söndag 27 oktober 2013

Recollections of a visit to Uruguay. Part 3: sea lions

After an intense week full of meetings, interviews, seminars, coctail parties, dinners, speeches and study visits, I had to get away from humans. I just needed to enjoy the company of other species too, and in Uruguay my interest had turned to a very special place.

On the last day before returning to Sweden, I left Montevideo and took off east along the coast to Punta del Este. There in the harbour, I went on a boat and sailed out on the South Atlantic ocean. Well, perhaps not sailed, the vessel itself was a commercial ”ferry” – a quite small motorboat. Anyway, after about 45 minutes I reached the goal of the day: Isla de Lobos. It is a small island about 8 km southeast of Punta del Este. On it lives one of the largest populations of sea lions in the world. Already some ten minutes before arriving at the island there was like a ”wall of smell” in the middle of the ocean. It intensified as the boat approached the cliffs of the small island. About 180 000 sea lions live there, and it is today a national park. Therefore it is not possible to go ashore, so instead the boat turned off its engines, and we floated close to the coastline. The air immediately filled with the sounds of the sea lions, mixed with their smell and the salty scent of the sea. It was some very sensual 30 minutes in the presence of these strange and beautiful creatures.

As curious and social as humans, no less talkative, but with a different language… and smell. It was such a relief (and fun) to spend time in their presence – in their own unique habitat. Going back, the captain told me to have a lookout for sperm whales. They had been seen close to the coastline earlier in the day. None was spotted though, but knowing that these giants lurked somewhere underneath made me curiously calm.

Beautiful libraries, interesting people and sea lions – all in a week’s work. Life is good.

fredag 25 oktober 2013

Recollections of a visit to Uruguay. Part 2: Study visits

Apart from holding a seminar at the Feria Internacional del Libro, the week I spent in Montevideo in early October primarily consisted of a number of study visits to various kinds of libraries and bookstores. I got the opportunity to visit the Parliamentary Library, the National Library and a series of public libraries in different parts of Montevideo. As always when I do these kinds of intense rounds of visits to different libraries in a new town, impressions pile up. Here I will only briefly touch upon some of the singular ones that are still with me.

The Parliament

There are no guards. I am guided through the whole parliament with its fifty shades of marble and its library and there is a feeling of trust that is rare in political environments these days. The library is painstakingly beautiful. It is open to the public and there are signs saying ”silence”.

The National Library

I am given a private tour of the National Library and shown through labyrinths and passages. Work is silence and intense. A table is set up in preparation for my visit, displaying rare photographs, letters, incunabliae and medieval manuscripts; folios and miniatures. I am shown a 13th century codex of hymns. Nobody knows how it got there. I am allowed to step into a freezer donated by the Bill Gates Library Foundation, used to preserve a unique and fragile collection of early 20th century photographs.

 Public libraries:

I visit several. In one, tango comes whispering through loudspeakers hidden on the shelves in the main room. Once a week the floor is cleared and the library hosts tango evenings. The head librarian loves tango. Only here, I find myself thinking, and perhaps somewhere in Finland.

I am taken to see La Biblioteca Maria Stagnero de Munar, a small castle in central Montevideo currently being transformed into a library and a cultural centre exclusively for children. It is an ambitious project and Prof. Gonzalo Halty at the División Promoción Cultural of the Intendencia de Montevideo, who is my host this afternoon, is proud. It is easy to understand why. This is the first centre/library of its kind i South America. I get a feeling that public libraries mean something to him. Suddenly he asks me, ”How should we continue?”. ”Don’t ask me”, I say. ”Ask the librarians. They’ll know what to do”.

At the Biblioteca Dr. Francisco Schinca (in Montevideo public libraries are named), I see a different reality, that of high ambition and no money. In an area far from the wealthy city centre and grand projects, I meet librarian Lourdes Díaz, who runs this little library with determination and admirable strenght. This is not a library the Intendencia wanted me to see, so I thank Carina Patrón of the Uruguay Library Association for taking me there. The area is filled with social problems, but this library prevails with only limited support from the fund distributing authorities. Mrs Díaz and I speak for over two hours; about the value of libraries, about the value of resistence and about the joy of creating a space for reading and culture for the people far from the official agenda, be it political, social or cultural.


The very last thing I do in Montevideo is to visit the Puro Verso bookstore in the Ciudad Vieja.  I had eaten lunch there earlier in the week – yes, they offer lunch among the books. I just had to go back. In Sweden you don’t find them any more, bookstores that sell, well, books - and perhaps some music. Wandering through the shelves of Puro Verso I just cannot help wondering what went wrong in my own country. How did we end up with bookstores selling more branded stationery trash than books? Such a waste. It is comforting to know that stores like this exist in other countries, where books and reading obviously is taken more seriously than in Sweden.

That, and so many other things I saw and heard in Montevideo during my week in the warm South American spring filled me with gratitude and, dare I say it… hope.

tisdag 22 oktober 2013

Recollections of a visit to Uruguay. Part 1: book fair seminar

In april, I was contacted by Mr. Jim Larsson at the Swedish-Uruguayan Cultural Institute about coming to Montevideo to talk about public libraries. I had never heard of this institute, and had to check twice that it really existed before getting back to him saying that I would definitively consider coming - but what was expected of me? The initial plan was that I should give a speech at a book fair in Montevideo on the role of public libraries in the Nordic countries, as Nordic literature would be one of the themes of the fair. After a couple of months of discussions and practical arrangements, the pieces finally came together, and I found myself on a plane bound for South America. During the course of our discussions, the event grew and as I landed in sunny Montevideo, I had a full week of work ahead of me.  

The main event was a seminar on October 10 at the 36th Feria International del Libro in Montevideo. The event gathered some 300 of the city’s librarians in a discussion on the future and the present state of Uruguayan libraries.

It was a highly inspirational event, and the discussion was very fruitful. It is interesting to note, that wherever you go, the fundamental problems and concerns about public libraries are pretty much the same. Material and political conditions may differ, but the need to find vital forms for cutural activities, platforms for critical political and cultural discussions is the same everywhere. A belief in the ability of public libraries in this respect was felt very clearly by the present librarians of Uruguay, a country which has a proud history of social welfare, but which suffered severly during the economic fall some ten years ago. The impression the visit gave me of the Uruguayan library sector is that it is both ambitious and determined to provide library services worthy of a welfare state to all citizens of the country.

There have been several political initiatives during the present government which carry the potential to be of significance for libraries. For instance, a decision to provide every child in a public school with his/her own laptop or iPad has meant that a large part of the population now, through the kids, have access to the international flow of knowledge and information on the Internet. This is a reform that at least at a first glance seems like a stroke of political genious in a country like Uruguay. Not only can it be helpful as school books are scarce and of poor quality, but it can open for new dimension in librarianship, as one of the most severe problems in the libraries I visited clearly was the lack of relevant media. Lack of media is, of course, a substantial problem in a library.

At the book fair seminar, many questions concerned the present state of Swedish and Nordic libraries, as they still are seen as models of ”the good library”. The view on Swedish society is still coloured by the social democratic welfare state of the 1960’s and 70’s, renowned throughout the world for its humanistic approach to politics. That we now have left that behind and entered a social era defined by other parametres than humanism and generosity seemed to come as a surprise to many. The reason for the almost glorifying view on Sweden is obvious – many intellectuals took refuge in Sweden in the 1970’s when political conditions in most of South America were unbearable. I had the pleasure of meeting several of them on this journey. Uruguay is the first country I have visited where the librarians and authors I met did not say ”we went to school together”, but in stead ”we went to jail together”. The stories they told were both dramatic and deeply moving. In such an environment politics and ideology is still visible and important, and the advocates of the current left wing presidency are concerned about the role of public libraries. They know that libraries can matter a lot, if treated well. The discussion went on for over an hour revealing structural problems, but also determination and willingness to solve them, not least through international dialogue. Some problems stood out; funding, for sure, but also the perhaps even more important question of how to think about libraries in local communities. I did not feel that I could give a lot of advice, but of course we do know some things from research. Instead it was my impression that the discussion in itself was of importance, and the fact that so many people were gathered at this same occasion provided a common ground for renewed discussons among librarians and politicians. Living under financially restrained conditions, as most Uruguayan public libraries do, it can be difficult to keep above the waterline of everyday decision making and practice. I hope that the seminar worked as an opportunity for those who attended to take a break from that and allow themselves to think ahead. It was obvious that not only questions, but also suggestions and solutions were there in that room on October 10. For me it was an important experience, and I wish that some Swedish librarians would have been there to listen, if only to hear the voices of dedication and determination of their Uruguayan colleagues.

The speech I gave is here (in Spanish).