Monday, March 26, 2012

Library Tourism – Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti – Havana, Cuba

Madelaine Vanderwerff

The National Library of Cuba is located across the street from the Plaza de la Revolucion, the administrative centre of Cuba, an expansive public square where in the past over a million Cubans have congregated for rallies and political addresses by Fidel Castro and where one can revel in the towering Jose Marti Monument and the behemoth iron image of Che Guevara that dominates the side of the Ministry of the Interior Building.   It is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Havana and I had made the assumption that since the library was in such close proximity to such a popular tourist area it would be easy for me to go inside and take a tour.  After all, it was on my “to-do” list. 

When we entered the library we had discovered that the elevators and most of the floors open to the public were under renovation and they were not doing tours or admitting members of the public at that time.  I started to snap pictures of the famous foyer that is often used as an art gallery before my camera was confiscated by a security guard.  As we were pleading to have it returned to us, and perhaps because of the crestfallen and distressed look that I was brandishing, the International Librarian who just happened to be passing by intervened, convincing the guard to return my camera.  He repeated that the library was closed to the public at that time, and as I was about to give up my partner explained that I was a librarian from Canada and just wanted to look around.  A twinkle of comradery appeared in this man’s eyes and he simply said “come with me”. 
Madelaine Vanderwerff

We followed him into a room at the first floor.  The librarian quietly whispered that there was a convocation ceremony taking place and 6 people were receiving what we in Canada would consider a doctorate in Librarianship.  He explained that some of the provincial universities offer special training via the Ministry of Culture and the National School of Library Technicians.  Those who receive doctorates or the degree of licenciado (an equivalent to a Bachelors degree in Library and Information Science) do so through extensive research and training through the National Library.  What we were witnessing was something rare as very few are afforded the opportunity to complete their doctorate in Cuba.  We sat in the back and quietly observed a couple of the elated librarians receive their parchment as their friends and families applauded with pride. 

We were then led to a beautiful spot on the main floor where I was able to ask questions about the collection and the history of the library.  The National Library was initially located at the Royal Force Castle in Old Havana and was founded in 1901 but the decision to move it was brought upon by the issue that the Castle was too close to the water and the event of a natural disaster could ruin the entire collection.   The 17 story building was constructed between 1952 and 1959 and after the Revolution it became an architectural symbol of universal access to information and also became a means to disseminate revolutionary ideals and to serve as a repository of Cuba’s historically significant documents related to history, literature, music and science.  The first 3 floors (are normally) open to the public while the remainder of the library consists of closed stacks that can be accessed by book runners when an item is requested by a patron.   The closed stacks house a significant rare book collection including a 15th century publication printed on Gutenburg’s original printing press, a photo library, a map collection,  a music library, 17th and 20th century engravings,  many sections devoted to Cuban history and folklore,  the Alexander Pushkin Russian Room and an art room.  I asked about the names engraved in the marble on the exterior of the building around the entrance, mistakenly thinking that one of the names read Findley (as in Timothy) but the librarian corrected me an told me that it was Carlos Finlay who was a famous Cuban scientist and that all of the names etched into the building represented names who were thought to have made a significant contribution to education or the arts in Cuba.  He did however say that many foreign authors have donated original drafts and manuscripts of their works to be kept and preserved in their special collection (and the most commonly requested work is of course that of Ernest Hemmingway).  I was curious about what type of work the “international librarian” did and was beginning to assume that he was in charge of touring around foreign visitors and answering their silly questions.  This was not what he did at all, as he was mainly responsible for the international component of their collection, mostly foreign government documents as the library serves as a repository for many divisions of the United Nations (UNESCO, WHO, FAO).   This man was just a genuinely nice guy who wanted to make an unexpected colleague feel welcome!

I had come equipped with a lot of questions, many of them related to commentary by Robert Kent and the Friends of Cuban Libraries who have criticized the American Library Association as well as the Cuban Government and the National Library of Cuba in their role (or lack-there-of) in the persecution of independent librarians in Cuba (To see more about this visit  This is essentially all I knew about Cuban libraries before this visit).   But honestly, once I was there in the beautiful atrium foyer, exchanging professional stories with this kind man who took a half an hour out of his life to play host to me I forgot all about my controversial line of questioning.  This is probably why I never pursued investigative reporting.   And as I am also a government librarian who works primarily with government documents, he surprisingly had more questions for me than I had for him.  Library talk.  As I left I did feel a little pang of jealousy as his library is a beautiful marble clad 50’s retro building surrounded by palm trees and as I write this there is currently a foot of snow outside my library.  And no palm trees.  But since the visit to Jose Marti National Library I have tried to extend the same courtesy to library professionals who venture into my workplace providing tours and attempting to offer similar hospitality that I received that day.   I strongly recommend to anyone who is in Havana to visit the National Library.  To learn more about the Cuban National Library (and to book a guided tour in advance…he had mentioned that the tour for visiting professionals is a bit more in depth and they will pull some neat stuff from the collection for you as well) go here.

By Madelaine Vanderwerff

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