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Libraries lure residents out of Bogota slums

BOGOTA, Colombia – Amid the slum apartments and mean streets on the ragged outskirts of Bogota, there’s an unlikely oasis.

It’s El Tintal Library, built from the remains of a trash-compacting station.

“I love it here,” said grade-schooler Paula Ximena, 9, who visits almost every day. “It’s safe and fun.”

In just a few years, Bogota has become a public library mecca. It claims more library-goers per capita than New York, Los Angeles and Dallas. And its biggest library, just off Bogota’s main square, draws a whopping 4.5 million people per year.

“We believe it’s the most visited public library in the world,” said Jorge Orlando Melo, director of the Luis Angel Arango Library.

Built 46 years ago, the 2,000-seat library has eight reading rooms and 1.1 million books, including “practically everything ever published in Colombia,” he said.

Three other much newer libraries are also big attractions. Dubbed “mega-libraries,” El Tintal, Virgilio Barco and El Tunal have all sprung up in Bogota since May 2001 despite violence and political unrest.

“Given that Colombia is so beleaguered, it’s striking that officials decided that libraries were part of the key to addressing the causes of war and civil strife,” said Alice Bishop, special projects associate at New York’s Council on Library and Information Resources, or CLIR.

The independent, nonprofit group praised Bogota’s libraries in a February report, saying they improve the lives of millions of people, providing a productive way to combat violence and frustration.

Enrique Penalosa, the city’s mayor from 1998 to 2001, was behind the push for more and better libraries. He decided that libraries – “urban temples,” he called them – would help people more than a few more roads.

Many of Bogota’s libraries were in bad shape back then. Most had just one employee, CLIR said. And the city’s top library then – the Luis Angel Arango – was severely overcrowded.

So the mega-libraries were built and 16 neighborhood libraries were renovated.

Library use has since soared from 3.5 million visits in 2000 to more than 12 million today, librarians say.

Impressed with that kind of success, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave Bogota’s library network a $1 million grant in 2002.

The city’s mega-libraries are in low-income neighborhoods where many people have no Internet access and can’t afford books, said Miguel Angel Clavijo, director of El Tintal.

Many families earn just $100 per month, but books are pricey, often $8, $10 or more. El Tintal, with 40,000 books and room for tens of thousands more, gets about 1,800 visitors per day.

Yearly membership is about $1 for adults, and half that for kids. But reading and borrowing books are free.


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