary creation. It is no surprise that Bogotá was appointed UNESCO World Book Capital in 2008. But books are not only to be found in the libraries of the city. In the major terminals of the Transmilenio public transport system, travelers are encouraged to borrow books to read, which they can then return at any terminal at any time.
Bogotá has shown that the library is not an elite site of limited access, but rather that it can become a vivid part of public space. For this reason, its location is crucial. Libraries need to be in the vibrant hearts of cities, in the densely populated areas – ideally in the areas that most need them. This way they can become important focal points of urban regeneration and can offer leisure alternatives for the local populations. If you can hang out in a mall, why not hang out in a library? Of course, the Bogotá system is double: there are both libraries in the large public parks (and can thus become a part of a Sunday family stroll) and inside the poorest areas of the city.
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