Building Libraries, Developing Minds: Study.com Speaks With the Riecken Foundation

Jul 16, 2010

The Riecken Foundation has been promoting literacy and access to knowledge in Central America since 2000. Through their community libraries, the Foundation has brought books, newspapers, the Internet and other resources to over 60 small communities in Honduras and Guatemala. Study.com recently spoke with William Cartwright, current president and CEO of the Foundation.

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The Riecken Foundation

In the 1960s, Allen Andersson forged a connection with Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer. Thirty years later, after becoming a successful venture capitalist, Andersson decided to invest his earnings in the socioeconomic development of Central America. In 2000, the Riecken Foundation was born.

The Riecken Foundation's mission is 'to promote democracy and prosperity in Central America through community libraries that spark a spirit of discovery and foster citizen participation.' Their network currently includes 53 community libraries in Honduras and 11 in Guatemala, countries where access to information is very limited. Technology is rare in both schools and the home - according to the World Bank, only 4.5 out of every 100 Hondurans and 10 out of every 100 Guatemalans uses the Internet.

Access to books and newspapers is also very limited in rural areas in both countries where the Riecken Foundation builds their libraries. The libraries function as 'discovery centers,' offering educational programming and free access to books, the Internet and other technological resources. Both staffed and managed by trained local personnel who serve as volunteers, the libraries also promote local participation and leadership.

Study.com recently caught up with William Cartwright, current President and CEO of the Riecken Foundation.

Bill Cartwright

Study.com: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to this organization? What year did you join the Riecken Foundation?

William Cartwright: I'm a former Peace Corps volunteer and a human rights lawyer. I've worked and managed many human rights programs in Latin America. I was a staff attorney at the OAS Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica and served as Deputy Director of DePaul University College of Law's International Human Rights Law Institute. When I first heard about Riecken and the libraries I thought they sounded very unique, and after one visit to the libraries I was sold - I've been based in Honduras for four years now. I was very attracted to the idea of the community libraries and how they became central institutions in rural municipalities in Honduras and Guatemala. Riecken libraries are very alive and offer many options to rural community members that formerly were not available. The community libraries offer so much potential in human development and organization. I felt that the great thing about the libraries is that they're a model that can be developed anywhere.

Study.com: Please tell us more about the mission of the Riecken Foundation.

WC: The idea of the libraries is to create vibrant and diverse community centers where people of all ages and backgrounds can come together and explore ideas and develop community projects. The libraries' resources, in books and technology, simply do not exist in most rural parts of Honduras and Guatemala. The programming (youth, technology and reading) allow creative activities to expand the minds of community members. Democratic and transparency values are naturally developed with community ownership of the libraries and volunteerism.

Study.com: How do the Riecken libraries work? Can you walk us through the process of establishing a new Riecken library?

WC: Communities apply to the Riecken Foundation for a community library. There is no shortage of applicants since many communities have heard of the work of the Riecken Foundation. When Riecken arrives in a region of interest to build, say, six libraries, there usually are over 60 communities that are actively seeking a library. The more a community offers to support the development of a successful library in terms of local resources and valuable free time, the better the chances of that community's success. It becomes something of a competition to obtain a library, and thus creates a sense of local ownership before construction even begins.

A local volunteer committee is always established specifically for library development. There's an enormous amount of training and socialization that goes into the process of leadership development to ensure the self-sustainability of the project. As construction, book selection and equipment is identified, the communities become embedded in the process and the bond of local ownership is strengthened. Riecken becomes a support tool, not the owner of the library. After inauguration further training begins, but as time goes on the local libraries becomes less and less dependent on the Foundation. It is a natural and very healthy process. During construction and equipping libraries, local labor is used to help create employment and to create a sense of inclusion for all so that the libraries aren't only used by children.

Study.com: What type of support is required from local communities? Do you work closely with local governments?

WC: To ensure ownership, the communities have to provide, or buy into, the entire process. Obviously many of the communities we work in are rural and economically very poor. The local governments and businesses (and there are few) are also key to guarantee all-round local participation. We also have the following basic requirements for the community:

  1. The community must provide an adequate and centrally located lot of land where the library would be accessible to all. The land is usually about 150 square meters and has to be ceded to exclusive use as community library for perpetuity. Often the land is taken from municipal communal lands or even donated from an owner. In some cases, the communities pool funds to outright purchase the lot.
  2. The community has to provide its most valuable resource, free time. The library is only successful with the help of highly trained volunteers. Building and equipping a library is really the easy part - the real work begins the day we cut the ribbon at inauguration. The library then truly becomes a part of the community and its success depends on local work and motivation.
  3. The community has to be able to pay the local services required for a library. There must be a guarantee that lights, cleaning services and water (where necessary) are provided for. These funds are generally raised from existing local groups such as the school or water committees.
  4. The only one or two salaried positions in the libraries are for highly trained librarians, which creates local employment. These salaries are usually raised by a local landowner or business, and most come from the local government. The librarians' positions are non-political and they're directly supervised by the volunteer library committee. In the last rounds of construction, the libraries are also responsible for paying Internet connection fees. Internet is incredibly valuable in these isolated communities.

Study.com: What is it like to be inside a Riecken library? Please tell us what programs and services are offered, and what a typical day at the library might look like.

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WC: The best way to describe the libraries is that they're far more than quiet study rooms, they're very alive. There's always something happening - whether its students or coffee cooperatives, the libraries are always in use. Most often the libraries are filled with children and young people exploring and working on school assignments. Text books are hard to find in rural communities and the library is often the main source of educational research materials for miles around. Each library also contains a well-equipped meeting room that is used for any variety of meeting or training sessions. In one community in southeast Honduras, Hoya Grande, the local farmer cooperatives regularly use the library to meet and establish coffee and aloe prices to market and sell their products without middle men. In Hoya Grande the Internet is also regularly used to enroll for classes and banking errands, thereby avoiding the four hour bus ride to the nearest city.

Study.com: Who are the main users of the Riecken Libraries?

WC: Obviously the libraries are primarily used by children and youth. The lack of books and resources in the regions where we work make the libraries a magnet for young people. The programming in reading, youth and technology tends to attract young people in both within and outside of the formal education system. However, there's also a lot of great use by adults and community organizations. In some of the communities there are third-generation reading hours where adults gather to discuss the news and discuss issues of the day.

Study.com: What impact do the libraries have on local communities? Can you describe any changes that you've seen?

WC: The change in a community where there is a Riecken library is visually noticeable due to all the activity. However, libraries, access to information and education are not like medicine or food programs where the impact is immediate and easily measurable. The Riecken program is harder to measure in the short- and mid-term. A Fulbright scholar recently came down and conducted an impact study that yielded several strong observations. In particular, the study notes that the libraries fill a void, particularly with young people, and create a center where constructive activities take place. Young people watch less television and actually participate in community development projects. An interest has been created in the citizens of the community to better understand local institutions, their work and transparency. This sort of awakening is very important in countries like Guatemala and Honduras where suspicion of local government and institutions are natural because corruption and inefficiency is widespread.

Study.com: What challenges are the Riecken Foundation currently facing in the community library project?

WC: The biggest challenge facing the Riecken Foundation at this point is recovering from the worldwide economic crisis. For seven years the Foundation was part of the vision of its sole founder and financial supporter, Allen Andersson, but the crisis has forced the Foundation and its network of libraries to reexamine their funding base and ability to remain self-sustained. We're grappling with these major issues right now. Unfortunately, during the change from a family foundation to a public organization, Riecken did not have the luxury of a lengthy transition. The crisis hit the Foundation fast and hard. But we are working with new board members on restructuring and becoming even more efficient. We're searching for natural outside partners to fill the void of a one donor system. In the long run, this will make the Foundation even stronger and more diverse.

Study.com: Do you have any more Riecken libraries in development? Is the Foundation planning to expand to other countries, or will you stay focused on Honduras and Guatemala?

WC: Since the economic crisis we have slowed down searches for new communities, so for now we will be focusing on the existing networks in Guatemala and Honduras. Honduras inaugurated library number 53 in January, 2010, which Riecken built in cooperation with the Finnish Embassy. But we also have ideas and contacts in Nicaragua and El Salvador. As I noted, the model's beauty is that it can be replicated anywhere.

Ribbon Cutting at a Riecken Library

Get Involved with the Riecken Foundation

Speak Spanish and love to travel? Both Guatemala and Honduras need volunteers to come down and help with the libraries. Learn more about volunteer opportunities at the Riecken Foundation here.

Donations of any size are also always welcome. You can now donate on their website or sponsor one of their many initiatives, such as the Book Fund, the Technology Fund or the Adopt-a-Library program.

Learn more about the Riecken Foundation at www.riecken.org, or follow their first blogging project in Guatemala.

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