Books, Bunk beds, and a Biblioteca: Librarians Explore Nicaragua
by Sue Keefer, Director of Learning Resources, Otero Junior College, La Junta, Colorado
A desire by one woman to put books into the hands of children in Nicaragua has changed the lives of many Nicaraguans due to her expertise in collaboration.
May 2000, Jane Mirandette found herself in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, semi -retired and owning a bed and breakfast hotel. She realized quite quickly that there were no children with books in their hands. Up until she arrived, Nicaragua had no lending libraries. If someone wanted to read a book, he or she would have to go to a government-run library in a large city. Books were kept behind the desk, so the person would have to request a particular book, and staff would retrieve it. Then the person would sit in the library and read it. Adult or not, no one was allowed to take books out of the library. It was the rule.
Jane has grown up with a tradition of reading and she felt strongly that children needed books. Her “lending library” started out in the patio of her newly-purchased hotel. Later it expanded to a small building across the street, and it currently resides in a much larger, newly renovated building a block away.
When Jane started the lending project, she was met with naysayers: “They won’t bring the books back!” But she persevered. Children needed books, and that was that. They did bring the books back, because they wanted to check out more!
Fast-forward to November, 2015. The San Juan del Sur Biblioteca, which is supported by donations, was about to celebrate its 14th anniversary. A group of librarians, sponsored by the Colorado Association of Libraries International Libraries and Cultural Exchange Interest Group, made plans to journey to Nicaragua, visit libraries, help with the celebration, and do a bit of sightseeing as well. I decided to join the group on ILCE-IG’s first international adventure.
We arrived in Managua on Nov. 7, a week before the celebration. Our first “lesson” was an explanation of a “library in a box,” something Jane and her staff had created to help others start libraries in their areas. A Library in a Box consists of a tub full of books, simple craft projects to go along with the books, and check-out materials. Each box has materials worth about $300.
Jane receives requests from people who want to recreate lending programs, and start lending libraries. There are 64 Libraries in a Box Recipient Programs functioning in Nicaragua using this system. On the first morning after our arrival she demonstrated the system with a box about to be delivered to a group arriving that evening to start their second library program. That same evening, Jane gave a box of books to a man named Darryl Bushnell, who has worked with the Puedo Leer library in Granada, the second lending library in Nicaragua started by Carol Rea, a Canadian teacher retired and living in Granada. That program has several Library in a Box recipients they work with, all using this same system. Darryl had requested a donation of a Library in a Box to take to a rural clinic he is assisting, so children would have something to read when their parents were being seen by the doctor.
The next day, Nov. 8, after some sightseeing, we visited Puedo Leer (I Can Read), which has been in operation for 10 years and is headed up by Carol Rea. Two of the library staff were there and with Darryl and a translator explained the operations of the library to our very interested group of librarians. It was a small library, and we filled it fairly full. The library was supposed to be closed, but the door was open, and soon, a young boy came in, ignored everyone, put his books in the proper place, walked over and chose two more, and then went to the checkout desk. He probably had more photographs taken of him that day than he had his whole life.
He told our group of librarians that his name was Santiago. He was 5. He seemed undaunted by the attention, and left soon after, books in hand. He had no idea that he had just made our day.
The Puedo Leer librarians, Connie and Yvonne, deliver books to 24 schools so that teachers can read books to their classes. Each month they rotate the books. They also do a “read in the park” program, and also read in a room at the Hotel Corazon.
“The mission is very simple,” Darryl explained. “Bringing the joy of reading to the children of Nicaragua. We’re simply inviting people to use these accessible resources.”
Each person can take two books out per time. Teachers can take 15. The library has 1,025 member cards. But all is not about lending books and reading. They also help children with homework. Volunteers give English classes. Saturdays are for crafts.
The library also participates in a program to educate women and children about violence. Posters explain that no one has the right to hit or molest women or children. These grassroots libraries are the only source of independent information, as most of the information comes from traditional sources such as mothers, mothers-in-law, or priests, who all have their own agendas or practices.
Puedo Leer library’s budget is about $1,000 per month. This figure includes rent, salaries, and programs. The San Juan del Sur Biblioteca’s budget is $3,000 a month, including its mobile project. Jane believes that nationals should be trained to provide library services, and that they should be paid. This provides salaries as well as esteem. In this way the libraries are sustained.
Later the tour went to a rural medical clinic. The Library in a Box that Jane had given Darryl the day before had already found a room in the back. Tables, chairs, and bookshelves were in place. Along with four children who were reading!
The doctor was overjoyed with the donation. She said that the children will now have something to do when their parents are being examined.
Behind the clinic is an area where men are being taught to make cooking stoves from brick tiles. They cost $12. The men learn a skill, make a little money, and provide a way for people to cook food at their homes that is efficient, uses little fuel, and reduces harmful smoke.
“Education changes the paradigm,” Jane said. “Nothing else does.” She noted that while churches and service groups, and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) help the poor, they are all starting to be concerned about education. Over one half of all Library in a Box recipient programs are run by churches and service groups, including Peace Corps.
The next stop was a Christian school and homeless shelter. Books, stuffed animals, and snacks were given to the children. Adjoining the school is a shelter, which consists of two small rooms. Twenty children, a couple of single mothers with children, and an older woman lived there. They were also given books, snacks, and stuffed animals.
We noted that sleeping arrangements consisted of thin pads placed on a concrete floor. There were eight pads too few. After we left, we decided to purchase enough bunk beds so everyone would have a bed. Jane promised to check with the manager of the shelter for approval.
We remarked on how polite the children and adults were at both the school and orphanage. No one pushed into line or complained about what they received. Older children hung back until younger children had their treats. Smiles and “gracias” were in abundance.
We arrived at San Juan del Sur that night. The next morning, we walked the one block to the library that started it all, San Juan del Sur Biblioteca. Jane told us that a library card is the first ID a child has. “It gives them a sense of power,” she explained.
The SJDS library (http://www.sjdsbiblioteca.org/) has computers for patrons to use (with Wi-Fi), children’s and adult books in Spanish, some books in English, stuffed animals for the children to play with or borrow, homework help, crafts, and presentations. The Poudre River Public Library District in Fort Collins, CO, became the sister library to SJDS in 2013, set up the Koha automated catalog and circulation program and hosts the server that runs it.
But the building doesn’t just house the library. It is a true community center. There are English classes for children and adults; a STEM class for children, which has six levels and lasts two years; and one room is used for disabled workers who make tote bags out of rice and bean bags. The people who make the bags work there five mornings a week and are able to keep their profits.
The mobile library, Biblioteca Movil, which is an offshoot of the main library, is also housed here. More than 3,000 children who attend rural schools have library cards through the mobile library. There is a competition among the schools; the schools that turns in the most books win a Christmas Fiesta—and an example of what Jane calls “using the carrot, not the stick.”
That evening, Jane shared her story. She and a friend came to Nicaragua to see if it might be a good place to retire. They tried to buy a beach home, but that fell through. They ended up buying a hotel. During the early days of hotel ownership, Jane noticed that the local children never had any books. Her “library” started on the hotel’s patio, with 200 books. 400 children showed up. People scoffed at her idea of a lending library, saying the books would never be returned. But they were, and still are, 14 years later. Recent numbers coming from the newly automated programs show over 7000 books loaned through the mobile project from April to October of this year.
Jane established the Hester J. Hodgdon Libraries for All nonprofit foundation (http://www.librariesforall.org/) to support the SJDS library and to promote lending libraries throughout Central America. The foundation is named after her grandmother, who lived with her family until she was 12. “I had more books than anyone else in my school,” she said. “Because of my grandmother, I could read at age 5.”
Sustainability is very important to Jane; she produced a pamphlet for an ALA International Relations Program, “Exploring Seven Aspects of Sustainability for Lending Library Projects in Nicaragua and Other Developing Nations.” The pamphlet has been used in many sustainability classes and is available on the website.
The seven aspects are: 1. Leadership Development: Each project has its own passionate director and a team of creators; 2. Financial Resources: Provide connection, transparent accountability, and accurate projections; 3. Clearly Defined Ongoing Goals: Ascertain sustainability and buy-in from the target group; 4. Succession Planning: Create redundancy, find the heirs apparent, and let them have their say! 5. Sufficient Staffing: Give staff authority, autonomy, and esteem; 6. Collection Development: Provide culturally appropriate materials and maintain fine-tuned lending systems; 7. Providing Effective Library and Community Services: Research or develop protocols and keep them current.
We had a choice to travel with the “bookmobiles” (two pickup trucks) or not. We all went, some enjoying an opportunity to ride in the back of a truck! The trucks contain bins of books, a table, chairs, and two laptops. The same checkout system that the public library has isused for the mobile libraries; but each library is kept separate. When a child registers, the staff tries to get his or her birth date, but that isn’t always possible. Addresses don’t exist. Often all they have is the child’s name and name of the school.
The schools usually consisted of a couple of rooms in a cement-block building—very basic accommodations and furnishings. However, the children were excited when we arrived. When the teachers said they could, they brought books back and excitedly looked for new ones. Frequently they helped each other find books. Several of the visiting librarians checked books in and out.
Books were left for the teachers to use. Pre-schoolers aren’t allowed to check out books in some of the rural schools, but their teachers do read to them. Jane, of course, is trying to get that changed in every school!
The advent of the mobile library has resulted in other projects as well. Jane helped found a local Rotary Club that then became involved in providing a water system for the schools, which consists of a water tower with piping to sinks in class rooms. Students can now wash their hands—soap on a stick is provided as well. Rotary members, both local and from the U.S., also put in toilets, with doors. (Adolescent girls stop going to school if there aren’t toilets with doors). The water system/toilet project has lead to another service: the health department now visits the schools to talk about cleanliness.
When the bookmobiles are delivering books, they also take government-supplied beans and rice to the schools. The library donated big bins to put the commodities in to keep pests away.
On our last day in San Juan del Sur, we participated in the library’s 14th anniversary celebration. Jane hosts a celebration every year. To participate, the child has to be in good standing; all of their books must be in. However, if a child loses a book, he or she can either bring in another book to replace it, pay $3, or work for the library for three hours (more of the carrot instead of the stick approach).
The celebration is a major event in the town. Tents are set up for various crafts. This year’s theme revolved around Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Two of his children’s books, “Del Tropico,” and “A Margarita,” were featured, and many of the crafts had a tropical theme involving fish and birds. However, the most popular table had temporary tattoos, which were donated by one of the Colorado librarians. Games such as musical chairs were played, and piñatas were broken. Finger paints were set out so children could put their handprints on a large white sheet. Library staff wrote the child’s name next to the handprint.
The library provided a meal of arroz con pollo, salad, bread, and iced tea. About 650 people were served. Following the meal, awards were given for various achievements, such as a poetry contest, most books checked out, etc. This year the Nicaraguan Minister of Education was in attendance, as well as ANIBIPA librarians (Asociación Nicaragüense de Bibliotecarios y Profesionales Afines /Association of Nicaraguan Librarians). After the awards, birthday cake was served to all.
In the evening, we were invited to a dinner with library staff and ANIBIPA. Special awards were given to library staff, another piñata was broken, and more cake was served. Some of us even danced!
On our last day, on our way back to Managua, we stopped by the shelter again to deliver the bunk beds. We were disappointed that the residents weren’t there, but we left the beds with the caretakers. We heard later that our gift was greatly appreciated.
Although we also enjoyed such sights as the Masaya Volcano, a large statue of Jesus which overlooks the bay; and activities such as zip-lining, a sailboat trip (with swimming in the Pacific Ocean), and a visit to a beach where we saw live sand dollars; and were treated to amazing food, we all agreed that the highlights of the trip were watching the children get excited about books, helping with the anniversary celebration, and providing beds for some children who needed them. We received much more than we gave.