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Focus on libraries in Brazil

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By Margaret Adolphus


Brazil is the world's fifth largest country, in terms both of population and territorial area. Its diverse, ethnically mixed population comprises Indians, African Brazilians and Europeans, and also contains some of the world's greatest natural wonders, including the Amazon Basin and the Pantanal. Most of the population is concentrated in the south-eastern corner, around São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There are a total of 26 states and one federal district (Brasilia).

The library and the librarian have an important and varied role in Brazilian society, which reflects the fact that it is both a fast-developing economy and one where there are pockets of extreme poverty. The librarian plays a crucial role in encouraging reading and developing information literacy, and helps both those at the forefront of research and those struggling with social disadvantage.

Historical and geographical context

During Brazil's colonial period under Portuguese rule (1500-1822), the printing of books and periodicals was strictly forbidden, and any attempts to establish a free press were crushed because reading and printed material were seen as threats to the Portuguese Government. This was hardly an atmosphere conducive to the development of libraries.

As Brazil emerged from its repressive colonial past, the book and the printed word became powerful icons of progress and liberation.

The printing of books only began in 1808, when the Portuguese royal family, on the run from Napoleon, established court in Rio de Janeiro, bringing with them their own printing press.

Prior to this, the only libraries that were tolerated were monastic ones, because of the power of the Church, which was the country's main educator. Public libraries were established in the nineteenth century, the first one being built in Salvador in Bahia in 1811 as the result of a wealthy benefactor.

Higher education, probably for similar reasons, was also slow to get off the ground: most of Brazil's 2,000 universities are less than 100 years old. These are both public and private: most public universities are federal, but a few are run by states. Public universities are heavily supported by the Government, and tend to be better and more research oriented than the private ones.

Brazil's geography, with a vast area of land (some of which is scarcely inhabited), also inhibits an even distribution of resources. There is a fairly large digital divide, and a wide gap between the educated elite on the one hand, and the educationally and economically disadvantaged on the other. National systems are difficult to coordinate, simply because of the vastness of the country, and this has affected the development of a good public library system.

The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) sees libraries as places where people can have freedom of expression and access to information (Raseroka, 2003, quoted in de Munster, 2005). There is also a consciousness of the library's important role in a knowledge society, and of the need for the librarian to be a "social actor" (Belluzzo and Rosetto, 2007).

According to 2007 figures (Belluzzo and Rosetto, 2007), there are almost 20,000 librarians enrolled in the Regional Council of Librarianship. Of these, the majority work in academic and specialist libraries. Those working in school and public libraries are employed on lower salaries and presumably have lower status. There are also a number of governmental libraries, which have a very high reputation.

Sustaining a knowledge economy

Perhaps because of its bookless past, the Brazilian Government is particularly keen to promote both reading and information literacy. The former is encouraged through programmes such as the PNLL (Plano Nacional do Livro e Leitura – or the National Plan of Books and Reading) which is a highly influential series of programmes to encourage reading and library use, promoted at every level of society, particularly where literacy levels are low.

The Government also sees information and knowledge as the basis for sustainable growth (Jorente, 2008). The Information Society Program (also known as the "Green Book") launched in 2000 focuses on creating an effective climate for science and technology, and seeks to broaden access to information and communications technology (ICT) through all levels of society.

At present, Internet connectivity in Brazil stands at 34 per cent, which is less than Argentina or Chile, where about half the population is connected. Problems with access may be due to lack of broadband, but they are also economic (people cannot afford computers and network access) and technical (people don't understand how to use computers or access information).

The National Library

Brazil's National Library (www.bn.br), affiliated to the Ministry of Culture is one of the largest libraries in the world, it is also the largest in Latin America.

Image: Photo of Brazil's National Library.

Brazil's National Library

Like national libraries elsewhere, it is responsible for bibliographic deposits – 3,000 monographs and 5,000 periodical publications per month, according to its annual report (see Confederation of Directors of National Libraries, 2009). However, it is also responsible for implementing national policy related to books and reading, including the National System of Public Libraries.

Its collection, estimated at nine million items, includes part of the legacy of the Royal Library of Portugal. It also has a large digital library (Brazil National Digital Library – http://bndigital.bn.br/) which was founded in 2006 and currently holds approximately 18,000 scanned images. There is also a link to Brazil's e-government service (www.e.gov.br/).

Author's note:

The majority of websites referred to in this article are in Portuguese, and were consulted using Google Translate.