Out from the Stacks: Librarians Without Borders in Guatemala 2011

Authors: Rebecca Burbank, Carolyn Doi, Nouf Khashman, Emily McHugh, Amanda Oliver

This article presents reports from four Librarians Without Borders student volunteers from McGill University who recently participated in a service-learning assignment at a school library in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

The Asturias Academy is a progressive K-12 school in Guatemala that serves approximately 300 students from varying backgrounds: indigenous, non-indigenous, poor, working, and middle class. Access to reading materials is scarce in Guatemala partly because books are highly taxed and there are few public libraries.[1] In an effort to promote life-long learning and literacy, the Academy decided to create a library that would serve its students, staff and community.

Since 2009, Librarians Without Borders (LWB) has worked with the Academy to support construction and development of the library. LWB is a non-profit with a mission to improve access to information resources through partnerships with community organizations.[2] In spring 2010 eleven LWB student members from McGill University travelled to Guatemala where they developed a handbook of library recommendations for the Asturias Library. Based on those recommendations, the Asturias Library officially opened its doors to students in January 2011. The past year marked a growth of the project, as LWB adopted it as their umbrella project for 2010 – 2011.[3] As part of this growth, a second cohort of LWB volunteers was able to return to Guatemala in April 2011, including students from McGill University, University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario, and Dalhousie University, who worked in teams dedicated to library information literacy, knowledge management, organization, and the audio book collection.

Information Literacy Team [Nouf Khashman]
We knew that the development of a new information literacy plan would result in a more user-friendly library that encourages educational development for end users at the Asturias Academy, ultimately helping users become information literate individuals capable of contributing to a greater extent in their community. An information literacy team was formed who created a basic information literacy program. For teachers, we developed a list of library materials that could help them explore resources related to monthly curriculum themes (e.g. health, economics, gender issues, etc.) and created guides on how to use the library classification scheme and how to navigate the library space. For the Asturias students, we introduced some information literacy games that focused on the structure of the book and the layout of the library.

Some Asturias students were curious to know why we were there, so we took the opportunity to play some games with them. For example, we asked in Spanish “what does ‘library’ mean in English?” The students then would pick a dictionary and try to answer our question. They were having so much fun that they asked us to do it again the following day.

The K’iche Audio Book Project [Rebecca Burbank]
The idea to support the Academy's curriculum by creating audio books for the library’s K’iche’ language collection felt like a natural fit. K’iche’ is a local Mayan language that is severely under-represented in the arena of published and printed materials due, in part, to the fact that it has existed as a written language for less than 100 years. While we originally planned to hire a translator from outside the school, discussions with the Asturias librarian and K’iche’ instructor led to a very different plan that involved participation of several of the native K’iche’ speaking students. Asturias staff will work with several students at the school who speak K’iche’ to translate materials from Spanish and dictate the recordings, resulting in the foundation of a K’iche’ audio book collection. Benefits of involving students in creating the audio books are twofold: it builds the library’s holdings of K’iche’ material while at the same time giving students a sense of ownership over the collection.

The package we left with the Academy included K'iche' audio recordings made prior to the trip as well as our observations and recommendations for best practices in audio recording. Although we had hoped to record audio material while we were in Guatemala, the plans and ideas we left behind are a place to start that can be built upon in the upcoming year.

Library Organization Team [Amanda Oliver]
LWB student volunteers were looking for ways to promote the library to students and staff as much as possible. Upon arrival at the Academy, it was immediately apparent that better physical and online access to library materials would increase use of the collection.

Organizing the Asturias library was a significant task, especially because we were limited to five days at the Academy. It required the help of many of the LWB student volunteers and challenged us in terms of time management. This project involved cataloguing, assigning Dewey and colour-coded classification, and significant reorganization of the physical library collection. In order to facilitate library organization, a colour-coding system was introduced in order to streamline the shelving process and to assist students with finding materials. During scheduled library classes, students were involved in re-shelving the books, using the colour-coding system as a guide. This system helped the students understand the layout of the library, kept the space clean and organized, and engaged the students with the inner workings of the library.

Knowledge Management Team [Emily McHugh]
As the group of LWB volunteers began dividing into teams a fellow student pulled me aside and suggested forming a Knowledge Management Team that would focus on the identification, creation, and transfer of knowledge at the Academy. A lack of funding means that many Asturias volunteers finance their own living expenses while in Guatemala, resulting in a high turnover rate. Every time someone leaves, so does their knowledge of the position. Averaging one-year terms, the volunteers have demanding jobs—something that we quickly discovered while working with the Volunteer and Development Coordinators. Each of them has knowledge of the jobs that is valuable, and capturing this for long term preservation will assist with the success of the Academy.

The KM team interviewed the two volunteers, gaining insight into what it was that made them so successful in their positions. We hoped to capture their knowledge in a manner that would save the time of new volunteers during their initial adjustment period at the Academy by providing a central repository of information. LWB provided a skeleton wiki based on the initial interviews, with the hope that in the future, Asturias volunteers will be responsible for generating the content of the wiki themselves.


The LWB trip volunteers were able to get hands-on work experience while also making a lasting impact on the Asturias Library. The Asturias Academy continues to grow and its need for library-specific support is ongoing, especially in an environment where a library culture is under-developed. Now that the Library has opened its doors, the focus will be on development projects: integration of the Library into the school curriculum, continued support for the Library collection, as well as ongoing communication of library best practices. Librarians Without Borders aims to continue to support the goals and work of the Academy and will be organizing another service-learning trip to Guatemala in the spring of 2012.

[1] Community Library. Retrieved October 15, 2011. http://www.asturiasacademy.org/donate-now/community-library-readmore/

[2] Librarians Without Borders About Us. Retrieved October 15, 2011. http://lwb-online.org/?page_id=324

[3] Guatemala Project Timeline. Retrieved October 15, 2011. http://lwb-online.org/?page_id=968