Travelling librarians: From UBC to Guatemala

English class in Montericco.|Photo courtesy of Matthew Root

English class in Montericco.|Photo courtesy of Matthew Root

While ensuring access to clean water and adequate health care are key elements in the fight against global inequality, expanding access to information is also vital. That is the philosophy of Librarians Without Borders (LWB), a non-profit organization founded in 2005 that recently established a chapter at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Matthew Root, co-chair of the UBC group, focuses his efforts in Guatemala, where he seeks to provide aid and expertise in partnership with pre-existing local organizations. In particular, he tries to equip local libraries with reading materials that not only capture readers’ interest, but also reflect the linguistic and cultural makeup of the different regions of Guatemala.

“Using the library as a physical space, we want to support a learning community that encourages collective growth. But our involvement must be in a supportive role, following the lead of the community,” says Root.

Low-cost, high-tech

Root explains that LWB and its partners seek to create a sustainable library system for these communities, with a basic and cost-effective method for accessing and categorizing information without internet access. Enter the Raspberry Pi: a micro-sized single-board computer with a price tag of less than $40. Root has been using these devices and a software package called Remote Areas Community Hotspots for Education and Learning (RACHEL) to provide free educational courseware and library database access to children in developing countries with no internet connection or very limited bandwidth.

“We can create sustainable libraries and learning communities with devices such as these because they are effective, inexpensive to purchase and fix and do not require extensive programming knowledge,” says Root.

The UBC executive committee: (left to right) Matthew Root, Becky Epplett,  Kaitie Warren, Kelly Savage, Kelsey Ockert.|Photo by John Dingle

The UBC executive committee: (left to right) Matthew Root, Becky Epplett, Kaitie Warren, Kelly Savage, Kelsey Ockert.|Photo by John Dingle

Low-tech book preservation

Guatemala’s climate provides additional challenges, specifically the potential negative effects on bookbinding and conservation, that require flexible and locally-driven solutions. Root explains that high elevation and humid conditions contribute to the problem of bio-deterioration. This includes the threat of mold, bacterial growth and the bleaching and weakening effects of UV light on reading materials.

“When outside groups from developed nations come in, it is too easy for us to default to modern technologies. Guatemala is not a place where we can opt for climate control systems. Even if we could afford them, energy blackouts are a common occurrence, even in the wealthiest areas, and the constant fluctuation of conditions would be more harmful to the collection,” explains Root.

Instead, LWB and its Guatemalan partners, Miguel Angel Asturias Academy and Limitless Horizons Ixil, opt for simple and cost-effective methods to address ecological concerns. Using fans and high ceilings effectively circulates air and greatly reduces the humidity levels in buildings. Shelving books away from outer walls, which are subject to sometimes drastic outside temperature changes, keeps the collection at a more consistent temperature. These types of solutions can be implemented and maintained, thus providing long term value and benefit for these developing communities.

The success of these projects is contingent on the contributions of many volunteers and donors. Follow the link below if you are inspired by the Librarians Without Borders, and wish to support information literacy in Guatemala: