Martín Harfagar - Interview About the Future of Libraries

Translated from Spanish by Will Sherman.

Martin Harfagar is the founder of the TrasAnihue Community Library on the remote island of Anihue, in the south of Chile. The library's users are a handful of settlers who live with no electricity or running water. Martin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

I'm an architect. I studied in Valparaiso, Chile where I was taught that being an architect is not simply about leaving the University with a degree in hand; architecture isn't a science that deals with solutions and formulas. Yes, you can consider those aspects of it, but on the whole architecture is an art form linked to the "intangible" quality of people's life, where solutions are only consequences, but not origins, of the professional duty. That requires disassociating oneself from a "profession" as it is traditionally understood, and approaching it as one would the arts or other disciplines, and even as your own way of living. In my case, it's a social approach. Or, if you like, political in the most "proactive" sense of the word.

It's born from an experience of many years volunteering in the field of construction and training. I later found myself part of the reconstruction and auto-construction of churches in island communities of Chilo in a region known as the "Chauques Islands". These communities are characterized as rural, and pretty much cut off from centers of development. Because of this they have high indexes of material and economic poverty. But, paradoxically, these communities possess a high level of social and cultural content, as I have discovered by working on projects with them. This led me to create, together with friends of Anihue Island as well as other friends, a small social organization called "Trasanihue.Cultural Association".

Its purpose is to create a vision and to promote cultural development, as much in the communities that are apparently poor (but have a great richness hidden "behind" those conditions), as among those of us who form part of these actions. That's how the library was born, on the island, three years ago. These days I work in an office in Santiago and, on the side, travel to Anihue every now and again. I administer and manage contributions for the Library and try to keep its purpose alive.

Let's take a step back and imagine for a minute that you were not involved in a library project. How do you normally use libraries and how do you look for information in general?

You have to distinguish two things: a book is either a source of formation, or a source of information. I use libraries more for information than formation. The latter I look for in bookstores. This is important to understand, because it's a symptom - in my opinion - of the route that reading is taking, where it's more and more a source of data. A book, different from a newspaper, can change your way of seeing the world. It can make you ask yourself about your own view of things and by doing so contribute to your individuality, your identity. It's true that a magazine or newspaper - and more than anything the Internet - can deliver news that makes us change our view of things, but those things are external from one, they're changing and mobile. A book being read can become one's own internal source of how to see and imagine things.

Getting back to the question, I look for information on the Internet, or in newspapers or in very specific libraries, usually of some University. On the other hand, when looking for sources of inspiration to my thoughts and reflections, I go to little known bookstores. In this sense, there's a challenge to libraries because they are not solely a source of information, but rather more than that. Especially because libraries are, theoretically, accessible to everybody - different from a bookstore. In my opinion, bookstores do a good job of bringing together both information and formation, provide a good reference point for what I would like to do in Chiloe: something like The Literary Cafe in Providencia, Chile.

Why does Aeihue Island need a library now?

It doesn't need one. The TrasAnihue Community Library, as it is called, is not about a solution, because it isn't a solution. What I mean to say is that the library isn't the result of an evaluation or diagnosis about illiteracy or the lack of reading in the Chauques Islands. These are realities, but not the reason for the project.

Indeed, why do this library in a place like that, far away, separated, out-of-communication and small? It's about making a "universe" of knowledge, giving common, ordinary people such as fishermen, farmers - especially children - a chance to let their imaginations set sail. To show them that the relationship with a book is like a relationship with someone you like, and from there you can discover your appetite for knowledge, to question yourself about things and your own form of seeing the world.

Sometimes, in places like Anihue, the world is very near to the actual world, and nothing more. Perhaps, in this sense, a simple library could be a door to a world that is a little bit more than the immediate world and that, precisely, is what makes one ascribe more value to the world right here.

What is the library made up of, what does it look like?

It consists of a small little wooden house on the island of Anihue, near the school and the chapel. It has books, stories, novels, plus a few maps and dictionaries, totaling about 900 items at the moment, all of them donated by institutions or individuals. It is attended periodically by a semi-voluntary person. There are approximately 50 library members signed up, mostly children, and those who most frequently ask for and check out books are four or five children and a couple of adults.

The tiny population and characteristics of Anihue Island, with a rainy climate and slower pace of life, make for a small-scale library with less membership than others. But this makes sense within the logic of the way things work there. We have a Chiloe-style wood-burning stove that let's you heat up the place and make mate(typical South American tea). There's a computer and a gas-powered generator. In the summer we normally hold activities related to the book involving theater, storytelling or music.

From my experience in the social and community areas, I became convinced that neither the central nor municipal government, nor private businesses or institutions like the Church, which is so important in Chiloe, are interested in creating policy or initiatives that really benefit the social or cultural development on the local level. They don't know the needs of the people, or you could say that they don't know the spirit behind the needs, because they're too focused on solutions, and this isn't about a solution.

And their "solutions" are implemented from a comfortable, distant, unconnected place that is the opposite of the Chiloe reality. You need to drink mate with them, get your feet in the mud, travel in ferries, and from there think about what kind of library these places need.

In a previous conversation Martin, you told me you wanted to "reconceptualize what a library is". So what's is the old concept, and what's the new concept?

I speak from my experience in a community library that's 18 square meters and two hours by sea from the nearest city, weather permitting. So the old concept would be: I go, sign up, visit the library, if I'm interested in a book I check it out, I read it, I turn it in and so on?where what's important is the overdue fee I pay, or don't pay, when I return it. Like the late fee at Blockbuster, except the Blockbuster model is commercial.

A library shouldn't just be a book lender, but rather the richness underlyingthat simple, non-commercial act. This is related to what I mentioned earlier about information and formation; that is to say, give fullness to the path between the person and the book, and between that experience and how that person carries the content of the book on to his family, his actions, and his every day life. Informing oneself about what the weather will be like tomorrow, if it will rain or not so you know whether to take an umbrella with you or wear shorts, is different from adopting attitudes and habits in order to prepare for climate change, its causes, effects and prevention.

The concept of a library that I refer to is a place where the logic of "relationship between book and reader" exists. Going beyond the norms that govern a library related to the community where it's placed. TrasAnihue is more personalized than others.

Libraries should consider a series of other activities linked to the book loan, like conversations about the book, pictorial material, even theater, video and visual arts associated with the "extension" of the book. By this I don't mean to say that libraries should be cultural centers because that's a different proposal, but they should be a place primarily of formation and, secondly, extend into other activities that make the book something extraordinary. For the ordinary, I have the newspaper and the Internet. Now okay, the Internet could, without a doubt, transform itself into a tool at the service of formation, and in this sense a digital library that incorporates these parameters, seems to me like it would be a great help.

What libraries are you modeling your project after, and what are the cultural differences between this library and a library in Santiago?

I'll tell you what a library isn't. Go and visit the Metropolitan Library of Santiago. It's cold, out-of-scale, full of computers, freezing and impersonal, with an apparent "order", but without corners or particularities; all the furniture is the same, and it looks like a big storage facility or office. People don't talk to each other and the majority of the children - and teenagers - are sitting in front of computers, mostly playing games or chatting instead of researching or looking for information / formation on the Internet.

I ask myself if the human scale and the content behind the usage of a space is achieved by the size of a place, or more by the quality of the activities inside the space. From my perspective, it's necessary to evaluate this type of space, and figure out if it is the fruit of a badly understood, or badly applied, cultural policy.

Again, I think the Literary Cafe would be an example to follow. It's unnoticed, and therefore it's an adventure to go there. Reading is stimulated within the natural surroundings; it has a scale closer to its size, and with that it has warmth despite having the same construction materials as the Metropolitan Library. Books are within your reach. In addition, you can have coffee, or sit and read in a corner as if it were your living room. If you want, you can bring your notebook and go online. It's a multi-use area. It isn't called a "library", but rather a Cafe - literary Cafe. However, it's the best library that I know.

Now alright, if you are looking for books too specific or obscure, then don't go there, go to a University. I remember a book by Borges where he talked about the Library of Alexandria, big, very big. I imagine it to be splendid. I think the new National Library of France or any of those macro-libraries soon appearing in the world's major cities will always exist because the human being has the concept of power within, and architecture sometimes helps to express that. Those are Alexandrian libraries, where they store the world's great books and you can't deny that, although - in my opinion - they definitely aren't what will form future generations. Their main members are researchers, institutions, universities. They are, in other words, State libraries or almost Humanity's libraries.

I point to the local library and I don't rule out - because I dream about it - the possibility that in the future a citizen of any country in the world could say, "have you heard about a library on a lost island in the south of Chile that has a collection of the world's most fabulous books??"

How does the TrasAnihue Library play a role in the island society and its development?

It continues to both play, and discover, that role. We're not a library that achieves an educational role or comes to make up for deficits or lack of productivity or failings resulting from a bad national educational policy over the past 40 years. Instead, we aspire to be a non-library, one that is more of a library than others. I've seen that without even attempting to do so, the library has earned a place within the small town of Anihue, this means that it's already a part of the community's organizations, as are the church, the sports teams, the school, cooperatives or the center for parents and guardians. I see value in this.

I'll tell you something: a graphic designer who did his graduating thesis on the TrasAnihue Association gave the library a very simple sign that, in my opinion, is very good. It is a piece of wood with a drawing of a book that looks like a bird, and it says, "TrasAnihue Library". The librarian put this sign on the entrance to the library. Soon I saw that a sports team on the island had put a very striking sign in the entrance to their headquarters, with their team name chiseled onto a piece of wood. We had also restored and painted the interior of the small library white, and I noticed that another sports team on the island later re-painted their headquarters.

What has happened with the organizations in Anihue? I say that the library - which itself is the fruit of 8, 9, 10 years visiting this island, sharing a mateor a conversation or listening to them - has developed a neighborliness. It's like one more neighbor.

There are a lot of international digital library projects like Children's Digital Library, World Digital Library - even Google Book Search has partnered up with Chilean publishers. Do you see, or even just wish for, a leap into the digital world from TrasAnihue Library?

Yes. In my judgment it's inevitable. The question is when and how. When it has a greater importance for the Chiloe Library we might be a more economically and administratively sustainable project, and as such more serious about interacting with other institutions, communities and networks. In addition, it's necessary to consider that there has to be the right infrastructure for that to happen. Currently, a large part of Chiloe doesn't even have that.

As to "how", well, gradually. And with full awareness of our limitations. That said, I think that it's absolutely necessary to develop plans and take steps to start training and seminars, content support, instructional activities, outreach to the local community and national or international institutions and plans to obtain resources and administer them, in order for this opportunity to turn into a source of training, employment, and/or development.

For now then, while many people are talking about digital books and virtual libraries, what relevance does a library project have on an small island without electricity?

Only a very small percentage of the world's population has computers. Obviously this trend will continue growing, but to how many? 10%, 30%? For many decades to come, virtual libraries will be accessible only to a tiny portion of the population; those who have the means to access them, who are in developed nations or cities that have reached that level of interconnectivity.

In Chile, it is often said that we are near this level of development. For example, there are reports that the poorest households and the rural schools now have computers. However, the quality of those computers is extremely bad; they don't have enough hardware nor is the software adequate for the social reality. They require spending energy that doesn't exist in order to work, and the majority of teachers and heads of household have about as much technical know-how as the children or students they teach, who end up becoming their own teachers when it comes to computer skills. This should be part of a deeper study, as the consequences of this divide are evident. The supposed levels of development, by being based solely on computer penetration, are being used as nothing more than a political device.

However, everything that computers and digital libraries involve should be understood as a tool at the service of whoever uses them. They should help raise the quality of life, an instrument that each person should know how to use to his benefit, according to his requirements and level of knowledge. The Anihue Library would be a step before this. When the digital step arrives, I would like for it to be aligned precisely with the reality - or at the very least the capabilities or orientations that the local community would like to give to the information. We're at the point of preparing the "first floor" of digitization, and this is to our advantage.

You're starting a private library in a country in which books are extremely expensive, partly because of a book tax. How has the price of books here affected the development of the library?

In this first stage of putting together a beginning "platform" of books, it's really worked thanks to donations, and because of this the price of books doesn't affect us. This has resulted in most of our collection being the most well-known books, the "classics", and many of them are in good shape. In the second phase we will have to think about this aspect in order to be more selective with the titles, the authors and the quality of the physical book. This is an interesting point, because reiterating the concept of an anormal library, I believe that one of the most meaningful things where you could unite architecture with the social, cultural, or technical aspects would be turning TrasAnihue Library into a place for "special" books. Like I said, turn the library into an enclave of books that would be recognized for its content and quality, more than for its quantity and digital level of digital access.

It seems that this would go hand in hand with the personalization of each copy and at the same time would enrich what I said earlier about the path to a book, and the path from there to its social extension. Perhaps this vision is closer to a 'collection'. As such, it's necessary to incorporate planning and public relations in order to be able to get a few book donations that are both good and specialized. Also, if we get money from grants I would prefer to buy few books, but good, specific books. I think that these guidelines can give a sense of self-evolution to the project, and soon you begin to dialogue with this evolution.

Do you see technological development in Chile creating opportunities for knowledge among poor people, or does it depend more on technologically traditional libraries such as TrasAnihue?

I think it's necessary in the first place to define whether development in poor communities involves access to technology, or basic material living conditions. And at the same time it has to involve a development of identity and local spirit. For example, create conditions like potable water, sewage, a clean environment, electricity, health and education. This would come before technology.

We would need to survey people in the Chauques Islands about what they want; they may reply that they need decent roads, or a post office, or good quality employment, or a school nearby for their children. Or possibly a library.

They might name the technology that they want. Personally, and from my experience in a community library, I think it's necessary to provide according to how the library's membership develops, both in quality and resources. Begin with libraries more - as you say -technologically traditional, mainly because they are the base from which we would later assess the right way to use digital media.

Thank you Martin for taking the time to share your insights and experiences with us!

 

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