Bibliobús Bertolt Brecht and the German-Nicaraguan Library
Country Profile: Nicaragua
|Poverty (Population living on less than US$ 1.25 per day)|
|Total Expenditure on Education as % of GNP|
|Total Youth Literacy Rate (15–24 years)|
|Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over, 2005)|
|Programme Title||Bibliobús Bertolt Brecht and the German-Nicaraguan Library|
|Implementing Organization||Pan y Arte e.V. (Germany)|
|Date of Inception||1987 –|
Context and Background
As the second poorest country in Latin America, Nicaragua struggles against a low development rate. With political strife having disrupted the basic education of many adults and in the light of a significant school drop-out rate for children, there are still many Nicaraguans who are illiterate or have low levels of literacy. Less than 50% of the children who started in the first grade of primary school manage to reach the final grade (UIS, 2007) and only 80% of children of primary school age attend classes (UNICEF, 2003-2008). A high rate of unemployment can be found across the country and around 27% of Nicaraguan prisoners are between the ages of 15 and 18. In spite of the large share of young inmates, the prisons find it difficult enough to pay for medical or psychological care for the prisoners and under such circumstances, funds for training and education are virtually non-existent.
In the 1980s, a successful literacy campaign was launched by the Nicaraguan government which mobilised high school and university students as well as teachers from all levels of education to deliver literacy classes across the country over a period of 5 months. The results of this initial campaign earned Nicaragua the UNESCO Nadezka Kruskaya Prize for Literacy in 1980. A change of government in 1990 led to the dismantling of the former literacy programme and, though new institutions and projects were established, illiteracy rates in the 1990s showed only marginal improvement in comparison to 1970. The “Yo Sí Puedo” programme, which began in Nicaragua in 2005, has since given renewed momentum to the challenge of tackling illiteracy and can be said to have made significant headway. However, the receding levels of literacy after the first campaign reinforce the importance of establishing literacy sustaining environments which endure regardless of the scope of government policies and inspire and enable those who have participated in literacy programmes to continue learning.
The Bibliobús project began in 1984 when the retired German librarian, Elisabeth Zilz, visited Nicaragua for the first time. Following the powerful impression the country and its people left on her, she returned to Germany with the intention of supporting Nicaragua. Seeking a way to express her solidarity, she set upon acquiring financial assistance to create a new mobile library service and, subsequently, a permanent German-Nicaraguan Library. There had been a predecessor to the mobile library, the vehicle “Simón Bolívar”, donated by the government of Venezuela in 1981 as a gesture of solidarity to the people of Nicaragua. Unfortunately though, this vehicle had to be decommissioned in 1986 when important parts could not be replaced.
The mobile library set up by Elizabeth Zilz and her trusted supporters, Bibliobús Bertolt Brecht, has now been in service since 1987 and the public library, Biblioteca Alemana-Nicaragüense, has been open since 1993. The entire programme was taken over by the German NGO, Pan y Arte e.V., in 2009 following the retirement of the Ms. Zilz. Pan y Arte e.V. was established in Weikersheim, Germany in 1994 and has the mandate to help disadvantaged people in Nicaragua through the means of education, art and culture, thereby fostering greater cultural understanding.
Aims and Objectives
The aims of the two projects (the mobile library and the German-Nicaraguan Library) are as follows:
- Strengthen and reinforce basic education and replace the services of the former mobile library.
- Cultivate and nurture an enjoyment of reading among the children, young people and adults of Nicaragua.
- Provide access to information on national and international literature for children, schoolchildren and all of the library’s visitors who are interesting in gaining knowledge on these topics.
- Support schoolchildren from primary and secondary education with their homework and research.
- Give prisoners the opportunity to develop their skills on a professional and a personal level.
- Support the democratisation process of the people.
- Create an environment (and more specifically, a building) for cultural exchange with national and international institutions (speeches, talks, meetings, courses, etc.). In practice, this objective is met by means of offering cultural and educational services for the community (e.g. self-defence workshops, concert and theatre venue, school holiday activity programmes, etc.).
The first steps towards establishing the mobile library service were made in Germany, where Elizabeth Zilz collected donations, gave presentations, set up advertisements, introduced the project at the Frankfurt Book Fair and earned support from publishers, artists, writers, priests and many other interested members of the public. Through these channels of support, she collected enough money to buy a bus in the former German Democratic Republic and around 3,000 books in Spanish. In order to strengthen the books for library usage, she established the bookbinding workshop “Sophie Scholl” in Managua, Nicaragua, which remains in operation today.
Following the generosity of several mechanics, who offered their skills free of charge to transform the bus into a mobile library, the Bibliobús Bertolt Brecht came into service in 1987. On account of the previous mobile library, Simón Bolívar, having run into disrepair, the new vehicle was equipped with a tool box and replacement parts.
Since being introduced, the mobile library has visited a variety of villages, schools, factories and institutions. At present, it travels once a month to the three prisons, Chinandega, Granada and Matagalpa (each with approx. 800 prisoners), and every fortnight to the women’s prison “La Esperanza” in Managua. Contracts were drawn up between the individual prisons and the Bibliobús in order to regulate the visits and ensure that the prisons would support the bus project in case of the loss of books, with the presence of wardens during visits, by ensuring direct access to the books for the prisoners and with financial aid by subsidising fuel costs. After negotiation with the prisons, direct access for the prisoners to select books was successfully obtained in all of the institutions. In some of the rural prisons, the wardens change every five years and the contract with the Bibliobús is signed on a yearly basis.
The Bibliobús forms a significant opportunity for prisoners to develop their skills and characters during their time behind bars. The inmates often receive advice from the librarian and materials, such as paint or paper, are occasionally brought to support any skills which the prisoners may develop and wish to pursue. Inmates can be given the privilege of withdrawing three books per month if a volunteer from the Bibliobús notices that he or she has a high level of academic ability. Literature workshops were offered in the prisons in 2009 and 2010 in order to give the participants the chance to exchange information about what they have read and receive more information about authors and literature. On a more fundamental level, many of the inmates first learn to read and write whilst in prison. The Bibliobús supports their basic literary needs with a selection of children’s books and easy reading material.
A special selection of literature is available for the women’s prison in order to make it easier for them to re-integrate in society. Following the women’s interest in the books on religion, drawing, sewing, dancing, typing, etc., the literature has been complemented by visits from external prison staff who are qualified to offer guidance and train the women (to differing levels) in these areas.
To reach the wider community, the Bibliobús travels to schools in rural areas, at least one of which it has now served for over 20 years. Before commencing the service, agreements are drawn up with the school to define how often the Bibliobús should visit, what kind of books should be provided, what happens if a book goes missing, etc. Both teachers and pupils are provided with access to reading material which can support their formal education and compensate for the lack of books available in the classroom and home environments. Every year, International Book Day is celebrated in and around the bus where the children can spend the day reading and listening to storytellers. A list of the books out on loan is prepared during every Bibliobús visit and a copy remains on site, be it at a school or a prison, to ensure that the person in charge can collect and order the books before the next visit. The books are usually borrowed for a month by the users.
The German-Nicaraguan Library
In 1993, the Biblioteca Alemana-Nicaragüense (German-Nicaraguan Library) was established as a public library in Managua which, aside from its variety of library functions, houses the Bibliobús and serves as an area to store the books. The library was situated in the premises of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation until 2001 when the city of Managua donated 1000m² of territory in Linda Vista Norte, on which the new library building could be constructed. Further extension was carried out in 2005 and the building now covers 463m², consisting of a large reading room, a children’s area, a small auditorium and space and tables for 65 visitors.
Almost exceeding its capacities, the library houses over 14,000 books, of which 14% are school books, 33% are national and international literature, 15% are children’s and young adult books and 38% are non-fiction. Part of the collection consists of 700 titles from German literature translated into Spanish ranging from books on philosophy, psychology and religion to history, biographies and young adult literature. Nowadays, the books are obtained both in Nicaragua and abroad. Many titles are donated by exhibitors and participants of the annual Frankfurt Book Fair in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
In addition to the library services offered, many cultural activities take place in the library such as concerts, book readings and author events, exhibitions, film showings and workshops. The variety and regularity of events have established the library as a cultural centre which actively promotes cultural exchange. The library supports many other initiatives (often offering its auditorium for cultural use) and works in harmony with a range of institutions and NGOs.
Pan y Arte has contributed to the project since 2002 and when Elizabeth Zilz retired seven years later, Pan y Arte became the German organisation responsible for the Biblíobus Bertolt Brecht and the German-Nicaraguan Library, alongside coordinating additional social and cultural projects in Nicaragua.
Staff Engagement and Training
A team of ten people work in the library, including the Director, the cleaning staff, the librarian, the librarian’s assistant, the children’s area assistant, an employee to help with lending out books and often a young volunteer from Germany. With the exception of the volunteers, the posts are remunerated. The children’s area assistant is responsible for helping children to develop their reading skills in both the library and the nearby schools and attends workshops, particularly on the topics of reading aloud, craftwork, etc.
The tasks involved in this position require creativity, enjoyment in reading, the ability to read in an entertaining manner and, where possible, some pedagogical training. The librarian, who has a long experience working in libraries, is currently studying for a degree in Information Management and routinely participates in training workshops on library management offered by the National Library and the National Association of Librarians. Representatives from the organisation “Libros para niños”, which plays an important role in encouraging children to read in Central America, come to the library regularly to work with the library employees as part of a cooperation between both organisations.
The first driver of the Bibliobús, Reybil Cuaresma Bustos, initially performed the tasks of the librarian and continues to drive the Bibliobús to this day. Over the years, his loyalty, commitment and know-how have enabled many Nicaraguans to have direct and meaningful contact to reading material and to cultivate reading habits which will accompany them for life. Each time the Bibliobús sets out, either the librarian or her assistant accompany the driver in order to help with the book lending and collection, and to advise and support the readers.
In 2001, the library started to offer unpaid work placements for young Germans who wish to spend 6 to12 months living and working in Nicaragua. The volunteers help with manual tasks but, most importantly, contribute to enhancing the role of the library as a cultural and educational centre for the community. It is common for them to offer English or German classes and give music, juggling or chess lessons but they are encouraged to set up their own initiatives based on their talents and interests.
Programme Impact and Challenges
Impact and Achievements
One of the most profoundly successful parts of the programme has undoubtedly been through the interaction with prisoners and by providing them with access to literature. With over 6,500 books having been borrowed by inmates from four prisons in 2009, it is clear that many prisoners take advantage of the opportunity to borrow books from the Bibliobús. In addition to children’s books being read by those with low levels of literacy, non-fiction books are in high demand from prisoners who want to acquire practical skills and further their personal development. Literature not only offers them a chance to escape the tough and monotonous life in prison but allows them to acquire knowledge which will be useful when they are released.
Cooperative relations between the prison employees and the Bibliobús volunteers have enabled the programme to work well and have such a positive effect on the prisoners. On leaving prison, one of the inmates from Chinandega prison received a grant from a German sponsor to finance his apprenticeship for a few years. However, there are many more accounts of the positive impact that the library service has had on prisoners:
Luis Francisco Arauz: “When I first came to prison eleven years ago, I believed that my life had been destroyed. Then, I began to read books through the Bibliobús. One day I found a book called “The Joy of Painting” which contained so many beautiful things that I decided to start painting. With what I have learned, I can earn a living as a sign painter. Nowadays, thanks to my painting, the community recognises and appreciates me and I have become a different person. My teacher was the Bibliobús.”
On arriving at the rural schools, the mobile library is always greeted by a crowd of children, pupils and young adults. In light of the considerable number of pupils who do not manage to complete their entire primary education, the mobile library creates an incentive to attend school and the arrival of the bus is announced through a loudspeaker to inform the community. The reading skills that pupils develop by loaning books remains with them throughout their lives and goes some way to counteract the negative effects of an stunted primary education.
The staff of the mobile library were able to witness how the children’s experience fostered enjoyment in reading and helped them to achieve success. Though it was challenging to follow the progress of the children once they left primary school, concrete results can be seen. One girl who used the Bibliobús service at school has now gone on to study medicine and stated that without the library service she would have very likely not done so. In the village of Los Cerros, the secondary school children insisted that they too be given access to the library service which was previously only offered to the children of primary age. The teenagers request young adult books from the Latin American classics to modern international literature such as Harry Potter and the Twilight saga and there is one very talented young artist who lends books on Leonardo DaVinci and drawing techniques.
Used by about 20,000 people every year and with about 100 to 150 children and young adults visiting every day to do their homework, read and play, the library forms a cultural hub for the community. The assistants support pupils with their homework and from time to time the institution provides children with school bags, paper and school books to make it easier for them to attend school. The majority of visitors are pupils who live nearby and come to do their homework but university students and adults visit regularly too. On the national level, the library supports international cultural exchange by hosting lectures, discussions, internships and various projects with foreign guests. This level of active, public library culture was somewhat unknown and revitalising in Nicaragua.
Following the literacy campaign of the 1980s, the visits of the Bibliobús to factories and rural villages made it easier for those who had improved their reading skills to continue developing, as well as giving people an incentive to learn more. Through the Bibliobús visits and the creation of the library, advancements have been made to overcome the scarcity of literature and create literacy sustaining and promoting environments which support both children’s formal education and lifelong learning in the community.
Aside from the acquisition of donations, the challenges that arose in the progression of this project were mainly practical and political. An area which could have presented a number of hurdles was working with the prisons, particularly the question of allowing the mobile library on site and offering prisoners unrestricted access to the books., Despite the potential difficulties, the establishment of contracts and the cooperation of the prison staff have resulted in productive teamwork.
One of the first challenges to the programme was the theft of bus parts which has taken place in times of transition (whilst the bus was held in customs in 1987 and during the move to the National Library in 1992). Unfortunately, there are very few ways to prevent such difficulties occurring but luckily such events were rare.
At the beginning of the programme, it was not made sufficiently clear that the books from the Bibliobús were on loan and many believed they were gifts which did not need to be returned. People saw the writing on the bus, “Friends from the Federal Republic in solidarity with the Nicaraguan people”, and falsely believed that the books were donations. Without clarity over the nature of the programme, this could have led to more restrictive running of the project over the long term. Moreover, it took significant effort on the part of the workers to have these books returned.
Due to political and administrative reorganisation carried out by public authorities during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the project was handed over to the Ministry for Culture. During this period, the vehicle was out of service for 6 months while it was being used to transport staple food to workers. On realising that the bus was not fulfilling the aims of the project, the employees behind the service searched for a better solution. In March 1990, the bus was finally placed in the hands of the mayor’s office in Managua and returned to the local library “Elvis Chavarría” from where it resumed its visits to work centres and prisons. Meeting these challenges has only been possible with strong leadership and determination from the implementing organisation (originally Elizabeth Zilz and the charity “Ein Bücherbus für Nicaragua e.V.”, subsequently Pan y Arte e.V.).
The Bibliobús and the German-Nicaraguan Library serve as best practice examples of cooperative librarianship and the creation of active reading centres in a country where reading habits are under-developed and libraries are under-resourced or simply non-existent. The German-Nicaraguan Library demonstrates that libraries can be more than a simple collection of books by offering active cultural programmes and reaching out to disadvantaged communities.
Two important factors which have contributed to the success of the programme are the continuity and regularity of the visits and the motivation and flexibility of the volunteers to continuously improve and extend the service.
The enlightening results from the active participation of prisoners have shown that functional literacy skills can help to improve quality of life for people with a variety of backgrounds and that making reading material available corresponds to providing people with tools to help themselves.
The experience of the Bibliobús in the village schools and throughout the community has served to foster good reading habits in both children and adults, and to encourage children to discover the enjoyment of reading and learning.
The continuing success of the mobile library project has been dependent on external support by way of NGOs and charity organisations working in a supervisory capacity. Nonetheless, since becoming stationed at the German-Nicaraguan Library, the vehicle has functioned exclusively as a mobile library and the monitoring of its activity is no longer such a challenging task.
Under the management of Pan y Arte, both the Bibliobús and the German-Nicaraguan Library receive charitable representation outside of Nicaragua and regular financial support from foreign donors. The promotion of the programme in Germany and at book fairs across the world has sufficed to ensure that the library regularly receives new titles and funds to expand its resources and area of service. The library has been repeatedly extended and rebuilt to accommodate higher numbers of visitors and in 2009 a computer was purchased for the Bibliobús as a result of continuing financial support. In 2011, a new Bibliobús was acquired which will eventually be equipped with a solar battery to power an on-board computer and an overhead projector for film screenings.
One of the significant reasons for the sustainability of the programme has been the active and growing participation of the community and the support from the prison staff. Organisations working in the country put forward new locations in their area and agree to fund the visits of the mobile library to these areas. This input from external organisations allows the library to continue having a wide impact and contributes to the financial stability of the project. The work placement programme for young Germans increases the manpower in the library and injects vitality to the programme given that every new volunteer brings different talents to offer to the community. Volunteers are encouraged to create their own initiatives such as chess competitions, self-defence courses, etc. which actively involve and educate the community.
The library directly addresses the educational needs of the people, providing them with the tools they require to continue learning, and remains innovatively led with a growing collection of titles and changing cultural events (courses, talks, art workshops, etc.). Meeting the demand of the community and remaining flexible plays a large role in the survival of the Bibliobús and the library. As long as the partners (schools, communities and prison staff) and the programme organisers remain on such good terms of negotiation and cooperation, the Bibliobús should be able to continue to offer a fruitful and valuable library service to the inmates.
Bustos, Reybil Cuaresma; Solórzano, Mario Arce: Ein Solidaritätsprojekt in Nicaragua: Bücherbus “Bertolt Brecht”, Deutsch-Nicaraguanische Bibliothek, Buchbinderwerkstatt “Sophie Scholl”. Berlin: Archiv der Jugendkulturen Verlag KG. 2010. 133 S. ISBN 978-3-940213-51-8
Last update: 12 April 2011