This Traveling Library Hopes To Combat Falling Readership In Chile

I had turned into the Costanera Center that evening, mixing up my regular commute home, when I spotted the sign for the traveling library: "If you contribute a book you can take a different one." The banner instantly caught my attention. Not wanting to over-pack, I had only brought two books with me to Santiago for the summer, and I was in desperate need of new reading material. Following the sign’s directions, I descended to the bottom floor of the Costanera mall and was met with a book-lover’s dream: La Biblioteca Libre — The Free Library.

Between escalators and shops stood a house full of books surrounded by families, children, and young adults, all of whom were leisurely browsing and reading. I approached the little house of books and began looking through the collection: a mix of Latin American classics and popular fiction. I had heard that Chileans were not big readers, a sad reality bookstore owners blame on the Internet and the 19% value-added tax that increases the price of most products, including books. Yet, the little moving library was filled with avid book-seekers. Teens were curled up on chairs made of books. Young families read together on benches.

I realized that people had stopped shopping in a crowded mall just to find a story.

I approached the librarian, a young man who was checking-in and checking-out donated books, and found myself speaking to the La Biblioteca Libre’s co-founder Diego Ramírez Hizaut. In 2013, Hizaut and co-founder Carlos Mancilla Cofré launched the project, and now their small team includes a few employees and occasional volunteers. Though the library has an office in downtown Santiago, the true work of La Biblioteca Libre happens outside.

Hizaut tells Bustle*:

"We host interventions in public spaces like malls, cultural centers, and on the street, where the people are. We bring books to places where people circulate because we believe that they do not read enough because libraries are far away from where people actually go."

Though 97.5% of Chileans are literate, bookstore owners in Santiago complain that the average citizen does not spend much time reading. When I spoke to some of these business owners, I found that many blame increased costs of books and easy access to other forms of media for the nationwide decline in readership. Ruben Martínez, owner of Libros Leído y Para Leer, tells Bustle*, "Young people do not read like they did before, or they instead access audiovisual media. But I also believe that [decreased readership] has to do with deterioration in economic growth."

Sergio Parra, owner of Librería Metales Pesados, echoes this belief that young readers are turning more to digital media, "Now you have the iPhone, Tablet, a thousand things that are another means of reading," he says*. The owner of Libros Prólogo, Walter Zúñiga, emphasizes the growing rarity of bookstores:"There are parts of Chile where there are no bookstores."

Combined, the rising price of books, increased access to the internet, and a falling number of bookstores outside large cities support Hizout’s and the Biblioteca Libre’s founding assumption that books are not easily accessible for many Chileans. It makes sense that young readers would turn to free digital texts if physical books are too expensive or too difficult to find. Yet, what I found as soon as I stepped into La Biblioteca Libre is that the average Chilean may not spend much time in bookstores, but they’ll go out of their way to browse through old paperbacks when they can find them.

What I found as soon as I stepped into the Biblioteca Libre is that the average Chilean may not spend much time in bookstores, but they’ll go out of their way to browse through old paperbacks when they can find them.

The Biblioteca Libre gets its name from this desire to serve Chileans in all communities. The “free (as in liberated) library” functions as a traveling exchange library, circulating the books that visitors bring in from the different neighborhoods the library visits. When I “checked-out” a book of my own at the end of my visit, Hizaut stamped it with a statement communicating the goal of the library.

It reads:

"In the Biblioteca Libre we believe that each book has its own magic, but that it loses this magic if nobody reads it. That’s why this book has found you! Give it life by reading it and sharing it."

La Biblioteca Libre centers on this belief: there are plenty of books in the world; they just need to find their readers. Instead of belonging solely to individuals, the books at La Biblioteca Libre are the property of everyone who chooses to share them or take one home. By bringing books onto the streets and into crowded malls, La Biblioteca Libre is increasing access and combatting decreased readership – one donated book at a time.

*All quotes translated from Spanish.

Images: Mauro Mora/Unsplash; Cecilia Nowell