Magazine article American Libraries

Cuba's National Library

Magazine article American Libraries

Cuba's National Library

Article excerpt


The Cuban climate is the enemy of paper," said National Library Director Eliades Acosta in December 2000, at the close of a 10-year project to install air conditioning and humidity controls throughout the stacks containing three million volumes on Cuban history, art, and culture. Unfortunately for researchers, most of the reading rooms are climate-controlled only by fans and open windows that offer free access to the occasional bird.

Meanwhile, the library's conservation and restoration laboratory is microfilming, digitizing, repairing, and rebinding books as quickly as it can with insufficient resources, which means only about 200 per month.

The air-conditioning project culminated just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the library-officially called the Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti--founded in 1901 by military order during the United States occupation after the Spanish-American War. Funded by the Ministry of Culture, the library is charged with compiling a Cuban national bibliography and serves as the information hub for the island's 13 provincial libraries and 388 public libraries.

Ten years ago, American Libraries Contributing Editor Ron Chepesiuk offered an overview of Cuban libraries (Nov. 1990, p. 994-997). At that time, the Soviet support system was collapsing, Cuba's economy was contracting by an estimated 35%, and materials and services were becoming much scarcer.

A turnaround began in 1993 when U.S. dollars were legalized as an official currency and other economic reforms were introduced. But ask any librarian or any other Cuban you meet: Nearly everything is still hard to come by, from books and computer parts to food, soap, and medicine.

"Two years ago [1998], we had nothing," Head of Automation Judith Reyes said. "Now we have a national network that supplies all the provincial libraries with e-mail and Internet service." Some public libraries are still on the waiting list, she explained. "Everything is step by step here."

Computer technology

Just as Cuba's ingenious mechanics keep their '53 Buicks and '57 Chevys running against all odds, Reyes and her staff fine-tune whatever computer equipment they can scrounge. Demonstrating the library's 50,000-record online catalog on a vintage 486 machine that boots up from a floppy disk, she commented, "We could use some extra hard drives."

The library's Internet service is maintained by the Ministry of Culture. "In the beginning there was a deep distrust and even fear of the implications of the Internet for Cuba," Reyes explained. "Now people have a broader perspective." Reference librarians especially are reliant on the Web for updating outdated print materials.

Director Acosta said he is working toward offering limited public Internet access at the national and provincial libraries. "Very few individuals have computers at home," he said, "and online access is too expensive for anyone outside government agencies and cultural associations."

At this point, Acosta isn't worried about inappropriate Web surfing: "The Biblioteca Nacional and the Cuban people have an ethical code concerning the viewing of pornography, violence, or racism on the Internet," he said. "In any case, access is so rare and expensive that no one would think of wasting any time on such things."

Since March 2000, the library has had an English version of its Web site ( that offers news and facts about Cuban libraries. Head of Electronic Publications Fernando Martinez Rivero said that the site jumped from 1,000 hits per month to 1,000 per week shortly after the translation was made available.

The library has been involved in a national reading program since March 1998 that aims to develop good reading habits in children at an early age. The plan has a nice head start because, as Acosta says, "essentially every school in the country [about 5,000] now has a library," statistic that reinforces the

government's claim that Cuba has the highest literacy rate in Latin America. …

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