Volunteer biblioteca in San Juan del Sur
"The 328th most awesome thing in the world,” according to the book One Thousand Awesome Things, is to “feel our shared histories softly swirl together through old books and stamped checkout cards as you smile and soak up all the little library smells.”
Since 2001, the shared histories of the human heart have combined with the gentle salt winds of coastal Nicaragua as they whisper through the halls of Jane Mirandette’s Biblioteca Móvil.
A Shared History
In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain describes his trip to Nicaragua and across the overland interoceanic trade route. The town experienced a short boom when it became the premier overland link before the Pan-American Railroad was laid and the Panama Canal was forged.
Twain approaches the coast at the shoreline of San Juan del Sur and describes it as “a few tumble-down frame shanties – they call them hotels – nestling among green verdure and overshadowed by picturesque little hills.”
I imagine Twain would be very proud to know that below the “picturesque little hills” there's now a multilingual library (by no means “shanty”). And that in that library, Innocents Abroad and his other books are now tucked proudly in the “T” section.
The fully functional biblioteca – along with 37 other seed projects – is now the navel of volunteer tourism for literacy in Central America.
Flashback to the 1990s
San Juan del Sur is a quiet fishing village with a few hotels and hostels. Semi-tropical and beautiful, but impoverished and – like the entire country – weak and tired from decades of poor government and turbulent revolution. Not much different than Twain’s era. There is a trickle of tourists, international Argonauts, surfers – all willing to go slightly off the gringo trail.
Pleased by the good vibes and resilient people, the opulent Pelican Eyes hotel opens – tourist companies, boutiques and international restaurants follow.
Mirandette Moves in and Sets up Shop
Fast forward to 2000. Mirandette’s bed & breakfast, Villa Isabella, opens. The library opens on the patio of Villa Isabella in November 2000. Mirandette and staff begin lending books in November, and by February 2001, all the books had been loaned to local kids. It takes one-and-a-half years to go mobile. “The key,” says Mirandette, was “the lending process. Nobody in Central America does that.”
The Hester J. Hodgdon’s Libraries for All Program, a 501c3 charitable foundation from Colorado, supports this project and several others and actively solicits funding. Mirandette wins a grant to transform her small project into a cooperative non-profit.
The Biblioteca in 2011
Since then, 45 similar loaning projects have developed using the model set by Móvil. The project not only delivers the words, it offers seminars for the librarians. “We have provided workshops in Managua for Nicaraguan librarians,” adds Mirandette. The group maintains a productive relationship with the Library Association of Nicaragua (ANIBIPA).
Volunteers can join for workshops and classes in social media, crafts, book repair. Bookworm “voluntourists” may also take site visits to many of the 45 libraries lending books all around Nicaragua.
The University of Maryland offers a study abroad program for students interested in library studies. Students are joined by Dr. Ann Weeks, UMD librarian, and work with Mirandette and mentor the students as they encounter the multicultural, multilingual Pan-American crux of shared history through learning and serving.
“Volunteers are welcome any time, and some come for a day to play in the mobile program between surf trips," says Mirandette. There’s currently a gal in her sixth month of volutouring. Some stay for shorter times. All aspiring voluntourists are welcome, as long as their intentions are to help, learn, and engage with the locals in the spirit of shared humanity.
“We are one of the few volunteer programs that do not charge a fee for people to come,” she says proudly – with full assurance, I can tell, that she knows what she does is far better than the #328th most awesome thing.