Colombia’s Libraries: More Than Just Books

There’s a reason why Bogotá is nicknamed the “Athens of South America,” and it has nothing to do with its numerous half-constructed buildings in various states of disrepair. With a plethora of used bookstores, vendors selling books on practically every street corner and one of the world’s largest annual international book fairs, Bogotá is a haven for literary types and poets alike.

But Bogotá isn’t the only destination for visiting bookworms. Many parts of the country are blessed with readers’ paradises – beautiful, modern and well-stocked public libraries exist everywhere from the largest cities to small department capitals. Here in Colombia, libraries are much more than buildings full of books – many of them function as symbols of hope for their cities and people. A reading break may not be on the top of every visitor’s trip itinerary, but some of these special sites are well worth a visit, even if you don’t plan on taking any reading material home.

Bogotá – Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, Biblioteca Virgilio Barco

The Luis Ángel Arango library is the flagship location of the city’s stellar network of public libraries. Occupying almost an entire block in the historic Candelaria neighborhood, the 55-year-old library is home to more than 1,300,000 books and receives more than 5,000 visitors every day. In addition to its enormous book collection, the library also hosts a near-daily calendar of events including art exhibits, concerts, readings and other performances in its state-of-the-art concert hall.

Biblioteca Publica Virgilio Barco

Biblioteca Publica Virgilio Barco – photo courtesy of TEDxBogotá

A little farther north, in the middle of the sprawling Parque Simón Bolívar, sits the Virgilio Barco library, designed by famous Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona. A winding brick spiral with windows that provide a panoramic view of the city, the library is a perfect study space in the middle of Bogotá’s largest park. Like the Luis Angel Arango, the Virgilio Barco also has spaces for performances, including a large auditorium, and an outdoor water feature that provides a perfect place to sit and relax on a sunny day.

Medellín – Parque Biblioteca España

You can barely turn a corner in Medellín these days without running into a success story – the world’s former murder capital has turned things around in a spectacular way, and they can’t wait to tell visitors all about it. One of the clearest signs of this progress is this library and community center. Perched atop the mountain at the last stop on the city’s innovative MetroCable cable car line, the library provides a stunning view of the city from its home in the middle of the Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood in Comuna 1, a notoriously poor area of Medellín. The library, opened in 2007 with support from the royal family of Spain (hence the name), serves as a community center, location for public events and, more than anything, a symbol of Medellín’s revived hopes.

Parque Biblioteca Espana

Parque Biblioteca Espana – photo courtesy of Universidad EAFIT

Villanueva – Biblioteca Pública de Villanueva

Definitely off the beaten path, the public library in the city of Villanueva is an incongruous discovery, seeming more appropriate for a city of millions than a town of 23,000 people on the edge of Colombia’s vast eastern plains. And yet, more than any other library in the country, this one fits its surroundings. An architectural triumph, the beautiful building was constructed to coexist with its surrounding landscape – in fact, the entire structure was built using natural materials from nearby forests, rivers and quarries. The library is self-ventilating and relies on natural light sources as much as possible. Created by four young architects from Bogotá’s Javeriana University, who won a national contest to design the library, the Villanueva library is an example of the innovative ideas coming from young Colombians and provides a cultural center for a region that has historically been one of the most affected by the civil conflict.

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