Roots of Hope: Haiti's Community Libraries Promise a Better Future

Article excerpt

Flame of Hope, Roots of Hope, Shooting Star, Light of Tomorrow: The names of community libraries in Haiti convey the wish that free access to books will change the future of the country. Other libraries take the names of famous Haitian writers--Jacques Stephen Alexis, Oswald Durand, Rene Belance, Justin Lherisson, or Etzer Vilaire--or Haitians who played a role in the country's struggle for justice and democracy--such as Monique Calixte--to bestow their blessings upon books and readers. Because these community libraries are often the cultural centers of their towns and neighborhoods, their names are meaningful, representing the dreams of the community and the long-lasting legacies they value.

An independent country since slaves overthrew the French colonial regime of Saint-Domingue in 1804, Haiti is situated in the Caribbean Sea among the Greater Antilles, occupying the western part of the tropical island of Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic to the east. Prospects for the country's people are bleak, reflecting illiteracy, poor living conditions, and short life expectancy. Nevertheless, the end of the 29-year Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 allowed for the reinstatement of civil liberties such as freedom of the press and the freedom of association. Though fragile--especially in a volatile political context aided by corruption and the rapid growth of drug trafficking--these valuable gains have created a favorable environment for the development of youth associations and community libraries.

Breaking with tradition

Traditional library systems in Haiti include:

* the National Library, a public system based in the capital of Port-au-Prince, which offers on-site reading but no lending of its 30,000 books in 19 branches;

* cultural centers (Centres de Lecture et d'Animation Culturelle), a joint program of the French and Haitian governments, which provide multimedia materials and on-site reading in 10 locations throughout the country; and

* the French Institute Library and Alliances Francaises, which offer multimedia materials, on-site reading, and lending of 27,000 books in Port-au-Prince and six provincial towns.

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In contrast, Haiti's community libraries are usually small structures in poor neighborhoods that offer books and other services. Developed in the 1990s, these libraries are not supported by the state; funding is typically generated by small membership fees. Community libraries are often initiated by grassroots groups that have very little experience with public service and may not be aware of the scope of such a project. While their creators may be very passionate about meeting local needs for books, periodicals, and videos, the lack of training, resources, and equipment often hinder their great expectations.

FOKAL in focus

The Fondation Connaissance et Liberte (the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty, or FOKAL) in Haiti--one of 29 national foundations in a network established by philanthropist George Soros for the promotion and development of open societies around the world--saw great potential in the burgeoning efforts of the early community libraries and decided to help out. "Since 1996, FOKAL began supporting a few small community and school libraries throughout the country," explained Executive Director Michele D. Pierre-Louis (my mother). "Today their number is close to 50. The majority of these were not created by the foundation, and all of them are able to raise some local funds. With the exception of a few larger libraries in Port-au-Prince for which FOKAL's annual grant amounts to $40,000 each, support to all other libraries ranges from $3,000 to $15,000."

Libraries in Haiti traditionally have been considered places where silence reigns. Deserving intellectuals, researchers, and occasionally students could gather there with great solemnity to expand their encyclopedic knowledge. Books were precious, and access to them was extremely restricted. …