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The power of collaboration
Libraries’ joint efforts to face the COVID-19 pandemic in Bolivia

By Ramiro Rico

Libraries have faced multiple troubles throughout history. From the very beginning of humanity, in the places where the first attempts at human writing were made 44,000 years ago, the rock-art had its own issues with problems like preservation (Darvill & Batarda Fernandes, 2014). We also can see other historical events where libraries faced difficulties like the burning of the Library of Alexandria (Thiem, 1979), the Black Plague (Hayes, s. f.), censorship and a list so long that it would not fit in this essay. Today we face old issues with new formats, not only COVID-19, but misinformation and even an ‘infodemic’ (Zarocostas, 2020).

Libraries in Bolivia before and after COVID-19

Bolivia is a country in the heart of South America, where in recent years illiteracy has been slowly declining (Velásquez Loaiza, 2018), but where functional illiteracy persists despite efforts by the government and others to eradicate it (Página 7, 2017). This means that only 3% of the population read books, and the remaining 97% are not in the habit of doing so, even if they ‘can’. Maybe this is because the fight against illiteracy is based around lectures rather than focusing on the joy of reading, and the efforts are not in libraries, but in schools. 
 
Understanding Bolivia also requires a consideration of its economy. Despite an ‘economic boom’ in Bolivia during recent years, its economy is not sustainable due the ongoing exploitation of natural resources and extreme difficulties within the private sector (World Bank, 2020), as well as significant rates of inequality (Lykke E., 2020). This leads people to concentrate their efforts not on education, but in working for basic necessities like food. 
 
Libraries have attempted to address all the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but according to the data provided by the Colegio de Profesionales en Ciencias de la Información (CPCIB), libraries are focussing their efforts on the main challenge: education. This is understandable due to the low functional literacy rate the country faces. Libraries do also work in every SDG area, but with less intensity.
SDGs addressed by libraries in Bolivia SDGs addressed by libraries in Bolivia

Bolivia has always been in a state of social conflict. Lately we have seen the repression of indigenous protesters (Saavedra, 2014), election fraud (Kurmanaev, 2019) and a constant state of political division and tension just months before COVID-19 arrived in the territory.
 
In 2019, the members of the CPCIB introduced a course with some themes that had barely been considered by librarians in the country before then: open access and digital libraries. The Asociación Boliviana de Bibliotecarios also made efforts to help librarians, but this came months later.
 
The CPCIB’s efforts not only produced a course, but also sparked a web of collaboration. Many librarians tackled online services or remote working for the first time. Those librarians who had been resistant to technology until this point confronted the challenge using all the tools they had been afraid of. The virus forced librarians to acquire new knowledge with which to face the digital world; this led to a ‘forced collaboration’ and a ‘forced update’.

Digital libraries and collaboration

The digital world has changed how people seek and find information. Libraries might seem to be in danger in this new paradigm. ‘A digital library is an innovative library service that uses information technology, and nearly every major development stage of a digital library is accompanied by major technological changes.’ (Li et al., 2019). This definition can be improved if we see the work of Carević, who introduces and connects social and human behaviour as the centre of the digital library (Carević, 2020). 
 
So, a digital library can be defined as an innovative library that uses information technology based on the behaviour of the library patrons. This definition matches with the ones seen in the series of webinars and masterclasses of the Emerging International Voices programme.

The digital library seems to be the best answer to lockdown measures and social distancing, but in a country like Bolivia, where the internet is one of the slowest and most expensive in the world (…) digital inequality becomes a serious barrier.

The digital library seems to be the best answer to lockdown measures and social distancing, but in a country like Bolivia, where the internet is one of the slowest and most expensive in the world (CCB, 2019), and where not all the population can access it or own a device with which to connect to it, digital inequality becomes a serious barrier that can compound the problems of illiteracy and poor education.
 
In this scenario, digital libraries become a solution for a part of the population, but increase the inequalities among more vulnerable groups. So, despite the efforts of librarians to address these new challenges, we can identify new ones. 

So, what can be done?

Libraries are key institutions in the fight against inequality. Librarians help all kinds of people across the social spectrum. Creating a library service focused on patrons needs to be inclusive, looking at the needs of every type of patron. 
 
Libraries have a duty to fight these problems. Where there is a lack of technology among their patrons and libraries need to consider how they can provide services to make a more equal society.
 
Underprivileged people in Bolivia used to depend on libraries or internet cafés to access the digital world, but with the lockdown this group was left behind. Following the example of the Universidad Autónoma de México UNAM (UNAM, 2020), lending computers or devices can be a possibility.
 
Libraries were a space where the community can reunite and librarians can promote education, but social distancing has made it difficult to achieve this objective. Social media is one way to meet this difficulty, forming online reading clubs and providing educational opportunities for patrons.
 
Finally, in a country with a developing economy, where even before the COVID-19 crisis there was political, economic and social crisis, buying e-books or hiring a company like Elsevier to lend scientific/academic information to scholars was difficult. But despite these obstacles, librarians found a way through open access and collaboration to make a better world for their patrons.
 

Bibliography

 
Carević, Ž. (2020). Contextualised Stratagem Browsing in Digital Libraries [DuEPublico: Duisburg-Essen Publications online, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany]. 

CCB. (2019, mayo 21). Gobierno asegura que Bolivia ya no tiene el internet más caro y más lento a comparación de otros países

Darvill, T., & Batarda Fernandes, A. (2014). Open-air rock-art preservation and conservation: A current state of affairs (pp. 1-16).

Hayes, J. (s. f.). When the Public Feared That Library Books Could Spread Deadly Diseases. Smithsonian Magazine. Recuperado 14 de noviembre de 2020, de 

Kurmanaev, A. (2019, diciembre 5). “Election Fraud Aided Evo Morales, International Panel Concludes”. The New York Times

Li, S., Jiao, F., Zhang, Y., & Xu, X. (2019). Problems and Changes in Digital Libraries in the Age of Big Data From the Perspective of User Services. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 45(1), 22-30. 

Lykke E., A. (2020, marzo 20). Measuring Inequality at the Sub-National Level in Bolivia. SDSN Bolivia

Página 7. (2017, abril 9). Tres de cada 100 bolivianos lee dos libros anualmente. Página 7. 

Saavedra, J. L. (2014, agosto 15). MASACRE CHAPARINA [Text]. Erbol Digital Archivo. 

Thiem, J. (1979). The Great Library of Alexandria Burnt: Towards the History of a Symbol. Journal of the History of Ideas, 40(4), 507.

UNAM. (2020, octubre 29). A disposición de universitarios el centro más grande de la UNAM para préstamo de computadoras e internet. Gaceta UNAM. 

Velásquez Loaiza, M. (2018, enero 25). Con una tasa de analfabetismo de 2,7%, ¿es Bolivia un ejemplo en educación para América Latina? | CNN. 

World Bank. (2020, octubre 1). Bolivia: Panorama general [Text/HTML]. World Bank. 

Zarocostas, J. (2020). How to fight an infodemic. The Lancet, 395(10225), 676. 

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