Award Lecture

That books can change the world was the overall theme of Banco del Libro’s lecture at the traditional award lecture at Kulturhuset, in Stockholm. The art of avoiding becoming snarled in the net of bureaucracy was another recurring topic. All in all, it was a magical evening that left the audience in raptures.

After Katti Hoflin, head of Kulturhuset’s Room for Children, had bid everyone welcome and journalist Christoffer Barnekow had carried out a few interviews, Agneta Edwards, an enthusiastic promoter of children’s literature and a member of the ALMA jury, started out by giving us some background information on Banco del Libro and the way they work. Testing new methods, building models and disseminating skills and know-how are typical ingredients of the Banco del Libro’s approach, she explained.

Banco del Libro’s own talk was divided into three different sections. Managing Director Maria Beatriz Medína, Coordinator Brenda Bellorin who is head of the Documentation Centre, and Chairwoman of the Board Carmen Diana Dearden, who has been working for the Banco del Libro since 1960, each spoke about their work and experiences hitherto.

Brenda Bellorin gave a poetic description of a boat trip along the Orinoco. First a fiery orange sunset, then a sky full of stars as the travellers disembarked on an island that looked like a turtle – everything seemed to open up before them. In several of her stories she talked about trips with the “bibliomulas”, the mules that carry the books up steep mountain slopes to the children in the most isolated villages. Afterwards, Christoffer Barnekow asked whether the boat and mules were perhaps a romantic fancy, whether they really exist. It didn’t take long to convince him that they do.

“We’ve got two lovely mules that help us take books to 16 remote villages. It takes them many, many hours to get there.”

Another question was whether the Internet represents any sort of threat to the Banco del Libro and its work. Brenda Bellorin, Maria Beatriz Medina and Carmen Diana Dearden seemed not to understand the question. Not at all, they said. The Net is a tool, and with it they can offer university education not only to Latin America but to the rest of the world as well. That it might in any way be a threat to children’s reading has never even occurred to them.

Is the Banco del Libro a controversial organisation in Venezuela? How does the regime view the Banco and its work?

“So far, we’ve always been a point of reference for the various regimes that have come and gone over the years; they’ve made use of our skills,” replies Carmen Diana. “Nobody has ever regarded us as a threat. Today, freedom of speech is under threat all across Venezuela, but the Banco del Libro is under no greater threat than anyone else.”

“When have you found it most difficult to keep on working?” asked someone in the audience. On several occasions, came the answer. During one period in particular, when the Banco del Libro was largely dependent on government subsidies, the government suddenly decided to cut its funding by two thirds. The Banco was forced to lay off a large proportion its staff yet still try to keep on running – and it wasn’t easy. Things were also tough a couple of years ago, when everyone had to start working shorter hours and take a cut in wages in order to keep things ticking over. But, as they almost always seem to do, they managed to get by. So are there ever any failures?

“Yes, in achieving equality between men and women! Most of us are women, and it seems to stay that way however hard we try to bring more men on board.”

They appear surprised to learn that when it comes to children’s literature and children’s culture, the same applies in Sweden.

So what about the lack of bureaucracy? How does an organisation that will soon be fifty years old, has a large number of employees and operates in so many different fields, manage to prevent itself from becoming stifled by bureaucracy?

“When you haven’t got a budget, all you can do is keep on working. We haven’t got enough money to decline into bureaucracy. And then we make sure we mix the generations. That way, lots of young people can come here and try out their ideas.”

They don’t make much mention of it themselves, but one might ask oneself what it means to the Banco del Libro that most of the people who work there are women. And that there seems to be unlimited scope for everyone’s enthusiasm, opinions and ideas. Tolerance is the watchword, and there are any number of animated discussions about both books and politics.

Birgitta Fransson

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