Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Public Places, Silent Voices?: Modern Haitian Literature in American Public Libraries

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Public Places, Silent Voices?: Modern Haitian Literature in American Public Libraries

Article excerpt


What do Miguel de Cervantes, Leo Tolstoy, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Simone de Beauvoir have in common? Answer: English versions of their books are probably available at a public library near you. As a writer and former French teacher with expertise in global education and book marketing, I am keenly interested in how books get connected to readers across cultures and national boundaries, especially in an era when the cost of new books is increasingly prohibitive.1 Because free and frequent access to literature of all nations is essential humanistic values and global awareness, public libraries play a critical role in the complex "ecology" of writers, publishers, and readers. In American life, public libraries often serve as a crossroads of community life with busy reading rooms, story hours for young children, Internet access for all, and adult literacy programs for immigrants.2 The inquiry described here approaches libraries as centers of communication in a democratic society where cultural literacy is part of the mission. More precisely, it will focus on access to modern Haitian literature as a case study to explore how the literary life of a marginalized culture is made available - or not - through the medium of the borrowed book.

When Thomas Jefferson sold his library to Congress after our nation's book collection burned in 1814, he estimated his library of just under 6,500 books to be so complete that, ". . . there is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."3 In our era, no library can possibly make such a claim. While all professionally published books in America are catalogued by the Library of Congress, choices must be made at the regional/local level by trained librarians, citizens, and patrons. All library collections are subject to demographic pressures and budget constraints, to say nothing of value judgments and persistent prejudices. Inevitably, some voices will be loud and clear while others are sure to be silenced by design or by chance. In this sense, public libraries tend to be haphazard enterprises as subject to undemocratic impulses as any other institution. No public votes take place on what authors will be included or excluded, though public opinion can exercise a degree of censorship through frequent challenges.4

In other words, while public libraries do represent democracy with their open doors and philosophy of "free knowledge and information for all," they are something other than purified halls of human reason. Understanding these limitations empowers the subjectivity of this inquiry, which begins with a few value judgments of its own: that Haiti is too close to American shores to ignore; that the history of Haiti is deeply entwined with American history; that Haitian culture is inherently valuable for its historical assertion of the human claim to freedom; that in a global society, in which the United States plays a major role, all U. S. public library collections should include some work by Haitian writers, just as they should include some work by Spanish, German, French, Russian, Hungarian, Brazilian, Turkish, Algerian, Indian, Czech, African, Vietnamese, and Japanese writers, to name a few.

With these assumptions in mind, there are two essential questions at the heart of my project. First, how accessible is modern Haitian literature in American public libraries? Secondly, if it is not accessible, what can be done about it?

Because these questions are complex and far-reaching, I am compelled to limit my parameters to a working sample of ten accomplished authors and over 90 of their works published during the past fifty years. These are writers whose voices might reasonably be accepted as those qualified to speak for Haiti during the era since François Duvalier was elected in 1957. Could other writers have been chosen? Of course. Could the list be longer? Absolutely. But do any of the writers chosen here deserve to be excluded from this discussion? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.