Quake Shatters Chile’s Public Library Services

March 10, 2010

Nearly two weeks after a devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile, library officials in the Department of Public Libraries of Chile’s Directorate of Libraries, Archives, and Museums (DIBAM) are still trying to determine the extent of the damage to the nation’s nearly 400 public libraries.

The epicenter of the February 27 quake registered at 3:34 a.m. offshore near the coastal towns of Curanipe in the Maule region and Cobquecura in the Bio-Bio region, both approximately 241 miles southwest of the capital city of Santiago. The damage and subsequent 150 aftershocks extended over six regions, impacting more than 2 million people and killing more than 300 people.

Sideshow created by Coord. Btcas. Públicas

“We have slowly been receiving information from our regional staff as communications are irregular,” said Pilar Pacheco, training manager of DIBAM’s BiblioRedes Program. “Several small towns and villages along the coastline were practically devastated, completely wiped out. Our regional staff has been trying to contact library staff in every possible way. Out of the 278 libraries in the area, we already have information from about 200 of them. We know that at least six libraries have been destroyed either by the earthquake or the tsunami and about 90 have been damaged and will need to be rebuilt or repaired.”

Much of the effort to comprehensively assess the damage to the country’s public library system has been hindered by the difficulty with travel, not only because of the damaged infrastructure to roadways and communications systems, but also because many cities and towns are under a state of emergency, with curfews imposed.

Of the towns nearest to the epicenter, Curanipe did not have a public library but Cobquecura did. According to a preliminary damage assessment, the Cobquecura library will have to be demolished. At this time it is uncertain how many more libraries are in the same situation because structural evaluation specialists are in such demand that they have not yet had the time to evaluate some library buildings.

Pacheco noted, “The good news is that about 133 libraries have opened their doors, even those that have suffered some small damages, and are helping people to contact their loved ones. Library staff are well known in small towns, because the library is a community center.” DIBAM received a $9.2-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2001 to provide access to over 2,000 computers, high-speed internet, and information technology training to the public library staff throughout the country through the implementation of the BiblioRedes Program.

Santiago Public Library, which opened its doors in 2005, was one of the many buildings in the capital damaged by the tremors, but its doors were scheduled to reopen to the public this week. Director Gonzalo Oyarzun said, “The library suffered a variety of injuries to the structure and was closed for the week after the earthquake. We are assessing the damage, which includes large cracks to the building, some broken glass doors, and other smaller problems in need of repair. Further studies will be conducted by engineers before we allow the public to enter the building.”

Paola Gallegos, national coordinator of the BiblioRedes Program, stated, “The first steps are to fine tune the collection of information, placing special attention on learning about the status of library staff, then move on to infrastructure, equipment, and networks. This will provide us with an economic evaluation of what it will take to enable the BiblioRedes services to be operational again. However since DIBAM cannot invest in municipal infrastructure, we can only go so far to replace the computer equipment and networks, and we will need to advocate for companies and municipalities to help not only with psychological support for the staff, but also for infrastructure and repairs for the libraries.”

Gallegos continued, “We will need to prioritize where to reestablish connectivity first. For example, the library on Juan Fernandez Island, also known as Robinson Crusoe Island, was completely destroyed. Restoring service there becomes a key priority to serve this isolated island community. We’re trying to design an advocacy plan for libraries, but given the magnitude of what has happened, the nation’s priority today is rebuilding schools, hospitals, and homes, not public libraries. It is painful to acknowledge this, but DIBAM believes we must work on helping everyone understand the importance of reestablishing library services in the communities.”

Currently, at least 128 public libraries, or nearly one third of the national system, have not been able to reopen their doors to the public. While the overwhelming majority of the library staff has reported no personal damage to their own homes, DIBAM has been unable to reach 38 staff, whose situations at this time are unknown.


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