NEW YORK – In a world where the threat of large-scale war seems to increase by the day, peace treaties are rare and precious accomplishments. One of the most significant in recent history was concluded just last year, when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos brokered an agreement between the Colombian government and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). That deal, which the Colombian government ratified last December, formally ended a 50-year civil war that claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people.
Santos was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But his visionary leadership does not stop at his ability to broker and conclude an accord. As part of the Colombian government’s reconciliation program, the National Library of Colombia has made it a priority to install mobile public libraries on the outskirts of FARC demobilization zones – the areas where former guerrillas can surrender their weapons and begin to reintegrate into society.
These mobile public libraries are providing communities that have been devastated by decades of conflict with education and access to information. The parts of Colombia that were once controlled by the FARC are among the most remote and isolated in the country. Many of these communities do not have basic sanitation, power, health care, or access to education.
Low literacy rates in Colombia’s rural areas have exacerbated inequality throughout the country. Fortunately, Santos understands that education and literacy are prerequisites for upward economic mobility. His commitment to making more resources available in demobilization zones is thus a way of leveling the playing field.
But Santos’s historic project aspires to be much more than a fillip to economic growth. By promoting such quintessentially free and open institutions as public libraries, Santos is also opening a space for citizens to engage in democratic dialogue. Libraries encourage empathy and tolerance, and they can foster productive interactions between local populations and ex-combatants who are returning to the fold of Colombian civil society.
Moreover, libraries enable collective action, by providing people with the resources and information they need to take control of their own circumstances and strengthen the social ties that bind their communities. Libraries are hubs where local organizations and individual community members can meet to discuss the issues of the day, and formulate peaceful and collaborative responses to shared problems.
As hubs, libraries also create a sense of collective purpose and belonging. In some of Colombia’s demobilization areas, mobile public libraries were among the first state-run institutions to open after the signing of the peace agreement. By including libraries in the government’s initial efforts to re-engage with these areas, Santos clearly recognizes the role these institutions play in reducing tension and promoting peace. Together, the libraries will form a national network that brings previously isolated regions together.
The National Library of Colombia is implementing its mobile library program in partnership with the non-governmental organization Libraries Without Borders, the creator of the Ideas Box: a cutting-edge pop-up library and learning tool that provides educational and cultural resources to communities in need.
The Ideas Box is both portable and durable, and it gives communities direct access to multimedia devices such as tablets and computers, thousands of e-books, and web-based content. The Ideas Box is being used to help disadvantaged and displaced people around the world; but it has been especially valuable for responding to Colombia’s educational and cultural crisis.
In a tribute to public libraries recently published in The New York Times, the critically acclaimed author Mahesh Rao recalls journalist Sophie Mayer’s definition of a library as, “the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space.” For Mayer, a library is a place “where each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings, and knowledge – the book.”
With the help of Libraries Without Borders, Santos has taken Mayer’s moving description to heart. By making libraries available to everyone, he is aiming to increase literacy, promote culture, and unite the people of Colombia.
One hopes that other world leaders will follow in his footsteps, and that they, too, will recognize the role that libraries can play in ensuring lasting peace.