Madrid , Spain

The Open Library Welcomes the World at Home

Comunidad de Madrid, Subdirección General de Bibliotecas

January 4, 2013

Multilingual services and bilingual intercultural mediators create inclusive public space and a sense of welcome for new communities

In 2005, the public library system in the Comunidad of Madrid took a bold step towards inclusion. Recognizing the region’s growing immigrant population (17 % in 2010), it launched a project to facilitate the integration of newcomers. Initially focusing on language barriers, the Biblioteca Abierta (Open Library) introduced new multilingual collections and services such as Spanish language lessons and computer literacy courses. As an essential public resource and form of public space, multilingual library services are both inclusive and able to foster a sense of connection and belonging.

Inspired by the success of public library programs like the “New Americans” program at Queens Library, New York, the Comunidad of Madrid  has developed the Biblioteca Abierta  to promote equity and greater social cohesion across the city. Funded by a number of Comunidad ministries, the Biblioteca Abierta initiave has three objectives: to overcome language barriers through knowledge of the Spanish language and culture; ensure all residents have equal opportunities through workshops; and allow everyone to share in each other’s cultures.

Cultural Centres in Your Local Library

Research into the city’s local population showed not only that the city had a growing immigrant population,  but that there was significant demand from these “new neighbours” for reading and book lending services, and periodicals and audio-visual material in their own languages. As there are no other bodies in the region which provided these services, the Biblioteca Abierta program created “Cultural Interest Centres” within public libraries to provide information, guidance and mediation, as well as access to the culture of different countries. In these centres, both immigrants and the local population can enjoy the riches of the many cultural communities  living in Madrid and take part in cultural activities such as discussions, meetings with writers, cinema festivals, concerts, conferences, art exhibitions and workshops for children, including storytelling, reading workshops, writing workshops, and more.

To attract immigrants who may have never used the public library system, the Biblioteca Abierta recruited 40 fully bilingual intercultural mediators, fluent in Spanish and in one of the other languages represented in the newcomer community and in its new multilingual collections – Arabic, Romanian, Russian, Bulgarian, and Chinese (Romanians and Moroccans make up the largest groups). Many of the mediators had experience working in the libraries’ language-specific cultural centres and were well-positioned to promote libraries to the city’s newest communities and actively engage their participation , using information and materials specifically developed for newcomers.

Each centre in the Biblioteca Abierta has a variety of resource materials, including approximately 100 items aimed at teaching Spanish to newcomers. Each language-specific centre also contains works most representative of the literature, music and films of that language. To ensure that the cultural learning is two-way, translations into Spanish of important authors are offered as well as books about the home country’s history, geography and culture.

Library activities that facilitate social inclusion include social events, breakfasts for intercultural dialogue, children’s workshops, exhibitions as well as workshops featuring topics such as immigration, violence, cultural prejudice and healthy eating. To make sure that these programs meet the needs of everyone in Madrid, special coordinators train staff to understand the Biblioteca Abierta’s  open, intercultural approach  – from promoting active tolerance and overcoming ethnocentrism to establishing links between communities and seeking common areas of understanding amid the cultural diversity of the city.


Biblioteca Abierta,  Madrid’s Open Library project, has been able to draw on average 15,000 to 20,000 people annually to participate in its activities, many entering a library for the first time. The number of bilingual intercultural mediators has increased from 40 at the program’s start to over 275 within 20 cultural centres. Workshops about everyday life in Madrid (job seeking, citizen rights, health and more) have proven popular particularly within the Moroccan community where a majority of participants are women. The library has also finally addressed an important missing component of their collections – other languages from Spain – and added Catalan, Galician and Basque into the system. More languages have been added to the collections, including German, French, English, Hungarian, Italian and Portuguese.

So far more than 50 libraries in 24 municipalities within the wider urban region of the Comunidad of Madrid – from the city of Madrid with a population of over 3 million to urban ”villages” with less than 5,000 inhabitants – have tailored the Biblioteca Abierta to meet the needs of local communities.

Making it Work for You:

  • Look to well-established and successful programs for inspiration when developing new services or to serve new client groups.
  • Immigrant populations, like the diversity of the modern city generally, are dynamic and always changing. Be prepared to adjust your services and program delivery accordingly.
  • Recruit fully-bilingual "mediators" to act as cultural ambassadors who can bridge linguistic and cultural differences within communities.
  • Design programming that can address both the specific needs of your user groups and be useful to all residents.

For this Good Idea contact:

Maria Jesus Martinez, Comunidad de Madrid, Subdirección General de Bibliotecas
Paseo de la Castellana, 101
Madrid, Spain,

Biblioteca Abierta

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