Libro Futuro

Librarian in Colombia between Wikipedia, copyright (and more). Mario Coffa interviews David Ramírez-Ordóñez

Intervista in italiano

David Ramírez-Ordóñez is a doctoral student at the Open University of Catalonia (Barcelona), member of the Where Are the Women in Wikipedia – WAWW project.  He holds a Master in Education on the stream Social and Political Knowledge Education and a degree in Library and Information Sciences from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá.  He has been working on digital internet projects since 2005 related to access to information, internet governance, copyright, libraries and digital storytelling.  Creator of the Colombian public domain computer in an award-winning thesis, by Bibliotecarios al Senado (Libraries in the Senate) an international library advocacy group that changed the copyright law in Colombia for libraries, archives and museums.  He is an expert advisor to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) on copyright and other legal matters and for Latin America and the Caribbean.  He was selected in 2016 by IFLA as one of the 9 world leaders in a competition as an associate of the Leaders Program for his achievements in the defense of libraries.

To begin briefly, talk to us and tell us about your work?

I work in the intersection between (digital) information, power and citizenship. I am interested in the relationships of power amog the people and how you can exercise that power to promote your values as human being. The access to knowledge and information here is key because you can understand access to information as join a human conversation in different times. For example, reading a book is talk to the author even if that person died a long time ago, and you can write an answer to his or her ideas and keep the conversation even to future readers. At the end is about how we establish relationships with other human beings and their ideas, right?

My studies shows the same narrative at the end: who has the power, who can establish rules, who can not and how you can introduce new ideas in a community. In 2011 I wrote the Public Domain Calculator (available at in Spanish), a website that ask you some easy questions, for example is the author alive? In wich year he or she died? And then the Calculator gives you the date when the copyright is over and you can freely use a work. This project made accesible a bunch of legal text for lawyers and translated into something that you can easily understand: you can or you can not use a Colombian work because of copyright.

Then I studied education and I realize as librarian we are learning how to run a library from people that imagine how to do it but they not always has the experience that we have, working daily, dealing with users and readers, because at the end the people who create laws for libraries, not necessarily are librarians; or when they open spaces for dialogue we are very bussy working in our library, we don’t understand the language or we simply ignore this opportunities. At the end who is shaping the way how we learn is not a librarian and I imagined a way to criticize the roots of what we learn to create new questions about what we do, why we do it and how we can make it better. The result of that was a movement based on Community practices for librarians called “Bibliotecarios al Senado” (Librarians to the Senate, in Spanish) where the Colombian librarians join forces to learn about copyright and actually change the copyright law in Colombia in 2018.

Nowadays I am not so close to libraries and librarians as before, but as I told you the background is the same: now I am studiyng the gender gap in Wikipedia. I want to understand why the “Free encyclopedia” is not so “free” if you are a woman and why only around 20% of the whole content is about women and it’s hart to move that 20% to a higher number. I am combining my experience in digital libraries, access to information and advocacy to see how women can have more power in Wikipedia, a masculine club.

What does it mean to be and to be a librarian in Colombia?  Is there a reference association for the profession?

I am not sure if I am the right person to answer this question, because I am living abroad since 2017 and Colombia is changing a lot and very fast. When I leave Colombia the peace process just happened and now we have a pandemic scenario with months of social protests. I follow the Colombian library field but of course I imagine a Colombian librarian living in Colombia can be more accurate than me. Based on my experience, being a librarian in Colombia is related to work alone in many cases, being the director, the cataloguer, the cheif of services, teacher, cleaner and security guard at the same time, because in 2014, around 70% of libraries in the Colombian Public Library Network (it was around 1.500 libraries around the country) where held by just one person. You need to be very creative and work very closely to your community to be able to respond to the community needs and I met many librarians doing a fantastic work there.

I am a member of the Asociación Colombiana de Bibliotecólogos – ASCOLBI, the Colombian National Library Association and I remember that everything was very centralized, but the Goberning Board (2018 – 2021) were working a lot to make it more descentralized and the COVID-19 pushed us a lot in that direction, but keep in mind that in some cases you don’t have access to Internet, the devices or the skills to use it. Being a librarian in Colombia is a very difficult task but we need to do it anyway.

I don’t know Mario if you have the same feeling in Italy, but in Colombia it seems that if you study Library and Information Science some people struggle with it, trying to explain what a librarian can do; no, that you don’t spend 5 years learning how to move books from shelves to the user’s hands and that you don’t have 3 classes to shush users (Shush I, Shush II and Shush III according to your curriculum). I never join that debate because I was in love of all that you can do with queries and data, how complex is to understand your community and how you can promothe the development of citizenship in your users and readers.

When I was a teacher in Library and Information Science I noticed many students were very concerned about monetize the libraries or including some neoliberal terms to something that for me don’t need it. You can see it around the world when people is not refering to the library’s users or readers but “clients”. For me that’s awful but I think is still very common in Colombia. I think we need money, of course, but at the end of the day is not all in your life and if it is, sound very sad for me.

I met some colleagues who were dealing with violence in very difficult neighborhoods and sometimes as librarian you need to create safe spaces. This is hard but at the end beautiful things happened, for example a colleague made a cinema programme in the library and he was able to congregate fans from different soccer teams in his library to make them talk. It’s like if this librarian created a common place to the Capulets and the Montagues to discuss peacefully about movies, even if outside the library they didn’t hangout together because they were rivals.

Sometimes I think that being librarian in Colombia is an act of faith, because you need to deal with the fact that you need to make a big effor to achieve a minimum where maybe librarians in other parts of the world or even in libraries in capital cities in Colombia had it already. Because of that you are completely dissconected of what happens around you and being part of an international library field sounds like an alien thing. I spent some time understanding the regional and international library field to share it with librarians in Colombia and Latin America. As I said maybe anyone living in Colombia can gives a better portrait of being a librarian, but I think I can have a different perspective, still valid about what it means. I hope is useful!

Among the many things of dealing with copyright: in the era in which news and together with it the works, such as eBooks (as regards libraries), “travel” on the net, what happens in terms of copyright and copyright?

It’s a very interesting scenario for me, because we have a global copyright law, because of international treaties, created to do not copy works, but in your daily life you have Internet, created to copy information everywhere to survive to a nuclear attack and preserve the info. I think we live in very interesting times where as human being we are taking many decisions, and even if we don’t participate in this debates we are already taking a side, and we had an ideal Internet at the beginning but now we are moving to many dystopian futures. It’s interesting how some people is trying to make fit atoms in bits but sometimes that works, sometime it doesn’t. We are trying to define the limits and I hope we can make it in the wiser possible way. I think we are loosing many capabilities and here as librarian I think need to engage a lot with Amartya Sen to understand deeply this concept. We are loosing the capability of edit, the capability of remix, the capability of being creators based on other people’s works. You can keep some of these freedoms, but sometimes it means that you need high tech skills wich is for me a massive waste of time and resources. We are loosing the capability to read and write in a broader sense. We are becoming consumers and just a certain group of people (often men, white, rich, from a specific place of the world, with certain education) are creators wich is sad due to opportunities we have now, as you said. To travel on the net.

And well, copyright at the end is just a minor thing compared to other rights that we need to preserve. I got an e-mail from a collegua abroad Latin America who told me he was tortured because on Facebook he liked a comment, shared an article and his goverment took him in the middle of the night illegaly to see if he was part of groups against the actual government. Sounds crazy until happens to someone you know or even you. Look to the pandemic: many freedoms where arrased because of the idea of secutiry. It’s crazy to think that if your gender doesn’t match with your sex your life expectancy can dramatically collapse because of intolerance.

And your question includes an inequality that sometimes we forget: half of the world’s population don’t have acces to the net. What are we going to do with half of our species? Just keep looking to the other side? Anyway, I guess there are many problems and that’s why is a good idea to join a library association to find solutions from our field to all these interesting challenges, many of them included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but we can even have a critical perspective about it. I have very interesting conversations with colleagues from Chile and Bolivia who belive that we need to be careful with this process in the local context. Are the SDGs a colonial initiative? If as librarians around the world we are promoting this Goals, there is a possibility that we are making a mistake? What if we do in some contexts?

Wikipedia and Libraries.  Two different terms but which can get along and find support from each other?

Indeed. Actually there are groups of librarians working on Wikipedia and Libraries. Other projects from the Wikimedia Foundation are Commons Wikimedia and Wikidata, just to mention a few. There are many opportunities but at the same time many challenges.

For example imagine you can share your cataloguing data using Wikidata. I remember explorations in this field from Italian librarians and maybe is a common thing for you, but it can change the way how librarians work in Colombia or even Latin America. The collaboration in this scenario could be awesome. If we talk about digital preservation we can open a very interesting conversation too and again we fall in the risk of a single web holding the information of the world and what it represents. If we can keep a free, open internet this can be a relief, but internet is getting more and more centered in a small group.

Talking about my research: I am focus on Wikipedia gender gap, right? But Wikipedia is based on reliable sources that libraries hold, right? If Wikipedia has a gender gap maybe is because is showing a gender gap in the information that libraries hold. How ofthen did we check if there is a balance, in terms of gender, of our collection? I really like what happened in the National Museum of Colombia and the work of my colleague Leonardo Ramírez-Ordóñez, who actually is the president of the Colombian Library Association (2018-2021). He was working in the “Wall of the diversity”, an exhibition that shows the diversity in Colombia. Until 1991 our constitution imagined a white, catholic Colombia and now (I hope) we have a different country and that wall of diversity included afros, women, indigenous, etc. which is a step in the right direction, I guess, but as society maybe we are not giving room to young people, elder people, people with different believes and the protests in Colombia reveal how hard can be tolerant with the difference in our society and how deep we need to work, in this case from the museums, archives and libraries to change ideas of new generations, to be open to all, which reminds me that interesting campaign by IFLA New Professionals in the IFLA Conference in 2018 in Kuala Lumpur.

In 2016 you were selected as one of the 9 world leaders for your achievements in the defense of libraries.  Can you briefly introduce us to what led you to this recognition and what it meant for you?

Sure! That was the second cohort of the IFLA Leaders Programme. For people who are not part of the library world I use to explain this innitiative as a “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” but for librarians and I was Ma-Ti, the one using the heart ring, the guy from South America. IFLA choose librarians from Philippines, Egypt, Senegal, China, Serbia, Latvia, Mexico, United States and Colombia. I was promoting the inclusion of libraries in the copyright reform in Colombia since 2011, where the proposal had absolutely no reference to the libraries and after a lot of advocacy with the National Library of Colombia, ASCOLBI, many other library associations in Colombia and even from abroad, including IFLA’s president Glòria Pérez-Salmerón, the Chilean Library Association and many other collegaues, the libraries were recognized as an important part of the copyright system. The Programme invited us to 3 IFLA Conference, in Columbus (2016), Wroclaw (2017) and Kuala Lumpur (2018) and to many other events, in my case the Standing Committe on Copyright and Related Rights in Geneve (Switzerland) or the Internet Governance Forum in Guadalajara (México) to promote libraries, a fair copyright law, access to knowledge and the Sustainable Development Goals from the library field. That was very interesting because I can see colleagues from around the globe and understood that despite the different languages, we are all connected.

That helped me to understand who we are in Latin America and in Colombia, I mean, to try to find a “Colombian library identity” which actualy it’s quite diverse. I had the opportunity to see how the Latin American library field can interact with other regions and had the opportunity to explain what I understood of the whole process to share this ideas with other Spanish speakers. For example, I made an illustrated diary about the IFLA Congress (available at ), a diary at the World Intellectual Property Organization (available at ) and my final project for the Leaders Programme was a book, written with Virginia Inés Simón (Argentina) and Robin Kear (United States) available at and here a 3D visualization: to explain the situation of libraries and archives on exceptions and limitations to copyright, a report of +500 pages made a data visualization to see what we have and what we miss on copyright.

Personally it changed my life. I had the opportunity to participate in global arenas and speak on behalf of the library field.I noticed how in Colombia and in general in Latin America we are struggling because sometimes we feel that we are not as good as other librarians but that showed me we have very good ideas, but our context is very different. The language is a barrier to express many things but this is not just related to education but about confidence. You can notice that everytime that someone start a statement saying “I am sorry for my poor English…” and I think we need to find ways to promote our ideas and our culture. I made a presentation in Buenos Aires and I ask to the audience: Why we don’t participate in global scenarios? Is it because we don’t speak English? OK, imagine that everybody can understand you, after that what do you want to promote from your country or region? We have a lot to say about open science, diversity, indigenous knowledge and so on.

In the same way I noticed many other things that I wanted to change. For example I noticed that is very common that people with knowledge try to keep it to create some kind of power, which is strange because we are librarians and what we do is to share knowledge, right? I often listened to people calling the “Leaders Programme” the “Young Leaders Programme” and a very bad vibe about different generations of librarians, not always, but it was there. It was very strange because we were not very young, I mean one of the Leaders had granchildren but that was a way to tell you “in the future you will do great things” as if everything we already achieved was nothing. That was wired for me.

The Leaders Programme made me conclude how much we should enhance our local library association. I was involved with Ascolbi before the Leaders Programme, but after that I was more interested in promote it. I am thinking a lot about colonialism now and was wondering how we can avoid this in the library field. What are our ideas and values as Latin American library field? What do we want to promote? In Latin America I feel we are excluding to non-Spanish speakers and there is a lot to do in that way, is strange because collaborations here can be fantastic.

I am wondering how librarians from Latin America, Africa and Asia can collaborate, because you can see how our participation is lower than other regions of the world (this map from a meeting in 2017 can prove it: ).

The library of tomorrow: you have a few simple steps to build a library model for the future.  What would your directions be?

Oh let me think. I guess Andres Reinoso (Argentina) asked me something similar and we made a video – – but in short:

  • It depends, what is your community? Ask to your community what do you want to achieve together. What are our priorities?
  • Don’t think about a single future, think in futures (in plural). What futures do you want to make a reality?
  • Make an inventory of skills in your community. Give them a space, amplify their voices from the library. They will find ways to collaborate.
  • Promote the commons, the public domain and free flow of ideas. It doesn’t matter if is digital or analogic, make room for all of them. Give a chance to edit and remix. The hacker culture (in Pekka Himanen’s interpretation) gives us an interesting perspective.
  • Give a room to exchange ideas, a space to think critically. This eventually can develop a critic citizenship, that will be awesome.
  • Guide your community to platforms that they can use or create your own platforms. Collaborate with other institutions.
  • Your local knowledge is amazing. Use the library to record and share it. We need a strong memory of who we are and what other people did before us.
  • Promote an open, distributed and free internet. A feminist internet, an internet open to all.
  • You should enjoy it. If is not funny, it’s a shame.


Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa archivista e bibliotecario, laureato in Conservazione dei Beni Culturali presso l’Università degli Studi di Perugia (2005) e diplomato in Archivistica e Paleografia presso la Scuola di Archivistica dell’Archivio Segreto Vaticano (2010). Dal 2010 Lavora per CAeB (Cooperativa Archivistica e Bibliotecaria) presso le biblioteche dell’Università di Perugia come bibliotecario e come archivista presso l'Archivio Storico del Comune di Gubbio. Si occupa di Biblioteche Digitali e formazione in ambito di biblioteconomia digitale. Nel 2014 membro del Comitato Esecutivo Regionale dell’Associazione Italiana Biblioteche (AIB) sezione Umbria, membro del gruppo AIB sul portfolio professionale e nel triennio 2017-2020 Presidente eletto di AIB Umbria. Dal 2020 membro dell'Osservatorio Formazione dell'Associazione Italiana Biblioteche. Autore di diversi articoli e interviste per Insula Europea sul tema degli archivi, delle biblioteche e del digital lending.


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