Monday, May 18, 2009

Bibliotic 2009 - Putting Local Content on the Internet: Biblioredes Chile

One of the most interesting conferences I attended at Bibliotic 2009, was the presentation by Enzo Abagliatti, national coordinator of Biblioredes, the public library network of Chile.

In contrast to the presentations that I saw from libraries that offer services to the public in Colombia, which focused mainly on the technical and procedural aspects of libraries and Internet literacy, and Abagliatti goes to the heart of the matter and broaches the questions: Why do we offer these services? And what is our role in the community?

He realized that libraries would lose relevance unless they responded to the public's perceived needs. For libraries, the challenge of the digital age is nothing less than their social relevance and reason for being.

The objective of the BiblioRedes program is to enable people to become active agents for the cultural and social development of their communities, and to overcome the barriers of isolation, by means of the new communication and information technologies. It is the notion of the library as a place that produces and disseminates information, rather than being a depository for information.

The challenges to meeting this objective were immediately apparent:
30% of libraries in Chile are staffed and run by a single person.
82% of public library users live below the poverty line.

These two factors meant that library staff would have to embrace the technology and be fully committed to this new concept of service before being able to impart training to others, otherwise the initiative would fail; and the large number of users below the poverty line meant that the library was likely to be their only opportunity for having access to the technology.

The computer and Internet literacy program went into effect in 2003. Nowadays a full third of Chileans who have received Internet training, got that training at a local library.

The results speak for themselves:
One of the first applications to become a success, was that of chat: families who were separated for different reasons would use the service to communicate with loved ones. This responds directly to the objective of overcoming isolation.

Since 2003, around 20,000 Chilean websites have been created, 7,000 of which host local content. Abagliatti showed some of the sites that have been created, such as a website that promotes local Chilean rock bands, and another providing links to different sites on local history. I did my own experiment to verify what Abagliatti said, that when searching the local content on Google these sites do come up within the first hits. So that if you, say, want information on the local rock band Jirafa Ardiendo, the first hit takes you to their site, with links to Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Fickr, and Mp3 files available. Those five guys have come a long way from someone's garage.

Suddenly local content is being created, with the technological savvy to make it available to the public. Information that was once not accessible is suddenly available.

The production of content is an intellectual process. It takes research and creativity to produce good quality content, and when that content is eminently local, much of the research must be done at local sources such as the library. The local library suddenly became extremely relevant again, and is playing a pivotal role in meeting the objectives of fomenting cultural and social development and overcoming the barriers of isolation.

In terms of overcoming the digital divide, Abagliatti refers to the book The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society, by professor Jan A.G.M. van Dijk, and the "virtuous circles" that are inherent to active citizenship:

1. Motivation is the first quality. The public needs to feel that the service or the technology serves them in some way.
2. Access to technology, in the physical sense; location for access and access speed.
3. Skills, computer and Internet literacy, the ability to make use of the resources.
4. Strategic use of the resources. As the resources are used strategically, quality of life begins to improve. As quality of life improves, the user is further motivated to continue making use of the service.

To round off his presentation, Abagliatti commented that with the rise of the Internet, practical books will disappear, as factual information needs to be updated constantly. It is the "useless books" --novels, poetry-- that remain timeless… and the print format is still the preferred medium for their use. He noted that as Internet use in the libraries took off, circulation statistics also rose.

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