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Focus on libraries in Brazil

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 (, 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 – which was founded in 2006 and currently holds approximately 18,000 scanned images. There is also a link to Brazil's e-government service (

Author's note:

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

Public and school libraries

When a system of public libraries was developed in the nineteenth century, it happened without the large municipal building programme which was a feature of countries which industrialized earlier, such as the UK. Consequently, many public libraries were housed in inadequate buildings not created for the purpose.

Another problem has been the sheer difficulty of coordinating a national service over such a large area (Vergueiro, 1997), and the distribution of public libraries is still inequitable, as is access to computers in libraries (Belluzzo and Rosetto, 2007). On the other hand, the book, often characterized in the West as losing influence to the newer digital technologies, is an important symbol of literacy in Brazil.

Thus, the creation of the National Institute for the Book in the 1930s helped put libraries on the national agenda. The shambolic public library system received another boost when the National System of Public Libraries (Sistema Nacional de Bibliotecas Públicas [SNBP]) was established in 1992.

The SNBP is run by the National Library, and sponsors a number of programmes aimed at public libraries, as well as a national register. From an operational point of view, each state (usually from the State Public Library) coordinates the library network in its area.

The objectives of SNBP are to promote the use of library services throughout the country, particularly in municipalities which don't have them, develop libraries as cultural centres, and implement training for librarians. New libraries receive a donation of 2,000 books, have computers installed with free bibliographic software, video, audio sound equipment, and furniture. The idea is that in return, the municipalities will be responsible for the libraries' maintenance.

In 2008, 376 new libraries were created (bringing the total number of libraries to 4,796) and 455 kits of books, computers and furniture were distributed to existing public libraries, all through the modernization programme (Confederation of Directors of National Libraries, 2009). According to the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), 85 per cent of Brazilian municipalities have libraries, with the latter being the commonest municipal institution, beating video rental stores. This is an increase on the figure quoted by Belluzzo and Rosetto (2007), also from IBGE, of 76 per cent penetration.

Plano Nacional do Livro e Leitura (PNLL)

There is much interest in, and encouragement of, policies that support books and reading. The PNLL is the programme that fosters these and has been instrumental in developing myriad projects to encourage reading, aimed particularly at areas of poverty and educational disadvantage.

Around 35 of the PNLL's current projects involve the creation of new libraries, and some of these are state-wide and involve multiple builds.

For example, in the southern state of Paraná (the home of the Iguazu Falls), construction started in 2004 on public libraries in 47 cities without this amenity. With a simple, modern and functional architectural design that allows for the building of extensions, these buildings come equipped with furniture, a basic collection of 1,500 works, computer equipment, Internet access, and audio and video. By 2007, 30 libraries had been completed (PNLL, 2009a).

There is also the Living Culture project, which aims to install libraries in around 1,000 "Points of Culture"; and the Open Book project, which aims to open 600 public libraries in towns that don't have one, as well as to renovate others.

In addition to these multiple building projects, the PNLL also supports a number of community library projects. One example is the proposed library in a minibus: "Biblioteca Itinerante Rural Macomeris Torres" (or the Rural Mobile Library Macomeris Torres), which will be fitted with shelves of books, a video, an overhead projector and a computer (PNLL, 2009b).

São Paulo Public Library

One of the most remarkable recent developments has been the construction of São Paulo's new city library, a building extending over 4,257 square metres in an area north of the city (the state itself has a special programme to support reading, one of whose objectives is that there should be no municipal area without a library).

São Paulo Library is fully equipped with multimedia and, in addition to a collection of 40,000 books, also hosts events with storytellers, musicians and other performers. Divided according to age groups, it has a series of lounges, and people can also read on the terrace and in the café area.

An interesting feature of the interior design (courtesy of Marcelo Aflalo of Univers Design) is the use of three-dimensional typography and graphics to promote the pleasure of reading to a booming demographic more used to TV and the Internet than books. Text and the written word is celebrated through signage using multiple typefaces (signifying diversity), black and white silhouettes of people holding reading material (shot in the park nearby and depicting regular users as a way of bringing the space closer to people), large-screen computer terminals, and 10 ft paper planes which have historical pages printed on them.

Image: Photo 1 of the interior of the new library in Sao Paulo - close up of reading area.

Image: Photo 2 of the interior of the new library in Sao Paulo - aerial floor shot.

Photos of the interior of the new library in São Paulo (reproduced by kind permission of Environmental design Marcelo Aflalo/Univers Design; Interior architecture: Della Manna arquitetura; Building: Aflalo & Gasperini arquitetos)

School libraries

School libraries do not appear in statistics on libraries (although there has been talk about creating an information network), so it is difficult to set up programmes for their improvement. On the other hand, there have been various projects, for example the Fundacão Nacional do Livro Infantil e Juvenil has a national programme aimed at school libraries, sending children's books to schools in poor areas.

School libraries may well be given a greater degree of support due to the nation's concern with training people in the use of ICT: schools are considered the natural places where this should happen. For example, one project involves graduate students in librarianship in a support role for teachers (Jorente, 2008).

Academic and specialist libraries

Academic libraries vary considerably according to whether they are in private or public institutions. The latter, particularly those attached to the larger public universities, such as Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ, and Universidade de São Paulo (USP, are in a league of their own. (USP, incidentally, is ranked 42nd in the world and is the top university in Latin America, as well as the largest.)

Libraries must support not only teaching and learning activities, but also, and all importantly, research. Library staff must be familiar with relevant databases and research tools, so they can, in turn, train academic users. Such libraries need experienced and properly qualified librarians.

The larger libraries may be well equipped and staffed, but many Brazilian libraries share the drawbacks of all Latin American libraries: inadequate staffing levels, tight budgets, limited opportunities for librarians to develop their skills (Johnson, 2007), and poor or non-existent evaluation methods (Pacios, 2008).

UFRJ and USP both have a federated system of libraries – USP has 42 libraries and UFRJ has 43 – which are managed via an integrated system, known as Sistema Integrado de Bibliotecas. According to Paula Mello, coordinator of libraries and information systems at UFRJ, her libraries are lodged in a combination of beautiful, old and modern buildings, and adapted spaces.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Brazilian research was starting to take off, more and more specialized libraries were created to cater for new information needs. Now, however, with the advent of multi-, interdisciplinary and even inter-institutional courses, there's more investment in collaborative services, and in fewer, better and more modern libraries.

Institutional repositories are also growing slowly; most research universities require their graduates to archive their theses and dissertations. There are also a few digitization programmes, for example, UFRJ is also digitizing some of its rare books.

Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior

There is no doubt that the organization Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES) ( makes a huge difference to both universities and their libraries. Roughly translated, its name means "Coordination of Improvement of Higher Education Personnel", and it was set up in 1951 to monitor and ensure quality in higher education.

A government body directly linked to the Ministry of Education, its main activities are the evaluation of postgraduate courses, the encouragement and dissemination of research, training, and promotion of scientific cooperation. The first of these is critical, as the outcome of evaluation is funding through scholarships and grants.

One of the ways CAPES supports research is by providing a portal for scholarly journals. The portal, Portal Periodicos (, grew out of CAPES' desire to support research universities and ensure that they received international periodicals, the print versions of which could be subject to delays at customs.

Image: Screenshot of the Portal Periodicos home page.

The Portal Periodicos home page

Currently, the portal holds 23,059 full-text journals, which are accessed by 311 universities and research centres across Brazil. This figure includes 55 federal universities, 40 federal institutes for technological education, 30 state and city universities, 15 federal research centres, and 24 private universities.

CAPES, in a model that is unique to South America, provides the portal as a free public service to the vast majority of these institutions (the rest pay at a reduced price).

The 311 universities, although only a small proportion of the total 2,000 higher education institutions in Brazil, constitute the whole of the country's postgraduate education sector, and almost the entire research base. Although a promotional video shows researchers in the Amazon rainforest accessing the portal, even geographical distribution remains challenging due to problems of creating a network over a vast area (the Ministry of Telecommunications is working on a more complete broadband access).

There is no doubt that the portal is the lifeblood of Brazilian research. Paula Mello sees CAPES as being of fundamental importance to research in her university, not only because the collection is so comprehensive, but because its funding is sustained:

"The resources for sustaining the portal are well defended by CAPES in the Government, and they have a budget not only to maintain, but also to grow."

And research has demonstrably benefited. Research in Brazil has grown stronger over the last decade, with more people being awarded PhDs, and more papers being accepted by international journals. Many factors contribute to this success, but it is notable that use of the portal has also increased in a similar fashion, as the graphs below demonstrate.

Image: Graph showing the CAPES' Portal de Periodicos - 2001-2008.

Image: Graph showing the number of Brazilian MA and PhD postgraduates.

Image: Graph showing Brazilian papers' particpation in world science production by percentage - 2000-2008 (source National Science Indication).

Graphs showing increases in doctoral degrees, research papers and use of the Portal

Imitation is flattery, and CAPES has become an admired model throughout Latin America, with other organizations seeking to copy it. The latter are also envious of CAPES' negotiating power and ability to attract good content at a low price. From time to time, there are discussions about the possibility of a continent-wide consortium; for now, however, many consortia are very small, and need to become stronger and more structured before they can form a network.

Educating librarians – and the public

The first librarian training course was created by the National Library in 1912. In 2007 there were 38 schools of librarianship and library science, of which 14 were at master's and eight at PhD level (Belluzzo and Rosetto, 2007). Library education is available in some form in 13 states. Brazil, along with Argentina, has the highest number of library and information science training courses in Latin America.

The commonest way into librarianship is to study at undergraduate level. Courses tend to follow the European and US pattern of library education, although the name has not been changed, as in the US, to "information science".

One problem which library education in Latin America faces is the lack of available professional literature in Spanish and Portuguese. The REVISTAS (REd VIrtual Sobre Todas las AméricaS, which roughly translates as "Journals – a virtual network across the Americas") tried to identify professional journals and link them via digitization (Johnson, 2008).

CAPES has been heavily involved in the training of librarians, particularly in the use of databases with which they may be unfamiliar. This is done at regional training sessions so the librarian can pass on the knowledge to those with whom they are working.

CAPES, however, also has an educational role which is over and above product training: people need to be educated to use the content and to search the portal. As in the West, there is a tendency for people to bypass the librarian and believe that everything they need can be found on the Internet, perhaps on Google Scholar. Librarians need to be trained so that they can in turn train the user in research methods.

Information literacy

In general, therefore, people tend to be unfamiliar with research libraries and the virtual tools they offer, so the first task of general information literacy training is to get them into the library so they can be introduced to digital resources and library techniques.

This is not only the case with scholars: many undergraduate students may never have been in a library, still less have any idea how to undertake proper research. So, it is important that librarians get them into a library for training in research methods and in the tools available.

Two librarians working at a private university, Centro Universitário da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, describe how they proactively tackled information literacy (Fatima and Santo, 2006). They found that the majority of new students had great difficulty in using and applying ICT, little idea of how to do academic research (copying was common), or how to do research on the Internet. Furthermore, many did not have a proper environment for study outside the university.

They developed a user training and information literacy programme aimed at students in their first semester. The programme covered the catalogue, use of databases, library services, the various "physical" documents available in the library, and use of the Internet. Much of this is similar to western information literacy, however, this course also includes instruction in use of e-mail and appropriate library behaviour.

There are still challenges in developing a good country-wide structure of libraries, but progress is being made. There is a strong political will, seen in support for organizations such as PNLL and CAPES.

Providing that will continues, there is no reason not to be optimistic about the future development of libraries and the librarian profession in Brazil.


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