With both our sons occupied in their own summer programs, Lori and I were looking forward to a rare getaway—a wedding-anniversary trip, just the two of us, to Spain. I was relishing the idea of a cycling tour through the Rioja wine region and touring the libraries, big and small, we could find along the way. (And shopping, since we’re always on the lookout for new product ideas for Levenger.)
I was intrigued to see what Spain’s libraries offered its citizens since, according to the most recent comparative study of library funding (Libecon Data by David Fuegi and Martin Jennings), Spain is grouped among the Very Low Spenders. This group also includes Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania.
These nations spend between 1 and 5 euros per capita on their libraries. In comparison, the United States, at the equivalent of 22.8 euros per capita, is a High Spender, albeit at the bottom of the bracket. (Above this resides a rarified reading room of nations deemed Top Spenders. More on them later.)
A capital diversion and an uplifting prison
Our first library was Spain’s most prestigious—its national library in Madrid, which shares space with a museum. Outside it is majestic, with tall iron gates and soaring statues of Cervantes and other Spanish luminaries. Inside, we could get only so far. Unlike America’s Library of Congress, the Biblioteca Nacional does not allow just any turista to walk in and have a seat in the reading room. Instead, we were directed downstairs to a museum open to all. It held a fabulous exhibition on the history of language. We could absorb only so much since there were no English translations, but still, it was worth the visit.
Next we visited Segovia and discovered that the public library had taken up quarters in the city’s old prison. Located on a busy shopping street, the edifice was under repair. Inside, the rooms are a bit chopped up— perhaps not surprising, given the building’s original purpose. No spaces could be called inspiring, but there were uplifting quantities of books, computers, music and movies, and colorful reading areas for children.
Afterthoughts and appendages
Traveling next through the wine region, we saw few libraries. Finally, at one town hall I spotted a sign up on the second story in delicate script that read “Biblioteca Ciberteca.” Up a darkened staircase, we discovered a windowless room lined with bookcases and half a dozen computers. Like libraries I’ve visited the world over, the people inside were busy at the computers, hardly taking the time to look up at unlikely visitors in cycling gear.
Our final library visit was in the chic seaside city of San Sebastian. Here the public library is housed in an impressive civic building. Less impressive is the library’s actual space, which is half underground and reminiscent of a corridor connecting two airport terminals. It has the feeling of someone finally removing the boxes of old accounting files so those pesky librarians could have their space. When I asked if the darkened computer terminals were available for public Internet access, the kind librarian responded, “Yes, but the woman who must give you the password is out teaching a computer class now.”
While you can find public libraries in Spain if you look for them, what I didn’t see in our random wanderings were actual buildings devoted to libraries. Such single-purpose buildings have been common in the United States for a century and also in Egypt and Chile.
The running of the books
What we did find were book fairs. On the same week that bulls were chasing people in the streets of Pamplona, people were chasing books in the streets of San Sebastian and Segovia. The Segovia fair seemed especially popular with children, and many booths had steps to allow little people to peruse books alongside their elders. The Spanish bookstalls that Hemingway so lovingly described in For Whom the Bell Tolls seem to have survived into our present century.
The World Factbook reports the literacy rate of Spain at 98%, just a point below that of the United States. Libraries, admittedly, are only part of a nation’s learning and reading infrastructure. And the Spanish were reading.
When they weren’t cheering their soccer team on to win the Euro Cup, or their Rafael Nadal to take Wimbledon, many were turning pages of books—in parks and cafes and on the beach. The bookstores in Spanish cities reminded me of those in the U.S. a generation ago, small and un-chained.
Scandinavia’s higher latitudes
As for those nations in the Top Spenders group for libraries, they spend more than 39 euros per capita, or about twice what the U.S. spends. Who are they?
Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden.
I haven’t seen what libraries look and feel like in those countries. Have you? I’d love to hear your experiences in libraries in Scandinavia, and everywhere around our learning planet. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).