While the main focus of our trip to Cuba was the 25th Annual Havana International Book Fair—housed in the old Spanish fortification San Carlos de La Cabana that overlooks Havana harbor —it took second place to the highly energized exchange between our librarians and the Cuban professionals. A comforting and somewhat surprising discovery was that in spite of our libraries’ advantageous access to material, sound facilities, and technology, Cuban libraries share our same goals. They are passionate about their work. They understand the importance of acknowledging and training staff. They protect their cultural heritage. They earnestly wish to meet the needs of their communities. They embrace the importance of remaining relevant in changing times. How encouraging it is to share these commonalities, in spite of the great differences in accessibility of material, in sustainable facilities, and emerging technologies. The Cuban librarians listened and embraced the ALA motto “Libraries Transform” and we connected through this shared goal. Their situation is changing rapidly, especially since Google is helping out the island nation with increased internet access. What will this mean for them?
In Havana we also visited a branch of the city library system, and we were impressed with how similar the library seemed to ours, and again, how dedicated the staff was to helping the community. They offered “Desayuno con los Abuelos” or Breakfast with Grandparents, as well as story times and a chess program. This library was as nice as, or even better than, some libraries in Westchester. Our next library visit, however, would be just the opposite…..
We traveled by bus across the island to the southern shore and the city of Cienfuegos. With apologized to Brooklyn, Baltimore and all the other B cities/towns, we named the public library in Cienfuegos the “BPL”–but why apologies? Because the letters stand for “Bird Poop Library”, yes, you read that correctly. Housed in a spacious building, the library had a lot of brown spots on the walls. We noticed, we mumbled to each other, and someone delicately asked what it was. “De los pájaros” or “from the birds” was the answer. Ew. For a country that prides itself on its healthcare, this seemed a bit much. Do they clean it? Yes, weekly, but the swallows come in at night to roost in the high ceiling area. What about screen mesh to cover the holes in window screens? They’ve requested it a number of times but to no avail. (And it’s not like you can run over to Home Depot.) Maybe build a birdhouse outside? With what? No wood, no tools. A sense of aacceptance to this strange problem, and a cynical attitude towards finding an answer, pervaded the librarians’ answers. One worker noted that, in the evening when the birds fly in, he stays under the beams to avoid being a target. Welcome to BPL.
As if this could get worse in our eyes, we then saw the books. Think of those dusty old books in your grandparents’ cellar, and those would be better than what we saw in this library. We didn’t touch them. Do they “weed” (library lingo for throwing away nasty books)? Oh yes. Do they buy new books? Yes, twice a year. To their credit, the library did have a collection of bound newspapers from 1907, magazines in plaid boxes and a Local History Collection. There were no computers, and they check out your books by writing on your card, which also had seen better days. I can’t tell you how much I now appreciate our library software program that tracks everything for us….not to mention our clean walls.