My trip to the library

El Salvador now has a gleaming new national library in the center of San Salvador, courtesy of a donation by China.   The modern structure is located on Plaza Barrios in the historic center of the capital city, next to the old National Palace and directly across from the Metropolitan Cathedral.  President Nayib Bukele holds the building up as a symbol of the new El Salvador under his rule.   

I had a tour of the library during the second week of January.  Although seven weeks had passed since the opening of the library to the general public, visitors still needed to wait outside on a weekday morning in a long queue to gain admittance through a guided tour.  Tours were given by smiling young people with internships, including tours given in English to foreign tourists who might want to see Bukele's library.  

The first floors you encounter in the library are dedicated to children's books and learning from the earliest ages.  In addition to play areas, learning toys and children's books, there are areas for children on the autism spectrum and children who are visually impaired. These floors of the library are brightly colored and inviting for the young learner.

Early childhood play area

One cannot miss the focus in this library on popular culture.   Here you will find zones of the library dedicated to the Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Marvel and DC comics, Legos and Star Wars.  Kids and kids at heart can pose with life size storm troopers from Star Wars or build a model with Legos.  A separate corner is dedicated to The Little Prince, (El Principito), whose author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had a Salvadoran wife and where many elements of the book are references to geographical features of El Salvador. 

The Little Prince area


Star Wars zone

Video gaming zone on large screens

There is a definite emphasis on digital technology in El Salvador's new library.   Computers, video games and simulators are available on different floors.  The library is said to have robotics, virtual reality and 3D modelling. 

Books, however, play almost no role in this library outside of children's books on the lower levels.  It is not until you reach the fifth floor of the library building that you reach a collection of nonfiction books.  While our tour was paused, I wandered into the stacks to check out what this national library had to offer. What I found were brand new books, with no rhyme or reason or organizational scheme or indexing.   

Take this random shelf for example: 

On this one shelf were a strange assortment of multiple copies each of books on introduction to finance, integral calculus, illustrated orthography, Gregorian chant and a fiction work titled "The Smell of Books."  Just above that group of books were copies of a history of women in Spain and Latin America shelved alongside a book titled "Hacking Science."   No labels on the ends of any of the bookshelves offered a clue to what could be found in the stacks.  

I was left with the overwhelming impression that the collection of books on display in the library represented simply buying out the existing inventory of a large bookstore which had gone out of business, and then uncrating the books in any order and placing them on gleaming new shelves as a backdrop for photo-ops.  

I also saw no sign of the holdings one might expect in a national library. There is no indication of where one might find books and records dating back to the early years of the country's history.  I saw scant evidence that this library has a purpose to promote Salvadoran literary culture in comparison to the large amount of space dedicated to global pop culture.  

I asked our tour guide about the historic holdings held in the previous national library building.  She gestured towards a wall with a locked door not accessible to the public, and indicated vaguely that these holdings could be found on the other side of the wall.

While the areas devoted to early childhood and primary grade children were impressive and beautiful, you also come to realize that the actual reach of this library (outside of tours by visitors to the center of the city who come to admire all the shiny objects inside) is likely to be fairly limited.  It is difficult to imagine groups of more than 10 or 15 children of a given age group participating in an area at a time.  Although the library is going to be open 24 hours a day year round, its location is not a place where large groups of potential users live within walking distance.  Nor are there significant amounts of study space or numbers of individual computer terminals.  

The cultural resources in El Salvador which are within reach of much of the population are actually being closed.  The Ministry of Culture is closing half of the 152 Casas de la Cultura ("Culture Houses") in municipalities all across El Salvador.  The Casas de la Cultura functioned as museums, libraries, repositories of local history and legends, sites of workshops in visual and performing arts, and more.  These resources close to the people are now being abandoned in favor of the gleaming new library in the nation's capital. Meanwhile, schools throughout the country lack even the most basic library resources. 

Casa de la Cultura in Dulce Nombre de Maria, Chalatenango

One initial purpose served by the new national library has been to serve as propaganda for Nayib Bukele's re-election campaign.  Approximately 10 weeks before election day Bukele pre-empted television programming across the country to share this video tour of the gleaming new library just before it opened.

The role of the national library and other works funded by China are described this week in a report by BBC News Mundo titled The million-dollar works financed by China in El Salvador and what role they play in the re-election that Bukele seeks.  The report notes:

By design, the National Library of El Salvador would fit more in Silicon Valley or the City of London.

But it is in the heart of the Salvadoran capital, in contrast to the neoclassical National Palace and cathedral.

It is perhaps the most literal symbol of the renewed country of which Nayib Bukele boasts after five years in office, whose main policy has been the pacification of what was the most violent country in Latin America through his successful yet controversial war on gangs.

Once again a candidate to head the executive branch, Bukele, who like a good former publicist does not miss the power of a powerful image, inaugurated the library on November 14 in the middle of the campaign for the general elections on February 4

It wasn't the only campaign video made using a project with China.   Shortly after the opening of the library, Bukele and the Chinese ambassador held a photo-op to lay the first stone of a new $100 million soccer stadium to be donated by the Asian power.   The stadium today is only a computer rendering, but Bukele the publicist knows how to market a dream. 


Mungob said…