SAN JUAN DEL SUR—If you’ve traveled much, you know that many hotels and hostels throughout the world set up lending libraries or book exchanges for their guests. These collections can range from just a few tattered paperbacks to an expansive library that attracts bookworms.
The library of Spanish- and English-language books that Jane Mirandette made available for her guests at the Hotel Villa Isabella in San Juan del Sur could have been the same as countless others. Instead, she saw the hunger for books in the faces of her employees and neighbors in a country where books are expensive and paychecks are small. After doing research and meeting with community leaders and educators, she opened the little lending library for the community in November 2001. Mirandette had plans to make it a mobile library serving schools after the December holidays, but soon all the books were in circulation. “Every day we were just invaded by children,” she recalls.
The little library on a covered patio at the hotel was the first public lending library in Nicaragua. In January 2002, it moved into its own building across from the central park. It now offers about 15,000 books for children, teens and adults in Spanish and English, free wifi, and desktop computers for student research. Crafts sessions, crayons and games such as dominoes are a further draw for children.
On Saturday, Nov. 17, the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca Móvil, the common name for the Biblioteca Publica, will celebrate its 11th anniversary at the library and city park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with games, prizes, crafts, piñatas and a raffle. Awards will be handed out to children, teens and adults at 2 p.m.
Mirandette could have stopped with opening the lending library. Instead, the non-profit foundation she established in the United States in 2002, the Hester J. Hodgdon (HJH) Libraries for All Program, is involved in an array of projects, some in conjunction with other organizations:
• Proyecto Móvil, the mobile library project, began in May 2003 and currently serves students in 34 schools surrounding the beach town, including one in San Jorge funded by a Rotary Club. Three days a week, staff and volunteers load plastic tubs of books and supplies into a donated pickup truck and visit two or three schools, often accessed via challenging roads. The mobile project library currently totals about 4,000 books, with most in circulation constantly.
• A Library in a Box program helps other communities start their own lending libraries. So far, 54 lending libraries in Central America and one in Chirimoto, Peru have been established thanks to the program’s guidance and a starter kit—100 books and basic supplies—provided at cost by this program. The project initially helped the local high school library become a lending library. Puedo Leer in Granada was the first city-wide Library-in-a-Box program. Additionally, Mirandette serves on the board of a similar program in Ethiopia.
• Games and crafts for children are offered in the city park several afternoons a week.
• A “voluntourism” program brings volunteers ranging from middle school students to professional librarians to retirees from all over the world. Library science students from Simmons College in the United States were the first real librarians at the Biblioteca, teaching book repair and other skills to staff. Current program partners include the University of Maryland, which offers three-credit programs for graduate library science students and business students.
• A scholarship program uses funds donated specifically for that purpose. About a dozen students, including several library staff members, have benefited from that program.
• Classes in English, computers, and art are offered at Casa Marina, a beachside condo hotel managed by Mirandette and her business partner. She will add science if she can find a volunteer teacher for that subject.
The mobile library sometimes helps schools by delivering the food they receive from the government. It also delivers water biofilter systems to classrooms in cooperation with a Rotary Club program. A clay pot impregnated with colloidal silver is inserted into a larger plastic container with a spigot and lid. The easy-to-maintain system filters 98% of bacteria including e. coli, according to Mirandette.
“So for someone who wasn’t a librarian, I’ve come a long way, baby,” Mirandette jokes. She compares the proliferation of projects by the HJH Program to a spider plant. That house plant produces plantlets, or “babies,” that become new plants that produce more plantlets.
The HJH Program is “very small and underfunded, but we do a lot,” said Mirandette, who is library director and president and treasurer of the foundation. She receives no salary for that work and in fact pays her own expenses and contributes to the foundation. Her business partner at the two hotels handles the day-to-day work while she handles online reservations, bookkeeping, and other tasks. In addition, she has a bookkeeping and business coaching business in the U.S. To handle everything, she makes use of the Internet and travels back and forth frequently, lugging suitcases filled with books and craft supplies on the southbound journey.
At an age when many people have retired, the energetic Mirandette, whose first career was in nursing, “retreaded,” as she says, and is busy juggling the library work with her two paid gigs.
“I am (busy) and I love it,” she says. A big motivator for this book-lover is that the HJH Program is providing access to books in places that didn’t have any before. One of her concerns is finding a successor, since she is 68 and has had a couple of “close calls” with her health.
Jill Gramling is a high school student in the U.S. who initially came to Nicaragua with a Rotary group to deliver medical supplies. After meeting Mirandette, she became hooked on helping the library and has already made several additional trips to Nicaragua. She says she now looks at her classmates and thinks, “You have no idea how lucky you are.”
That transformation of viewpoint is something that Mirandette enjoys; she said she has seen volunteers of all ages change from “self-involved” people to people with an international viewpoint.
If Mirandette had listened to some library professionals in Nicaragua, the many-faceted program might not exist. You can’t have a lending library, they told her. No one will bring the books back, they said.
But they do. The mobile library, in fact, has about a 85-90% return rate, which meets U.S. standards, Mirandette said. Sometimes, students will dash back home to retrieve a book when they spot the mobile library as they arrive for an afternoon school session.
Because the concept of lending libraries was new to Nicaragua and Central America, the library was initially denied membership in Nicaragua’s network of national public libraries, but was later welcomed into the organization and has arranged for skill sharing to benefit other Nicaragua libraries. The library joined the American Library Association (ALA) and its International Relations Round Table, and contacts there have been pivotal in helping the library. In 2009, the HJH Libraries for All Program was the recipient of the ALA Presidential Citation for International Innovation, among other awards it has received.
HJH participates in a Read for the Record program. In the U.S. Program, millions of children read the same book on the same day. HJH shares the Spanish version of the book all year, calling it Read for the Record Nicaragua.
“It is the basis of our teaching projects to create excitement for reading with that book and crafts, activities and projects that are shared with all of the libraries we are involved with—the Mobile, the local story hours and all the Library in a Box programs,” Mirandette says.
By attending ALA and other conventions each year, Mirandette or other HJH board members can arrange for books to be donated or provided at big discounts, which means that monetary donations go further. Those books go to the stationary library, the mobile library, and Library-in-a-Box libraries.
Salaries for Nicaraguan staff, rent, and gas for the truck cost about $3,000 a month. While salaries are low, Mirandette says the program functions as a “finishing school” for staff who then go on to better paying jobs. Hayde Herrera is library administrator. The HJH budget was about $170,000 last year, but much of that was for pass-through programs such as scholarships or water filters.
The foundation spends less than 5% of its income on overhead, primarily because its office is in Mirandette’s Colorado home and its warehouse is in her garage. The Hotel Villa Isabella offers a special rate for volunteers and those who help with transporting the program’s books from the U.S. get a free night’s stay.
To donate money or books or to learn more about the HJH Libraries for All Program, go to www.librariesforall.org.