Chile’s Binational Center Library

Elizabeth N. Steinhagen
María Teresa Herrero

floral device Abstract

This paper describes the facilities and services of the United States Information Service (USIS) Binational Center (BNC) Library, established in 1941 in Santiago. The BNCs are autonomous institutions governed by boards of local citizens and employing local staff. There are BNCs in 17 Latin American countries. They often function as local public libraries, presenting a useful model of American library practice. The Santiago BNC has taken a diverse leadership role in Chilean librarianship; it was the first library, for example, to have open stacks, closed circuit TV and radio, and microforms. It now offers to users a wide range of new technology, such as CD–ROMs and online databases. The BNC operates a unique reference service, available in person or by phone to anyone in the country. Resource sharing is another important activity of the Center. One of the authors of the article was an American Library Association Library/Book Fellow at the BNC for seven months; her work in library continuing education is summarized. The Center’s plans for the next several years are outlined.

floral device

It is often the case in developing countries that the most modern libraries are those operated by foreign governments, such as the British Council libraries or those of the United States Information Service (USIS). There were 160 USIS libraries in 88 countries during 1991. The USIS also supports binational centers, which are autonomous institutions governed by boards of local citizens and employing local staff. In Latin America there are binational centers (BNCs) in 17 countries. This article describes one of them, the Instituto Chileno–Norteamericano de Cultura in Santiago, Chile, established in 1941. Chile’s library situation is similar to that of many Latin American countries: it has a large, active national library that produces a national bibliography and is creating a computerized database of the holdings of major libraries. The nation has good special libraries with advanced information technologies. Modern academic libraries are found in the University of Chile and the Catholic University, and there are good libraries in many other universities. However, public libraries and school libraries have not enjoyed dependable support, and remain generally weak–although there are excellent exceptions [1].

The value of a BNC library is therefore most significant for the general public. Individuals with access to the BNC in Santiago (the largest of seven in Chile) have the benefit of an up–to–date service in the mold of a typical United States public library.

The library has earned a reputation for leadership. Its bilingual professional staff of four librarians have degrees from the University of Chile and extensive training abroad. The BNC library is well known for the services it has developed over the years. As the first open–stack collection in Chile, it has been serving a growing number of registered users (who pay a nominal fee), the students of the Instituto, and anyone else in Chile in need of information–especially about the United States. The BNC library was the first in Chile to install closed circuit television and radio, and to make microforms available. Thanks to steady U.S. support and some private donations, it has been able to remain in the forefront by its use of new technology, such as video and audio equipment, and CD–ROM equipment and databases. By end of 1991, the library had the following databases in CD–ROM: Public Diplomacy Query, International Drug Library, Dissertation Abstracts International, Books in Print, Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory, and Grolier’s Encyclopedia. Since 1987, with resources provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the library has functioned as a “commercial” (i.e., business) library, answering questions on American businesses and related matters. In 1987 close to 7,000 requests for business information were answered, and in 1991 almost 13,000 such requests were answered (with 52.8 percent of these received over the telephone) [2].

Recent annual statistics point to steadily climbing registered membership and circulation figures, while those for library holdings remain stable due to efficient collection management practices. Total holdings for print materials — i.e., books in English (68 percent of the collection) and Spanish (32 percent), plus 128 periodical subscriptions were 10,157 titles in 1991. Circulation figures for print materials showed an increase from 26,455 volumes in 1985 to 32,501 volumes in 1989. The number of registered users rose from 2,668 in 1985 to 3,618 in 1991.

By far the most valuable asset of the BNC library is the unique reference service provided to any information–seeker from any part of Chile. This service is available in person, by telephone, and (from 1990) by fax. Slightly over 10 percent of the total collection consists of up–to–date reference materials which allow the librarians to answer a large variety of questions on the United States. The users making these requests vary from school children working on assignments to people in business needing data about U.S. companies and their products, as well as resident or visiting Americans looking for information on Chile — or just browsing through the latest U.S. newspapers and periodicals. Agencies served include government offices, international organizations, embassies, commercial enterprises, schools and universities, and news media. There were 11,276 information requests in 1985, and 21,069 in 1991.

In addition to these traditional library functions, the staff has been involved in public relations and program support activities. Audiovisual services are in high demand. They include video presentations of American movies, interviews, documentaries, and a daily news service taken from ABC News, as well as special Worldnet programs, such as a controversial report on ozone depletion over the Antarctic in September of 1987. Since 1987, the library has been a demonstration center for U.S. National Public Radio and programs on audio cassettes have been received and made available to users. As of April 1988, video tapes on small business management have also been available to viewers on closed circuit television. Special bibliographies are regularly prepared for the different functions of the Institute, such as exhibits, movies, and lectures. The library’s resources are open to the Institute’s English students, with special tours and a students’ corner geared to their needs.

Another important function of the library is to serve as resource center for the other BNCs in Chile and as distribution center for new books and some library materials and supplies provided by USIA. The library is active in interlibrary loan services and collaborates with many other Chilean libraries in resource sharing activities.

Two endeavors with important long–range impact are current awareness and library continuing education programs. BNC staff work systematically with Chilean university researchers, professors, and government officials in their areas of expertise, developing current awareness services, mainly in political sciences and U.S. history. In 1989, there were 31 persons registered for the current awareness service. The BNC professional staff are highly regarded by their colleagues at other Chilean institutions for contributions to continuing professional education; the library is the locale and/ or the sponsor of workshops or other gatherings of importance for the information professional. Two examples were the lectures by Dan Hazen, then Head of the Latin American Collection at the University of California, Berkeley, and a workshop by Bernard Reilly of the Library of Congress on preservation of photographs and print materials. Much importance is given to continuing education of the BNC’s own library staff. One of the projects in this area was the hosting of an American Library Association/ USIA Library/Book Fellow [3] (one of the authors of this article) for a period of lectures and workshops from September 1987 through March 1988. Lectures were offered in Santiago, Concepción, Temuco, and Valparaíso on the use of new technologies in information processing and retrieval, and on American studies collection development. Online searching, CD–ROM, and fax technologies were demonstrated at the workshops. Librarians throughout Chile look to the BNC library for answers to some of the issues that have arisen from the use of new tools and techniques in their places of work.

A recent emphasis at the BNC has to do with environmental issues. Heavy pollution, especially around Santiago and in the industrialized areas, has become a great concern. Thus the library undertook to provide relevant documents and information to government officials in charge of developing standards and drafting legislative measures designed to deal with these problems. The environmental collection has been growing steadily, and plans include the development of a database containing these materials, using MicroISIS, and participation in Chile’s National Information Network on the Environment. Another new service, supported by a special USIA grant which allows access to the LEGI–SLATE database, is being offered to any Chilean member of Congress who requests it. Use of this database allows the librarians access to legislation that is being debated in the U.S. Congress, along with related reference materials. Many members of both houses of the new Chilean Congress have made extensive use of these services. Materials have been provided to them on the subjects of environmental legislation, money laundering in drug trafficking, freedom of expression, organ donations, tax reform, consumer protection, etc.

Shrinking budgets have required some retrenchment and a reconsideration of the BNC role and services. There is a strong commitment to further improve communications and cooperation with both USIA and the other BNC libraries in Chile. Since duplication of effort needs to be avoided, concrete steps have been taken in this direction, such as bringing all BNC librarians at once to the capital for workshops and joint projects. Centralized and automated ordering, standardized cataloging, processing, and distribution of library materials from the BNC library in Santiago are being developed, and should result in a union catalog and a periodicals union list. Efforts to improve reference referral are also under way.

More emphasis is being placed on the needs of the language students of the Institute, by providing a special reading and study area, and by improving the “easy reading” and the AV collections. In addition, by re–focusing services toward more well–planned current awareness activities for the academic and political communities, the unique strengths of the library are gaining more exposure — while its librarians benefit from the greater intellectual challenges of a larger variety and greater depth of information requests. Other options being explored have to with increasing access to CD–ROM databases and converting cataloging data into machine–readable form. Participation at fairs, such as the International Book Fair in Santiago, has been an important activity for a number of years.

The BNC in Santiago is a notable example of what can be achieved through demonstration. For modern library practice to be accepted as the norm in developing countries, such models are much needed. They provide an effective carrier of advanced professional thought and action.

floral device References

1. A description of the country’s library situation, with statistics, is found in “Chile,” by María Teresa Herrero, ALA World Encyclopedia (Second ed.; Chicago: American Library Association 1986), pp. 188–190.

2. Statistics in the article are taken from unpublished annual reports fo the library of the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano de Cultura.

3. For a description of the Library/Book Fellows Program see TWL 2–1 (Fall 1991), pp. 10–13, and at

About the Authors

Elizabeth N. Steinhagen is Serials Catalog Librarian at Humboldt State University, Arcata, California. She was one of the first group of Library/–Book Fellows [see TWL 2–1 at], serving in Chile from September 1987 through March 1988. She was based at the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano de Cultura, in Santiago, the Bi–National Center (BNC) which is the subject of

María Teresa Herrero is Library Director, Instituto Chileno Norteamericano de Cultura, Santiago, Chile. She wrote an article on Chile for the second edition of the ALA World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services.

© 1992 Elizabeth N. Steinhagen & María Teresa Herrero.