a stack of different colored notebooks in the foreground, with middle school students working at desks in a classroom in the background
Sixth grade English class students' notebooks are seen stacked waiting for correction by the teacher at the Sotero Figueroa Elementary School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Nov. 6, 2017. The school reopened its doors without electricity to receive students 46 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images)

Public libraries often fill vital roles in their communities, acting as free and publicly accessible repositories of information, cultural programming, education, civic resources, and more. While there are many academic, school, and specialized libraries in Puerto Rico, the number is believed to be small when it comes to public libraries. And librarians face a multitude of obstacles in trying to change this fact, from natural disasters to outdated perceptions of a library’s role in a community, barriers to digital access, a lack of funding, and more.

Getting an accurate picture of how many public libraries are open and serving their communities would likely require visiting every town on the archipelago. According to Hilda Teresa Ayala-González, the director of the National Library of Puerto Rico (Biblioteca Nacional de Puerto Rico), a specialized library, there’s no centralized directory of Puerto Rican libraries.

Most of the libraries that interact with communities aren’t public; some are nonprofits like The San Juan Community Library. Founded in 1987, it currently has more than 32,000 lending books and DVDs in English and Spanish. The library’s executive director Connie Estades says that they also have a digital branch and members from all over Puerto Rico, including Vieques and Culebra, the two smaller islands that make up the Puerto Rican archipelago. 

Cristina Larregui-López, a board member of the Society of Librarians of Puerto Rico (Sociedad de Bibliotecarios de Puerto Rico) and librarian of the nonprofit Biblioteca Centro para Puerto Rico at the Fundación Sila M. Calderón, says that she “can count on two hands the public libraries that are functioning 100% right now with active programs” among Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities. Most of those libraries are located in the metropolitan area, she says.

The lack of public libraries in Puerto Rico isn’t a trivial matter. Long-time librarians Ana I. Medina Hernández and Rossana I. Barrios-Llorens say that Puerto Ricans need greater access to the free resources and services that public libraries can provide. Additionally, more public libraries would help mitigate the ongoing digital information and access gap that affects many Puerto Ricans’ ability to participate in civic and political life, especially those who come from low-income communities and lack formal schooling. All of which would contribute to a greater democratization of information and help to combat the spread of misinformation and censorship, which can be critical during potentially destabilizing events like a pandemic, political upheaval, and natural disasters.

Damaged libraries are slow to recover after natural disasters

Public libraries, unlike other types of libraries like school libraries and specialized libraries, typically run with public funds. Some public libraries are part of the Puerto Rican Department of Education, and apparently, others are run by specific municipalities. Information on the percentage of government budgets allotted to the public libraries was unavailable, and the Department of Education didn’t respond to inquiries.

However, in February 2022, the Puerto Rican government completed “the largest public debt restructuring in U.S. history after announcing nearly seven years ago that it was unable to pay its more than $70 billion debt.” As part of the bankruptcy, a number of austerity measures were put in place, as was a financial oversight board that manages the island government’s finances. Among the government departments that have seen cuts in funding in recent years is the Department of Education, which poses discouraging implications for the amount of funding available to public libraries. 

That lack of funding makes it harder for public libraries to function and stymies their ability to recover from damage and disasters. In the last five years, a series of climate disasters have negatively impacted already struggling libraries. In early September 2017, Hurricane Irma caused power outages and flooding. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria swept over the island with catastrophic results, including nearly 3,000 deaths; a nationwide blackout, with the last of the power being restored about a year after the hurricane; and a major exodus of roughly 200,000 people. The effects of both hurricanes are still felt today in numerous public services, from the electrical system to infrastructure.

Libraries didn’t escape unscathed from the hurricanes. Loida Garcia-Febo toured various libraries after the disasters as part of her work with the American Library Association (ALA), and said that she encountered libraries that had lost practically everything. 

“The library of the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao lost a wall, I remember—something like that,” Garcia-Febo said. “Many things were damaged. They had to close it. One library in Gurabo that I visited, I don’t know if they’ve opened it again because water came in through the roof and damaged all of the computers. And I visited one library of a private school in Humacao that also suffered a lot of damage. They were without electricity.” 

Continued disasters affected the island after the hurricanes. Earthquakes with epicenters in southwestern Puerto Rico that were felt throughout the island caused damage to innumerable structures. Between Dec. 28, 2019, and Jan. 16, 2020, there were more than 300 earthquakes registered at categories 3 or higher, and more than 10 category 5 earthquakes, the United States Geological Survey reported. Among the towns that were most affected were Guánica, Guayanilla, and Ponce. More than two years after the major earthquakes, recovery efforts remain slow, and the public library building in Guayanilla is still unusable. 

A lack of understanding about library culture and sciences

Infrastructure problems, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Local librarians cite long-standing issues like the lack of awareness among the general public and public officials of what libraries can offer and not having the right personnel to work in libraries as part of the problem. Medina Hernández, a board member of the Society of Librarians of Puerto Rico, and Barrios-Llorens, who conceptualized the pro-library advocacy group, Puerto Rico Necesita Bibliotecas (Puerto Rico Needs Libraries), currently work in academic libraries. Both have witnessed ignorance about what libraries are in the present day. 

“The common denominator in all of the legislators, mayors, politicians, in general, is the lack of knowledge,” Medina Hernández said. “And that lack of knowledge, to my understanding, comes from a lack of library culture.” 

Medina Hernández worked at a public library in the town of Bayamón for almost two years. During that time, the library participated in events engaging the elderly, like a bell choir and a digital literacy initiative. While the library still offers those kinds of events, it’s no longer public—it’s now run by the Universidad Ana G. Mendez, a private university in Puerto Rico.

School librarian Sylmarí Burgos Ramírez worked in U.S. public libraries for four years. After studying and looking at different municipal libraries in Puerto Rico, Burgos Ramírez feels like the perceptions of libraries and the way they’re utilized on the island is “10 years behind.” The government will often hire library staff who lack relevant preparation for or education about the full range of library services, which goes beyond lending books.

“[Many people] still have this concept of a library as a repository of books and that’s it,” Burgos Ramírez said. 

Libraries aren’t always accessible to the people who need them

Even if resources were made available to increase the number of public libraries on the island, there’s still the issue of equitable public access, both in-person and online. Burgos Ramírez said that time and scheduling are some of the biggest challenges for accessibility. Puerto Ricans can’t utilize libraries that aren’t open during the hours when they’re most likely to need them, especially when juggling responsibilities between work, caregiving, transportation, and other obligations.

“We can’t pretend that the library is a government service that will be [open from] 8-5 and won’t open on the weekends,” she said. “The schedules here don’t benefit the library members.”

As the secondary division librarian at Saint John’s School, a private school in San Juan, Burgos Ramírez worked with the school to open its library a few hours on Saturdays, so the students can study there. 

In terms of online library services, some libraries already have digital branches, like the San Juan Community Library, while others are working to set up their online catalog, like the National Library. While this does help to increase the availability of online library resources, high-quality internet access is not easy to come by in all of Puerto Rico.

The 2021 U.S. Census found that from 2016-20, 72.6% of Puerto Rican households had a computer. Only 64.3% of households had a broadband internet subscription. Meanwhile, a press release from the Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico (Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico), reported through a Puerto Rico Community Survey that from 2013-17, only three towns had 70-71% of households with internet connection; two were in the metropolitan area. Thirty-eight municipalities had less than 50% internet connection, and around 54% of households had internet access overall.

For households with at least one computer, 60-78% were primarily in the metropolitan area and some coastal municipalities from the Northeast and the East. According to the same press release, about 62% of households had a computer. The lack of internet access has affected students who have struggled to access computer equipment and the internet throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Pulso Estudiantil, an independent, student-run newspaper, reported in August 2020 that the move to virtual learning and the digital divide led some university students to abandon their studies. Others continued to study but grappled with internet connection problems. K-12 students also struggled with the same issues, per a Centro de Periodismo Investigativo investigation from August 2020.

The elderly in Puerto Rico also face challenges if they want to access digital library services. About 22.7% of Puerto Rico’s total population of 3.3 million people were 65 years old and older in 2021, according to the U.S. Census. And while libraries like the Biblioteca Centro para Puerto Rico work with elderly populations on digital literacy, this is not a community service that’s widely available to the elderly.

“One of the focuses that I wanted to have when I started here in the library was digital literacy workshops, which are really important above all for the eldery population, which are mostly the ones with that need,” Larregui-López said. “Maybe they’ve never held a mouse in their lives.”

Public libraries are vital for communities to thrive

Public libraries live and die on public support, but there’s only so much even the most enthusiastic individual patrons and users can do to improve their local libraries. More commitment and investment from legislative bodies, institutions, and influential organizations could reinvigorate public libraries in Puerto Rico and help expand both the services they offer and the public’s understanding of what libraries can truly provide for their communities.

Medina Hernández and Barrios-Llorens say that there’s more that the government, private sectors, and academia can contribute to improve public libraries in Puerto Rico. The government can enact legislation that could ensure libraries have the funding they need to operate and expand to meet public needs. The private sector could help strengthen public libraries in a variety of ways, such as sponsorship, providing funding, and donations, as well as encouraging the use and development of library-run community events.

Greater support from academia, in particular, can make a significant difference for public libraries. Puerto Rico is home to two library science programs that shape the skills and knowledge of professionals in the field. Medina Hernández and Barrios-Llorens believe those programs could be powerful advocates for the future of public libraries on the island.

“[These programs] have the responsibility of serving as ambassadors in front of the government and the private sector to educate about the importance of library development and present the challenges for their existence on the island,” they said.

The combination of challenges facing public libraries in Puerto Rico today are not new problems. Advocates stress that if public libraries are improved upon, they can contribute positively to the cultural and intellectual richness of diverse communities. If they are not, public libraries and the communities that they’re meant to serve could be in even more disadvantaged positions moving forward.

Mariela Santos-Muñiz is a freelance writer, mostly writing about topics relating to Latinx communities, whose work has appeared in NBC Latino, Nylon, The Open Notebook, and more. Bilingual in English...