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January 28, 2015 - Foundation of the National Library "Miguel Obregón Lizano"
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Foundation of the National Library "Miguel Obregón Lizano"
San Jose, Costa Rica

By Sirous Monajami

Costa Rica, a small country in Central America, is characterized by its civil tradition.  Its reputation as an oasis of peace in a troubled region is no exaggeration.  Costa Rica has always given priority to education --primary education is free and compulsory for all school-aged children.  Free health care is provided for everyone as well.

During my recent stay in the capital, San Jose, I had the opportunity to visit the National Library, “Miguel Obregón Lizano”, located near downtown, across the street from the peaceful San Jose National Park.

On the first day of my visit, I met with the reference librarian, Ms. Ileana Ulate, who spent a lot of time showing me almost everything in the library.  On my second visit, I met with the director, Ms. Laura Rodriguez, who during a long interview, proudly explained to me the intricacies of the national and public library systems in Costa Rica. 

What is interesting about educated Costa Ricans is that many leave their country to study abroad but return to Costa Rica after getting their degrees from an American or European university.  Ms. Rodriguez is one of them.  She studied in Spain and Canada but came back home and started to use her acquired knowledge to improve the library system in Costa Rica.

The origin of the National Library System (Sistema National de Bibliotecas / SINABI) goes back to 1890, the date in which Don Michael Obregón Lizano (one of the pioneers of the Costa Rican education system) established the General Direction of Libraries in Costa Rica.

These days, the National Library System consists of the National Library, the Network of Public Libraries, Bookmobile (Bibliobus) and the SINABI web site.  The impressive collaborative efforts of the Sistema Nacional de Bibliotecas are used to promote social justice and increase the cultural knowledge of the population.  This is an approach that can be followed by many countries, especially in Latin America, where libraries are not really the main interest of the younger generation. 

The National Library Miguel Obregón Lizano has a large conservation and restoration department on the lower level of the library, where historic documents, history books, materials on cultural heritage, music, etc., (published inside and outside of Costa Rica) are compiled and preserved.  Materials from this special collection cannot be checked out since they are designated for research only.

Although the National Library is a conservation library and not a public library per se, it does provide some public library functionality.  The reading room is on the main floor.  The public can enter the library, read periodicals, use the Internet, search the SINABI website, and make photocopies.  Only researchers using the Special Collection Department on the lower level of the library need permits.

Public libraries are comprised of a network of 56 libraries located in seven provinces in Costa Rica.  They are centers of bibliographic information and cultural expansion.  They function as community centers where they promote reading, and organize recreational and educational activities.  Public libraries, along with the bookmobile system, serve children and young adults in rural communities with limited access to libraries.

What I found amazing about the Sistema Nacional de Bibliotecas is its outstanding digitized library.  Since access to online materials is not password protected, the entire Spanish speaking world can benefit from it by using the SINABI website.  This is very helpful for all users especially in poor Latin American countries with limited access to libraries.  Ms. Rodriguez stated that the digital library provides access to all types of materials (periodicals, books, music, photos, maps, scores, comic books, bibliographies) dating back to the mid nineteenth-century.  The digitization is an ongoing project.   

Another ongoing project is the library automations.  The library catalog contains books, maps, audiovisual materials, periodical articles published since 1986, and magazine articles since 1984.     

Ms. Rodriguez added that books are very expensive in Costa Rica.  University students normally cannot afford to buy textbooks.  They just photocopy everything.  The SINABI digital library helps many users and promotes knowledge in an efficient and affordable way. 

The Costa Rica National and Public Library System could be a model for many countries in the world.  Their collaborative network of libraries, preservation efforts, bookmobile services and  progress in digitization have helped Costa Rica become a leader in developing social and cultural awareness by promoting access to information, innovation, research and diffusion of the national culture.

My interview ended after 45 minutes.  It was lunch time.  On the way out, I saw Ms. Rodriguez’s son sitting in the waiting room.  He had brought lunch for his busy mom.



Laura Rodriguez Amador
Directora Biblioteca National
Avenida 3 y 3b, Calle 15 y 17
San Jose, Costa Rica
Apartado 10.008-1000

SINABI Website:


Sirous Monajami, Ph.D., M.L.I.S. is librarian at City College of San Francisco.


1-National Library
2-Library Reading Room
3-Laura Rodriguez, Library Director
4- Conservation and Restoration Deapartment
5-National Park
6-Library Reading Room