Surrounded by a throng of bodyguards, journalists, government officials and gleeful librarians, President Oscar Arias’ first stop on a recent tour through the National Public Library was at a glass display case containing his University of Costa Rica law thesis, “Pressure Groups in Costa Rica,” dated 1967.
The tour continued upstairs, down a hall filled with ancient, leather-bound newspapers and magazines.
“This is really fun; look at my grandfather,” Arias said as he glanced over a 1940s edition of the defunct Costa Rican daily La Tribuna.
The librarians had laid out the issue dated Sept. 13, 1940 – Arias’ birthday – for him to look at. Coincidentally, a photo of Juan Rafael Arias, his grandfather, was on the cover.
Though at first glance the public library and its contents appear to be in good shape, the tour revealed that the downtown San José building, which houses publications dating as far back as 1830, when the first printing press started operating in the country, is actually a time bomb.
In a press conference at the library after the activity, held July 6, Margarita Rojas, director of the National System of Libraries (SINABI), said the public library’s heritage of books is in grave danger.
The building, whose electrical and phone systems were installed approximately 35 years ago, lacks a fire alarm, she told journalists.
“It’s a matter of luck that a fire has not raged here; the material on the third floor (the hall of newspapers) is ideal (for a fire),” she said.
The press conference proved her point. As it took place, a burning smell invaded the conference room when the electrical system became overheated by the numerous journalists’ equipment plugged in within the room.
Furthermore, the library, which Arias referred to as a “little jewel for all Costa Ricans,” houses many of the country’s only remaining copies of certain books and periodicals, some of which are deteriorating because of weather conditions and age.
The library also lacks a book security system, such as a bar-code sensor system, so items have been stolen and could continue to be snatched, Rojas explained.
However, SINABI lacks the resources to shape up the facility. The tour and press conference, also attended by María Elena Carballo, Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, aimed to draw attention to the situation.
SINABI’s 2006 budget of ¢16 million ($31,250) is not enough to repair the library, or any of the country’s 58 public libraries, and Rojas said the Finance Ministry caps budget hikes at no more than 10% annually – still not enough.
For this reason, the Friends of the Library Foundation was recently created to raise funds for the cause. Foundation members held their first meeting July 14, and hope to be legally recognized by August, according to Rojas. Members represent various groups interested in saving the library, and include writers, university professors and businesspeople, among others.
An exhibition was set to open July 19 at the library in honor of the 145th anniversary of the birth of the institution’s founder, Miguel Obregón, for whom the library is named. The exhibition, which will run through Aug. 18, showcases Obregón’s writings and original notes, images of his life and a map of Costa Rica he made and printed in Paris, France.
The library is open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, call 257-4814. For information about the Friends of the Library Foundation, contact founding member Adolfo Chacón at 272-8918.