If you don't believe in any god, perhaps you can believe in the public library of Guadalajara. Nearly 40 percent of the population does. In a country with mediocre reading rates, the statistics (31,650 library members out of a population of 84,453) are a slap in the face of skepticism. Most people come here to borrow books, but the building is a microcosm of activity: somebody is playing a piece by Satie on the piano in the central courtyard; a reading club is dissecting Jonathan Franzen; students do homework under volunteer supervision; and around 50 families spend one night here in their sleeping bags while they listen to stories told by Peter Pan.
If, for some reason, right now you don't believe in the government either, perhaps you can believe more than ever in the public library of Guadalajara. After being hit by merciless budget cuts in quick succession, it is the users who are filling in the gaps with their own time, money and energy. It represents a miracle of solidarity, an overdose of good vibes, a lesson for ignoble times, and evidence that culture is more than just a passing fancy. It is also a crossroads for the director of this state-owned library, Blanca Calvo. "It's exciting to see that just one email asking for volunteers got an immediate response from lots of users, but it is also a moral and professional dilemma because they're the ones covering needs that should be covered by the state," she confesses.
Readers have paid subscriptions to 62 publications (before the crisis, the library subscribed to over 200 periodicals) and bought dozens of new releases to make up for the library's lack of cash. In 2007, the last happy year, there were 150,000 euros available to buy new material. This year there was less than a third of that amount. For 2013, no money at all is expected. Altruistic work has also become the engine that keeps cultural activities going, with the former annual budget of 20,000 euros now a distant dream.
"We stopped hiring professional storytellers, and even though we had volunteers, it's not the same thing. It's all right if it's just a temporary thing, but we pay our taxes in order to enjoy these activities," complains Concha Carlavilla García, who embodies the spirit of this library better than anyone else: she gave up her permanent librarian position in a small village to come work at the Guadalajara library and, despite being recently laid off, she still comes here as a volunteer.
Are we saying that without a job, you no longer have the right to culture?"
"I came here as a child and now my children come here; this library is like a living organism with a life of its own, and I want to keep participating in it, making my small contribution so that this can remain the way it was for the last 30 years," she says vehemently, holding a copy of East of Eden in her hand to debate at her book club - one of 30 such groups at the library in which 500 adults and 150 kids take part. "At times of crisis we need to invest more than ever in libraries. People don't have the money to buy books but they need to keep accessing culture and information. Or are we saying that besides kicking us out of our jobs, we don't have the right to culture and information, either?"
While she talks, people come and go and stop to chat with acquaintances. This 16th-century building has the sound of a park on a Sunday afternoon, although silence reigns in some of the rooms. You see young girls wearing veils, retired people with plenty of time on their hands, teenagers absorbed by their computers, and readers anxiously perusing the books lying on a long table in the entrance hall, under a sign that says: "Take me, I've just been returned and I'm very well liked."
The Dávalos palace is a meeting point for the predictable and the unpredictable. After 31 years at the helm of this center, Blanca Calvo has honed her concept: "A library is a covered public square where anything is possible."
In 2004, when the library moved from the Infantado palace to Dávalos, around 500 people formed a human chain to move the last 1,001 books to their new home, literally passing them from hand to hand. It was something that costs nothing yet unites a lot. "I compare it with a family that brings together very non-homogenous groups," says Josean Pérez, a psychiatrist who coordinates a writing workshop attended by bakers, teachers, cooks, sociologists and bank employees and that gave rise to a poetry collective, Cyrano, which performed at Madrid's Círculo de Bellas Artes.
People know that this place is theirs and that we are at their service"
As Josean talks, a man pushing a stroller rushes by. Even babies have a place here. "This is everyone's house, and Blanca is to blame for that: she asks you for something and you just can't refuse, even if it's the weirdest thing," says Josean.
Thirty-one years ago, the library was a dark window that intimidated people. Blanca Calvo broke down the physical barriers by allowing direct access to books, newspapers and other material and, bit by bit, the psychological ones melted away as well.
"People know that this place is theirs and that we are at their service," says Calvo. "Libraries have a future as a meeting place. Maybe in a few years you'll be able to download the book on your computer, but you still need to come here to meet people."
Everyone strolls around like this place was their home. "I've been a member ever since I can remember," says Emma Jaraba, former editor of the weekend edition of the daily Nueva Alcarria, founded in 1939 and gone with the crisis. Now unemployed, Jaraba is one of six participants in an English-language book club that took out an annual subscription to the magazine Speak Up. "There was a great debate because some people felt that we were covering needs that should be seen to by the administration. But my feeling is that this is going to be temporary."
She is not the only one to answer the call. When the library asked users for help purchasing new releases, Antonio Durán, a graphic designer who has had a library card for 12 years, went over to a bookstore to buy children's books. "I thought it was important to have a positive attitude, not just to scream and shout."
Mercedes Garulo, a retired French teacher, donated all her educational books and dozens of novels to the various book clubs. "Few places work as well as this one," she says. And Pilar Martínez, who has been unemployed for a year, took on the coordination of a club for small children ages three to five, because she remembered how happy her own daughter was every time she took her there.
Almost all the volunteers feel that they are giving back some of what they received, which in itself is a tribute to public workers and services at a time when they are being portrayed rather negatively before public opinion. But Blanca Calvo warns that "for there to be volunteers, there must first be a very strong professional structure." Volunteers are not a replacement for librarians. In these times of transition from the physical to the virtual, librarians are still what they were to the Sumerians: people who put order in the universe.