Chester County Librarian Aids Guatemala's Readers

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By Chris Williams
Originally appeared in the March 22, 2008 edition of the Daily Local News of West Chester

Frances Sack, volunteer librarian

Frances Sack has visited libraries around the world.

She’s browsed books in Canada, walked the stacks in Italy and Russia, and perused shelves in Colombia.

This past February, the director of Paoli Library added another country to her list: Guatemala.

But this time Sack wasn’t just an observer of the country’s libraries; she worked as a volunteer.

Her adventure began when she was preparing to attend a wedding in Antigua, Guatemala, late last year. Sack, a lifelong Chester County resident, made plans to visit some of the country’s libraries during her trip.

What she hadn’t planned for, however, was a return trip to the northernmost Central American country a few months later to help organize a couple of the impoverished country’s libraries.

Her initial visit to the country “was just an adventure,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do some library work somewhere else, but I wasn’t planning that when I went last November.”

Chicacao, Guatemala, at sunset

Once in Antigua, Sack met with Kristen Anderson, a program coordinator with Child Aid, an Oregon-based organization that assists community library and literacy programs in Mexico and Guatemala. As one of only four Guatemala-based organizers, Anderson wears many hats; some days she’s a coordinator, other days a librarian, and some days she trains potential teachers and librarians.

The two talked about some of Child Aid’s Guatemalan projects that could benefit from the assistance of a trained librarian, said Sack, who has been working in Chester County libraries for the past 15 years.

So, “I decided to do it,” she said, and she made plans to return to the country shortly after so she could dedicate a solid block of time to the task.

Her return trip came this past February, and she spent two weeks volunteering at a couple of libraries.

One of the libraries, in Chicacao, a three-hour bus ride from Antigua on the Pacific coastal plain of Guatemala, is a small, windowless library run by Blanca, a native citizen who worked there for free for many years. It is open five hours a day during the week and is closed on weekends. A line of children often forms outside the door, as there aren’t enough seats for everyone.

While there, Sack, Anderson, and two other volunteers, one from Germany and another from Estonia, helped organize the library. They catalogued books, put spine labels on them, and assigned each a Dewey Decimal number. They also sorted through some of the library’s decrepit books so that they could be replaced with new ones. Child Aid last year received about 30,000 new, donated books.

Chicacao’s library has a puppet theater and a storytime area for children.

There is a major emphasis, Sack said, on children’s education. Volunteers at the libraries focus on teaching children reading skills and encouraging them to respond to stories — similar to reading programs at U.S. libraries.

“In a culture where reading for pleasure is almost nonexistent, you can imagine my joy when I see the kids in our programs run into the library begging to have a story read to them, or to borrow a book to take home to their families,” Anderson said. “Many of their parents are illiterate, and it is the kids who read to the parents. I really believe that the cycle of poverty can be changed with education.”

The libraries she saw are not the type that adults visit to browse the bookshelves, Sack said.

For children and young adults, there is some fiction. But for adults there is not much. There’s limited classic literature available. “I think it’s safe to say the concentration is on the children,” Sack said.

Many of Guatemala’s libraries are located in schools, including Sack’s second volunteer location: the Melloto school library in Chimaltenango, a half-hour bus ride from Antigua. The buses, Sack explained, are retrofitted U.S. school buses, usually colorfully painted and individually named, with names of U.S. school districts often still visible on their sides.

Chimaltenango’s library was larger than Chicacao’s and was able to accommodate tables and chairs for patrons, Sack said. Many libraries, especially ones in school, are where students’ textbooks and workbooks are housed. You won’t find many bookbag-toting school children.

Sack and fellow volunteers organized the school’s library in much the same fashion as Chicacao’s. They were also able to create an inventory of each book electronically, which was stored in the library laptop.

One major difference between U.S. libraries and those in Guatemala is that, generally, books are not circulated in Guatemalan libraries.

Volunteers weeding books from the library

Because books are in such short supply in most of Guatemala’s libraries, they are not allowed to leave the library.

In Chimaltenango, however, some books are beginning to be circulated. For circulation to work, librarians must educate their patrons on proper care of the books and ensure that they are brought back. “When they first start circulating materials, sometimes people don’t realize they have to bring them back,” Sack said.

Guatemalan libraries may have antiquated resources, but that doesn’t lessen their importance to the communities they serve. “They’re rudimentary but they’re exciting places,” Sack said, “because people are so enthusiastic about these libraries, and they need them, they want them, they use them. Especially for the kids, it was all for the children.”

The libraries in Chicacao and Chimaltenango are two of 26 Guatemalan libraries being supported by Child Aid.

Child Aid has been assisting libraries and literacy programs throughout Mexico and Guatemala for 20 years. Recently, Child Aid has focused primarily on Guatemala, as its Mexican program is “close to being fully self-sustaining,” said Robert Vesely, executive director of Child Aid.

The organization’s mantra is “people, not projects,” he said.

Its mission is: “To identify and work with talented and committed indigenous groups and individuals to help them build brighter futures for their children and their communities,” according to Robert Vesely, executive director of Child Aid

Child Aid offers financial and physical resources as well as expertise to communities, with a goal of helping them build a sustaining organization in their community, Vesely said. “We try to work with them from the get-go to identify local resources and how to raise money” so they can become autonomous entities, he said.

Libraries are an important community resource in Guatemala, and it is essential that many are, indeed, run by the community and are not government-controlled, he said.

“We use (libraries) as a center for running programs that will educate teachers and librarians,” he said. “Most of the kids don’t have school books, and obviously not books in their houses. If the library didn’t exist, then there wouldn’t be books anywhere.”

Many communities are still recovering from Guatemala’s recent civil war, which ended in 1996 after 56 years.

Chicacao’s library, for instance, is fairly new, as the last town library was burned down several years ago.

Sack said her February trip to Guatemala won’t be her last; she’s enthusiastic about going back and hopes to “bring some others along,” she said.

On her next trip, Sack plans to focus on one library and get the “whole library all organized.”

“Now I feel like I’ll do it every year if I can,” she said. “I have to learn more Spanish though.”

Sack added, “You don’t have to be fluent in the language to do this type of thing. If you know the basics ... then you can do this work.”