As a teenager working in the library at Tabb High School in York County, Virginia, I came across a book in a career exploration series about the U.S. Foreign Service which started me on the path to becoming an American diplomat. After earning a B.A. in International Affairs and Spanish from Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington), I was privileged to represent our country for 32 years including serving twice as a U.S. Ambassador, first to El Salvador from 2000 to 2003 and then to Peru from 2010 to 2013. Along the way, I promoted Embassy libraries, explored national libraries in the countries where I served, and created a few informal libraries. To bring it full circle, after retiring from the State Department, I earned an MLIS and returned to working in libraries, this time as a professional. I am currently serving as the Director of the Smyth County Public Library system in southwest Virginia.
We often take public libraries for granted in the United States. We’ve been visiting them since we were children, and we count on the fact that most neighborhoods host a welcoming space with an up-to-date collection of bestsellers, newspapers, magazines, computers, and even makerspaces. I learned early in my diplomatic career that this institution that is central to American public life was not widely available in foreign countries. In my first overseas assignment in Monterrey, Mexico, we were fortunate to have at the Consulate General a branch of the Benjamin Franklin Library. Local residents visited daily to learn about the United States, to read books in English, to peruse National Geographic or other magazines, or just to hang out. As the home of the Tecnológico, Mexico’s MIT, Monterrey was awash in university students who made the Franklin Library one of their favorite haunts until the U.S. government-sponsored version of the library closed in 1982. (The Mexican-North American Cultural Institute later opened a new Benjamin Franklin Library in Monterrey in a different location.)
The original Benjamin Franklin Library was founded in Mexico City in 1942 with great fanfare as a symbol of the important relationship between Mexico and the United States and to strengthen that bond through a shared commitment to the free exchange of ideas (Prieto 294). A joint effort of the American Library Association (ALA) and the Office of Inter-American Affairs (later absorbed into the U.S. Department of State), the Benjamin Franklin Library was the first U.S. government-sponsored international library (Prieto 294). It was the precursor to an eventual 153 libraries operated by the United States Information Agency around the world.
During World War II, the United States government made a concerted effort to keep the nations of the Americas on the side of the Allies through a series of cultural, economic, and business initiatives. Following the success of the Benjamin Franklin Library in Mexico City, libraries were among the most concrete and visible manifestations of that engagement. By the time the United States Information Agency (USIA) was established in 1953, there were 230 information centers and reading rooms in 75 countries, the majority of them in Latin America (Collett 539).
These institutions were based on the premise that free access to information is essential to the creation and wellbeing of democratic societies, a longstanding pillar of U.S. foreign policy. The American libraries, as they were widely known, also made a point of employing standard U.S. library practices in organizing and operating the facilities, such as diverse collections presented in open stacks, free loan of books, easy access to reliable information, and welcoming all visitors (Collett 540). While these practices reflected common library experiences in the United States, they were often a welcome taste of freedom in more closed societies.
The spread of the internet around the globe by the late 1990s and rising episodes of international terrorism directed at U.S. facilities coincided with Congressional budget-cutting and led to the transformation of the libraries based on the Benjamin Franklin model, into a new incarnation as information resource centers (IRC) available by appointment only and with collections reduced to core reference and commercial materials and computers connected to the internet (Lewis 49). By the time I arrived in El Salvador in 2000, the small IRC served a few hundred patrons per year, many of them online and over the phone since the Embassy’s stringent security measures inhibited visitors. Unfortunately, the attacks on September 11, 2001, demonstrated the necessity of such precautions.
In the years since the Benjamin Franklin made such a splash in Mexico City, public libraries have become more widely available in other countries, especially in Europe and the English-speaking world but also in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Canada boasts a vibrant public library culture, India is home to more than 5,000 registered public libraries, and China has more than 3,200 public libraries. In some countries, like Peru or Egypt, the National Library is the premier national archive and cultural heritage site devoted to preserving rare historical documents and artifacts.
One of my favorite experiences in Peru was the creation of an informal local library in a new community center built in the earthquake-battered coastal town of Tambo del Mora by U.S. and Peruvian military personnel during the New Horizons joint military exercise in 2012. Visiting the building a few days before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, I found a room that had been designated as the library and training center being equipped with a few computers and desks but no books. Returning home, I did some much-needed weeding of the library in the Ambassador’s residence as well as my own personal library and asked my colleagues in the Embassy for any surplus books or magazines. While I was participating in the official presentation of the building to the town with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, my military colleagues quietly delivered a dozen boxes of books in Spanish and English to the new library. As diplomats, we seek to create relationships with the foreign officials and private citizens we meet to enable us to better understand each other so we can work together productively to solve common challenges. Those books in Tambo del Mora were intended to share with visitors to that community center the joy of discovery and access to knowledge that enriches our lives in libraries around the world every day.
Ambassador Rose Likens and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala at a local library in Tambo del Mora, Peru, in 2012.
As the Director of a public library system in a close-knit rural community, it has been rewarding to see the democratic institutions I used to describe to foreign interlocutors in action at the local level. As I attend town council or Board of Supervisors meetings to provide accountability for the resources entrusted to the library, I consistently witness widespread commitment to serving the community, to giving everyone a voice, and to working together to solve problems, the characteristics that have served our nation so well for centuries. When we stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Marion or Chilhowie or Saltville, I remember the first time I heard it on foreign soil at a Boy Scout event on a rainy Saturday morning in Monterrey and it gives me the same thrill of pride in our shared national endeavor that I experienced then.
–Rose Likins, Director, Smyth County Public Library
Collett, Joan. “American Libraries Abroad: United States Information Agency Activities.” Library Trends, January 1972, pp. 538-547.
Lewis, Mark. “On My Mind: Shelving Access to USIA Libraries Abroad.” American Libraries, Vol. 28, No. 2, Feb. 1997, pp. 49-50.
Prieto, Julie Irene. “The Sword and the Book: The Benjamin Franklin Library and U.S.-Mexican Relations 1936-1962.” Book History, 2013, Vol. 16, 2013, pp. 294-317.