While access to reading material is easy to take for granted in North America, it’s not so simple for Mennonites living in remote colonies in Bolivia.
In response to a growing interest in reading among Low German-speaking Mennonites, more than a dozen small libraries have appeared as an extension of the main library Mennonite Central Committee operates in the capital of Santa Cruz.
Mennonite Central Committee has been in Bolivia since 1960, working with both national citizens and the roughly 100,000 Low German-speaking Mennonites who have emigrated to the country and established 106 colonies.
One of the services MCC provides is a 5,000-volume library at Centro Menno, an MCC office in Santa Cruz, the city hundreds of Mennonites travel to every day for business, shopping and medical needs.
Centro Menno is open three days a week. People borrow a book or two — sometimes as many as 20 — on fiction, nutrition, health, agriculture, children’s stories, history, and devotional and church materials.
Formal education among colony Mennonites usually ends in their early teens, when they transition to a life on the farm and in the home. High German is the language of church, school and home, which means there is little access in a Spanish-speaking country to reading materials in their preferred language.
Two years ago a few visitors said they were interested in having local, smaller libraries in their own colonies. Libraries can be helpful because colony Mennonites are self-learners who are curious about many things.
Some people run small stores and offered to have books for lending in their stores.
Since then, 13 local libraries have started in 13 colonies, and more are waiting for books.
Donations from Canada
Each library was given about 200 books donated to Centro Menno by people in Paraguay and Canada. Most books are in High German, but there is also a strong and growing interest in Spanish literacy materials.
By last July, some were already well-established with borrowing procedures and record-keeping. Some were still quite new, figuring out how they will manage access to their books.
In one store, the owner said that since February about 100 books had been borrowed. Oriente and New Italy colonies’ libraries are in small stores. Hohenau Colony’s library is in a small bookstore.
Manitoba Colony’s library is in a private home. It didn’t have shelves yet, so the books were laid out on a table. California Colony’s library is in a cloth store.
Every librarian was excited to show off the books, no matter what condition they were in.