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Digital Libraries in Mexico
No roots for digital libraries in Mexico

A quick search online about digital libraries brings up more alternatives outside of Mexico than information on local projects. The media may not be fully aware of Mexico’s digital libraries, and it may be that there are not enough of them or that they lack a strong presence in people’s minds. The best known and most recommended are local academic initiatives, as they are generally obliged to offer alternative forms of information to their communities. These tend to be suggested alongside global projects to those seeking digital knowledge. It is even more common to find people on social media offering access to drives containing feminist libraries, children's books, philosophy collections, and even complete works by popular authors. However, the realisation of a comprehensive digital public library is a pending issue in my country.

By Alejandra Quiroz Hernández

In the political discourse of Mexico, it is constantly said that there is interest in creating a digital offer in various areas. However, it has been difficult for projects to endure, either due to lack of budget, vision or follow-up. The cultural issue is no exception. Although there are offices coordinating the cultural agenda, their plans are often short-sighted and tend to exclude public libraries. During the pandemic, institutional projects such as ‘Reading Crew’ were created, which brings together three agencies supplying digital books for children as well as resources for parents and teachers. We are hoping this project will continue for many years.

In the political discourse of Mexico, it is constantly said that there is interest in creating a digital offer in various areas. However, it has been difficult for projects to endure, either due to lack of budget, vision or follow-up.

Alejandra Quiroz Hernández

As far as Public Libraries are concerned, the Vasconcelos Library, inaugurated in May 2006, was intended to be a pioneer in digital services. Located north of the city, in the Buenavista neighbourhood, on paper it promised to be the digital brain of the Library of Mexico, which until then was the main public library of the city. For a while it was possible to take virtual tours of the library in special modules made available for the purpose. This was just a minimal gesture of frustrated ambition, however. Internet connection was scarce and poor in quality. But the library did put together a training program on the use of different software and social media for people of all ages and elderly people in particular. It also embraced Wikipedia and Digital Humanities projects which engaged people from different backgrounds. The efforts to push forward a digital library ended with the change of its administration in 2019.

The best attempt to create a digital library in Mexico so far was the DigitaLee project, available in a desktop version and mobile application, which strived to be comparable to Overdrive in the USA, or Biblix in Sweden. It was launched in September 2016 and had up to 3,000 titles distributed in 10 thematic sections. Completely free, each user could borrow up to two books for 21 days with the possibility of renewing them one more time unless they were reserved. Registration was relatively straightforward and public libraries were in charge of registering and training users in the use of the platform.

In June 2018, DigitaLee's permanence began to be questioned. Despite its imperfections, the platform’s users expressed their opposition to suspending the service. Ultimately, the project’s contract was not renewed. In typical Mexican style, a Twitter account was created by which to remember the project.

Efforts to make a digital library available for all are foundering in Mexico. I believe this is a wasted opportunity for reaching new users and audiences. Just last year, the government announced Amazon had donated 300 e-readers. Clearly that is not enough for a network with over 7,400 public libraries. We still don’t know what criteria are being used to assign them to public libraries in Oaxaca, the State of Mexico and Morelos, nor what kind of books are loaded in them.

Today it is almost proven that the digital book reader, although comfortable, is less and less necessary. 9 out of 10 Mexicans have a smartphone: would these not be the most readily available devices to access libraries and digital books? In Mexico, 70.1% of the population over six years of age has access to the Internet, 95.3% of which is through smartphones. Despite this, the digital divide is very real, just like the low reading rate and the almost non-existent visits to public libraries: only 10.4% of the population said they had visited a library to access reading materials in 2019.

A few months ago, Bookmate, the e-books reading application, shared its statistics after a year in the country. They revealed that during the lockdown, the use of the platform increased by 50%, which coincided with the #QuédateLeyendo (StayReading) campaign that offered a free subscription month. People jumped on this offer and many of them remained subscribers, paying less than $4 a month. The study data is very interesting and could be developed as the basis of a solid strategy for the implementation of a digital library. If people are willing to pay for a membership, why doesn't the State take over that service in order to equalize opportunities and close the digital divide? There will never be enough funds to fulfil it. It is a matter of making smart use of the resources available.