'We need to rebuild the culture of the book here in Colombia,' explains Manuel Jose Botero, the co-ordinator of academic and cultural activities at the Instituto Caro y Cuervo in Bogotá. The institute is undergoing something of a transformation which reflects the current attempts to transform Colombian society itself.
While Colombia has a strong literary heritage, particularly since 'El Boom' (the explosion in post-war South American literature), for most Colombians, books are a luxury. The nation that famously created magical realism through the pen of Gabriel García Márquez is not short on enthusiasm for literature. At a recent literary festival in Cartagena de Indias on Colombia's Caribbean coast, I saw Latin American heavyweights mobbed by fans who had travelled for up to 36 hours by bus to hear them read. Colombia also has a dynamic literary scene which includes an annual poetry festival in Medellín (notorious as the home town of drug baron Pablo Escobar) and a biennial theatre festival in the heart of Bogotá. But what it has lacked until very recently are libraries, and it is at this grassroots level that things have begun to change.
In 1998, a survey found that there were just 105 libraries in Bogotá - that's about one for every 67,000 people. And three quarters of those libraries had only one employee and were often opened, with limited numbers of books, as cynical vote winners by local officials. Only the BLAA (Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango), which contained 90 per cent of the books in the entire library system, had adequate staffing and equipment and was overcrowded as a result.
Books in Colombia are expensive, costing around US$30 each: well beyond the reach of the 64 per cent of Colombians living below the poverty line. Add to that the four decades of civil war that have ravaged the country and forced around two million refugees to flee their villages for the slums of Bogotá and you can see why access to books is beyond the reach of many.
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